Rock has gone through many phases over the decades, but to those ears none is more lovable than one of its earliest: doo-wop, the harmony-singing-based music that helped bridge the gap between R&B of the 40s and rock and Close Pop 50’s.
If you were born too late to experience this genre in its heyday, check out Rhino’s superb Doo Wop Box series crash course, which delivers over 300 key tracks on a trio of four CD sets. After that, you’ll likely want to dig deeper, and three good places to do that are new collections from the ravens, larks, and harptons. In contrast to many anthologies with reissued oldies material, these all offer impressively comprehensive programs and excellent sound quality as well as detailed title information and informative liner notes.
If you pick up just one of these publications, make it The Ravens Collection 1946–59. The Ravens might not be “the greatest group of them all,” as the title of an old vinyl anthology suggests, but they were great indeed. As one of the earliest doo-wop groups, they were just as groundbreaking and influential as the “5” Royales and earlier Ink Spots. (Fun fact: The Ravens also have the distinction of being one of the first of many 1950s outfits in their genre to take on a bird name, although according to one report they chose the nickname because everyone was “excited” by their sound were.)
The New York City-based Ravens, once described by Bob Dylan as “one of the groundbreaking R&B vocal groups,” gave their prominence to co-founder and frequent singer Jimmy Ricks, who stayed with the band despite numerous other personnel changes Beginnings until 1956). (He then sang with Count Basie.) Ricks, who wrote or wrote much of the group’s original material, possessed an impressive bass voice that set the Ravens apart from most of their typically featured tenors; and the ravens stood out further when they added Maithe Marshall, a tenor who sang falsetto.
Like many doo-wop groups, the ravens were largely overlooked in their day. Despite having 11 hits on the R&B charts between 1948 and 1952, they never made the pop top 40. You may be surprised when you listen to this excellent collection of four CDs and 103 tracks, almost all of which brings together recordings for eight labels.
The Liner Notes humbly states that the set “doesn’t make a definitive anthology,” but it probably contains all of the ravens you might need. Each of their R&B hits are here, including a trio that made the top 5: “Send for me when you need me”, “Look at me all night long” and “Write me a letter”. Also featured is a colorful selection of other material based on jazz, pop, gospel and more. As the program shows, these guys could handle everything from standards like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and Cole Porter’s “Ive You Under My Skin” to Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Believe” and even Buddy Holly’s “That”. I’ll be the day “
Like the Ravens, the North Carolina-based Larks never had a pop hit. In fact, they barely affected the R&B charts, although they briefly hit them with a pair of blues covers (Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Little Side Car”). They were history when Bill Haley rocked around the clock in 1955, but like the Ravens, they helped usher in a new chapter in the world of pop music.
The Larks Collection 1950–55, a set of two CDs and 48 tracks, reached all the high points of their short career, using recordings and various other names for several labels (including four in one day in 1950!). like the Five Larks, the Southern Harmonaires, the Four Barons and the Selah Singers. (They are not to be confused with the Philadelphia-based group called the Four Larks, or with the LA-based Larks.)
A constant in their diverse discography is tenor Eugene Mumford. An excellent singer who spent time in the Golden Gate Quartet and the Ink Spots, he also took over for Jackie Wilson in Billy Ward & the Dominoes.
The range of the Larks Collection 1950–55 is as varied as that of the Ravens. In addition to the blues covers above, you’ll find lively pop numbers like “The World Is Waiting for Sunrise” and barbershop quartet-style ballads like “No Other Gal”. It’s all top notch.
The same applies to the material in the Harptones Collection 1953–61. This is another group that didn’t have any hits to speak of, although every decent doo-wop anthology today has at least one of their tunes – likely “A Sunday Kind of Love”, “My Memories of You” or “Life Is But a Dream” . “All of these songs are on this 54-track, two-CD set that includes almost all of the A- and B-sides for 10 labels, as well as records they have recorded with fellow vocalists from other companies.
The New York City-based Harptones performed more pop / rock sound than the Ravens and the Larks, largely thanks to their sophisticated modern arrangements and the use of orchestration and brass. (Check out the saxophone on up-tempo numbers like “Rain Down Kisses,” “Hep Teenager,” and “Oo Wee Baby.”) The group had their strongest weapon in the great and eclectic tenor Willie Winfield and more ammo in Jack Raoul Cita, founder of the all-of-trade who has acted as a manager, arranger, pianist, writer and occasionally a singer. These two were with the group when they began recording in 1951 and, amazingly, performed their songs together until 2014, the year Cita died.
You can hear all of their best work on the new anthology paving the way for outfits like the Crests, the Danleers, the Coasters and the Drifters in standout pieces like “The Last Dance”, “Gimme Some” and “All in” Your Mind ”and“ Three Wishes ”.
Maia Sharp, Mercy rises. Although Maia Sharp has been recording her own albums for many years, she has also composed songs for many other artists – Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood, Cher, and Art Garfunkel to name a few – and reportedly sees herself primarily as a songwriter. Her skills in this regard are reflected in this latest release, which includes a dozen new originals (most with co-authors), but also her talent for performance.
There are some sweet songs here, including the touching “Always Good to See You”, but Sharp also knows how to stick a knife, such as “Nice Girl,” where a calming melody denies a lyric whose key is memorable ” You’re going to make a nice girl miserable one day. “
Ted Russell Kamp, Solitaire. This is the 13th full length album by Ted Russell Kamp, who over the years has also found time to produce many other artists and act as the longtime bass player for Shooter Jennings. The record is named after one of her songs, a number that is about being “alone in me,” but it also describes this project pretty well as Kamp produced, played most of the instruments and wrote all of the songs ( albeit with employees in most cases). It’s an excellent set reminiscent of Roots / Americana / Country releases by artists like Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker.
It’s easy to imagine that other artists would want to cover these impressive, solidly constructed pieces, but Kamp’s well-sung versions seem likely to remain permanent. There are plenty of highlights, including the catchy “My Girl Now”, the atmospheric title cut and the fast pace with the title “You can go to hell, I’m going to Texas”.