Doo(-)wop: trivial observation

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 31 21:11:26 UTC 2006

I remember both "Tonight (May Be The Nigh-yi-yi-Night)" and "(Hold Me Tight)
When You Dance" quite well and I don't recall call that the literal
syllables "doo(-)wop" occurred in either of these songs. My best guess is
that we must be working from different definitions of both doo(-)wop and the
doo(-)wop genre, given that, beyond what would be a very strange lacuna in
my memory, IMO, "Tonight" and "When You Dance" are not doo(-)wop songs. If
you can't "dance on a dime" with your significant other to the rhythm - and
you can't dance like that to these songs - it's not doo(-)wop.

Sigh! We can only agree to disagree. Nope, Wait. I'm now having second
thoughts. My experience has been that both the term and its application
originated among oldies DJ's - to such an extent that some such DJ's use
"oldies" as a synonym of doo(-)wop - and *all* oldies DJ's are white, from
Art Laboe in Los Angeles - AFAIK, the first person to have a radio program
that specialized in R&B oldies, ca.1961, but I'm totally ignorant of the NYC
scene - to Little Walter, Stomping Zemo, and Eddie Gorodetsky, to mention
only a few of those in Boston. Harvard's campus radio station used to have a
program on the history of  doo(-)wop. Its two white DJ's proved - to my
satisfaction, at least - that the use of wordless counter-tenor / falsetto /
high-voice crooning / keening as a motiv in R&B originated in imitation of
the sound of the violin once commonly used in black pop music, just as
"doo(-)wop" itself originated in imitation of the notes from plucked strings
of the bass viol.

First, they played a modern R&B song exemplifying this use of "high voice,"
as it's commonly called amongst the colored. Then they played some scratchy
old song from I've forgotten when, which featured a violin as part of the
back-up instrumentation. And the violin was playing precisely the same
motiv, note for note, as that used by the R&B back-up singer! Amazing! I
have to assume that the R&B singer had heard the old record at his
grandparents' house, perhaps, and digging on the motiv, decided to use it
when his group recorded the R&B song. Of course, he could have been merely
channeling the violinist. :-)

Where was I? Oh. Capitulating. White is right, once again. Carry on, Ben.
You're the man.


On 7/31/06, Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Doo(-)wop: trivial observation
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On 7/31/06, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
> >
> > As far as I know, there has been only one recording in the history of
> > doo(-)wop in which the syllables "doo(-)wop" actually are heard: "The
> > Bells," by Billy Ward & The Dominoes, from 1952.
> -----
> The Odessa, TX-based Velvets are best remembered for their
> violin-enriched 1961 Top 40 hit "Tonight (Could Be the Night)," during
> which the group chanted "doo-wop" behind lead singer Virgil Johnson.
> It was one of the first uses of the phrase in a song (the Turbans' use
> of the phrase on the 1955 "When You Dance" predates it by a few
> years).
> -----
> But "The Bells" would predate the Turbans and the Velvets.
> --Ben Zimmer
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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