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What made Jewish contribution unique in the development of the 1950s vocal group sound and rock and roll in general, was the ability to extract and internalize the African -American experience and make their music mainstream. Jewish contribution to doo-wop lies primarily in the area of song writing, and the overall entrepreneurial music business. Unlike their musical counterparts, Italians and Puerto Ricans, who were primarily singers; Jewish contribution took on the complex ethnic-racial mix of merging a new sound.
The fundamental Jewish contribution to rhythm and blues vocal group picture lies in production, song writing, and the development of the vocal harmony group scene. Cahill writes: “Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings.”1
The admiration and promotion of black talent is understated. Pruter writes: “Vocal harmony groups have always constituted one of black music’s richest traditions, an art form as deeply embedded as jazz, blues, or gospel.” 2
Yet when one takes a cursory view of record labels during the beginning and the development of rock and roll, particularly the vocal group harmony landscape, one can see that the majority of acts, record labels and songs written during that time period (1945-1965) had a Jewish connection.
The most recognizable groups and labels came from the three major epic centers that produced the vocal group street corner sound-New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It was in these cities that the new art form become known and eventually emerged to the onomatopoeic term we use today, doo-wop. Although the term doo-wop came into existence in the late 1960s to early 70s,the term used here in this essay define R&B vocal group harmony style. Jewish entrepreneurs who featured black talent and promoted the new sound founded many of the major labels during the height of the vocal group era of the 1950s.
The doo-wop sound in general, invoked a traditional cultural worldview that became the hallmark of black culture at that time. The songs expressed by black groups reflected the cultural innocence’s, and coming of age that attracted the youth of urban communities. The lyrics and musical harmony style appealed to urban white, slightly middle-class sentiments, while at the same time keeping their music within the perimeter of the black community.
A sizeable number of Jewish entrepreneurs had a massive impact in developing the rhythm and blues vocal group sound and rhythm and blues in general. Jewish entrepreneurs impacted the nascent vocal group sound of the 1950s in a dynamic way. One such person is Herman Lubinsky, (Savoy Records) grandfather of TJ Lubinsky, PBS doo-wop host fame. Lubinsky produced and recorded Little Anthony and the Imperials, Debutantes, Carnations, Jive Bombers, Falcons and the Robins. Lubinsky in road into the music business paved the way for unnoticed and unrecorded groups to seek out musical stardom via the emerging new street corner sound.
The Branun family owners of Deluxe Records had a multitude of solid talent at their disposal. Among some of their top acts were: Federals, Otis Williams and the Charms, Serenades and the Quails featuring Bill Robinson. These acts were all channeled to places like the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Olympia Arena in Detroit and the Alan Freed shows.
The team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stroller, the Leiber and Stroller team made a multitude of hits for a host of artists. As a team they were able overcome the barriers of racism in the music industry and bring to the forefront black talent with their musical compositions.
Alan Freed the king of DJ’s who cracked the color barrier by introducing black vocal groups to the public in radio, film and television and set the stage for would be future DJ’s. His influence and introduction to rock and roll and vocal groups in particular, provided a cultural climate whereby white youths were able to hear and experience the evolution of the new modus operandi that was beginning to shape the musical culture of young people.
Chess Records, the premier record company in Chicago, founded by Leonard and Phil Chess became the quintessential record label of the 1950s producing not only groups like the Flamingos and Moonglows but top acts like, Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin and Chuck Berry.
Finally, Phil Spector record producer and songwriter developed the concept of the “Wall Of Sound” which still stands today as a monument to pop music. All of these individuals contributed to the R&B sound and the vocal group harmony in general. In the end, the Jewish contribution to rock and roll and the doo-wop sound is an act of love. Without their contribution, we would be like a ship at sea without a rudder.
1. The Gifts of The Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
Thomas Cahill, Nam A. Talese- Doubleday- Pg. 3
2. Doo Wop The Chicago Scene
Robert Pruter, University of Illinois Press -Pg. xxi
© 2007 All rights reserved
Abraham J. Santiago is the co-author with Steven J. Dunham of the popular book: Acappella Street Corner Vocal Groups: A Brief History And Discography Of 1960s Singing Groups
write by Walker