Doo-Wop and Soul: The Music of the 50s and 60s
Before there were The Beatles, there was doo-wop and soul, the original form of rock n’ roll. The genre had major influence on the progression of American pop music, influencing later styles such as Motown and todays R&B. However, its importance is not confined to music alone. The doo-wop and soul of the mid-century was the first predominantly African-American music to reach the mainstream, giving African-Americans a new outlet to influence the still very segregated American society. The genre remains one of the most beloved. There’s a reason that half the songs you hear played at weddings come from this genre: it’s timeless. The iconic, catchy rhythms and harmonies stick in your head for days after listening. The beauty of the style is its in its powerful simplicity. Doo-wop music is a style of R&B that relies on vocal harmonies, a simple beat, and nonsense syllables. The genre started with groups of young singers on street corners and in subways who had to sing acapella because they couldn’t afford instruments. They used words to recreate the sounds of instruments—“doo-wop” mimics brass, “bomb bom bom” the base, and “shang-a-lang” replaces a guitar for example. While the popular recordings of doo-wop do in fact have instruments, their worth lies in the vocals and close harmonies that stemmed from their acapella routes and make them so iconic.
Originally, doo-wop stemmed from black communities in the 1940s. Its roots can be found in the records of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots in the 1930s and 40s. Both groups turned tight harmonies and strong bass-singers into an art form, influencing the evolution of the genre’s style. The height of doo-wop music came in the late 50s and early 60s, with groups like The Coasters, The Drifters and the Temptations.
While it’s not the same exact genre, the soul music of this time period goes hand in hand with doo-wop. The two genres have similar origins and were two of the first to bring African-American music to the mainstream. While the soul music of the time wasn’t always sung by groups, its simple, prominent base-lines and chord progression mimic that of doo-wop music. Both genres combine elements of gospel music, R&B, and Jazz to create a unique and distinctive sound.
According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, soul is “music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.” While the genre eventually split into the funk music and motown of the late 60s, the early soul records remain some of the most popular music of the 20th century. Names such as Etta James, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and of course, the godfather of soul James Brown are all standouts of the iconic genre.
Doo-wop and soul music will always hold a place in many people’s hearts. It is a truly unifying music style. In the 50s and 60s, they brought together African-American and white communities better than any music genre before. Today it unites older and younger generations through its timeless popularity and appeal.
Here is a list of the most iconic and beloved doo-wop and soul hits. Enjoy!
“Sh-Boom” by The Chords
One of the earliest doo-wop hits, Sh-Boom is doo-wop right down to its name. The song is filled with the iconic four-part harmony, repetitive rhythm and progression, and full versus of nonsense syllables. The song was released in 1954 and was a U.S. top ten hit. Some consider it to be the first doo-wop record to reach top 10 on the pop charts, and it is ranked #215 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Unfortunately, a version recorded by an all-white group, The Crew-Cuts, reached #1 on the billboard charts, surpassing the original song’s popularity. However, The Chords version has remained a timeless classic beloved by listeners of all ages.
“Love Potion No. 9” by The Clovers
Showing the more humorous side of doo-wop, “Love Potion No. 9” tells the story of a man with a troubled love life who is given a “love potion” by a gypsy that makes him fall in love with everything he sees. A funny fact about the song is that the lyric about “kissing a cop” got it banned by some radio stations. “Love Potion No. 9” is still one of the earlier doo-wop hits and features the memorable deep bass singers of the genre.
“In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins
Often consider among the best known doo-wop songs, “In the Still of the Night” plays almost like a textbook for the genre: minimal instruments, nonsense syllables, tight harmonies, repeated phrases, and a classic lead vocal. While it was only a moderate hit when it was first released in 1956, its popularity has grown over the years.
“Poison Ivy” by The Coasters
Sung by one of the most popular doo-wop groups of all time, “Poison Ivy” is another hit that shows the humorous side of the genre. It tells the story of a girl known as “Poison Ivy” who will make you itch. One of the best lines of the song is “you’re gunna need an ocean of calamine lotion.” The hit went to #1 on the R&B chart and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was 1 of 3 top hits by the Coasters in 1959.
“Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters
One of the most timeless doo-wop hits of all time, “Under the Boardwalk” still remains popular to this day. It has been covered by a host of artists, such as Lynn Anderson and The Rolling Stones. When it was released in 1964, it charted at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is ranked #489 on Rolling Stone’s list of The Greatest 500 Songs of All Time.
“Runaround Sue” by Dion
One of the first major doo-wop hits by a white singer, “Runaround Sue” was a U.S. number 1 hit in the golden year of doo-wop, 1961. The song ranked #342 on the Rolling Stone list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
“Big Girls Don’t Cry” by The Four Tops
With its iconic, high-pitched riff, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” is an up-beat doo-wop hit from 1962 that is hard to forget. It reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 5 weeks there. Unlike many prior doo-wop hits, this song featured much higher voices that made it fresh in a well-established genre.
“Rockin’ Robin” by Bobby Day
A mix between doo-wop and soul, “Rockin’ Robin” features “tweets” and handclaps that make it hard to forget. The catchy hit reached #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100. While the original song was a hit in itself, it was nowhere near as popular as Michael Jackson’s version released in 1972 which was the biggest hit from his gold-certified album Got to Be There.
“Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes
One of the most popular doo-wop songs by a female group,, “Please Mr. Postman” is still a very beloved song and has been covered by many artists, including the Beatles and The Carpenters.
“My Girl” by The Temptations
A later doo-wop hit that was influenced by the growing popularity of soul music, “My Girl” remains one of the most beloved songs of all the time. It became a number one hit in 1965, the first by The Temptations. A simple and true love song, the memorable ascending guitar notes in the repeated riff make it catchy and unforgettable.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
On its own, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” is a memorable and defining soul song. However, the story behind this song makes it even more iconic. It was recorded by Otis Redding in 1967, days before he died in a plane crash in Wisconsin that killed everyone in the band except the trumpeter. The song talks about his thoughts while wasting time sitting on a dock. Redding didn’t usually write about his own life, so its all too fitting that his last song is directly about him going out to San Francisco to perform. His last song was one of his most famous, and remains to this day an iconic song from the 1960s.
“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Another blend of doo-wop and soul, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” became a top 10 single after its release in 1962. The song received a 1998 Grammy Hall of Fame Award and is considered one of the songs that shaped Rock and Roll. It is one of the most covered songs or all time, including a very well-known cover by The Beatles.
“At Last” by Etta James
One of the most iconic soul songs sung by one of the most iconic soul artists, “At Last” is one of the most timeless songs of the 20th century. While Etta James’ version is actually a cover of the original by Glenn Miller and his orchestra, James’ passionate vocals brought the song to an entirely new level and made it her signature song.
“Twistin’ the Night Away” by Sam Cooke
A classic upbeat soul hit, “Twistin’ the Night Away” was a top ten hit after its release in 1962. The songs horns and beat make it hard not get and dance to it. It remains one of the classic “dance songs.”
“Stand By Me” by Ben E. King
“Stand By Me” is one of the most beloved and covered songs of all time. The soul hit has an interesting background to it. Apparently, Ben E. King had no intention of recording the song himself even though he wrote it. He originally wrote it for The Drifters, who turned it down. After a recording session, he had some remaining studio time and played the song on the piano for his producers. They made him record it because they loved it so much. The song reached top-ten on the U.S. charts twice, in its original release in 1961 and after a re-release in 1986 with the movie of the same title. The song ranks #122 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 1999 it was deemed the 4th most-performed song of the 20th century by BMI.
“I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles
While many might know it today as the hook that Jamie Foxx sings in Kanye’s “Gold Digger,” “I’ve Got a Woman” was one of Ray Charles’ biggest hits and one of the first tracks of the “soul” genre. Drawing its roots from gospel and jazz, the song was one of Charles’ first hits. It reached #1 on the R&B charts in 1955 and is ranked #235 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, one of five songs the master of soul has on that list. Ray Charles is considered by many to be integral in the birth of soul music, and this track is where it all started.
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” by Stevie Wonder
While Stevie Wonder is generally thought of as a funk artist, this track is definitely soul. It was the first single Wonder produced on his own, the first to feature his female back-up group, and more importantly, marked his first Grammy nomination (he has since gone on to win 22 Grammys). Wonder is regarded as one of the most talented and important artists of all time, and this track shows why.
“Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard
This song, whose title means “all fruits,” was Little Richard’s first major hit record. The songs driving sound and wild lyrics and riffs became a model for the rock n’ roll side of soul music. A panel of recording artists dubbed it “the sound of the birth of rock and roll,” and in 2010, the US Library of Congress added it to the Nation Recording Registry, saying “the unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music.” The iconic opening cry of “a-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bom-bom” (Richard’s rendition of a drum pattern he had imagined) brought in a new era of soul/rock n roll fusion that inspired much of the late 50s and early 60s hits. It lies at #43 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
“I’ve Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown
With similar wild riffs and hard-driven beat as “Tutti Frutti,” “I’ve Got You” is the most well-known and popular song by the man dubbed as the “Godfather of Soul.” Encompassing all of Brown’s signature styles (his shouts, punchy horns, abrupt pauses, etc.), the song is truly a soul record.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
While released past the prime of the soul genre, “Grapevine” is a classic soul track. Recorded earlier by established artists such as Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight & the Pips, Gaye’s version was the first to see commercial success, reaching top 10 of the Billboard Pop Singles chart for 7 weeks. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “historical, artistic and significant value.”