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Group Harmony

Group Harmony: The Black Urban Roots of Rhythm and Blues

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Group Harmony
    Book Description:

    In 1948, the Orioles, a Baltimore-based vocal group, recorded "It's Too Soon to Know." Combining the sound of Tin Pan Alley with gospel and blues sensibilities, the Orioles saw their first hit reach #13 on the pop charts, thus introducing the nation to vocal rhythm & blues and paving the way for the most successful groups of the 1950s. In the first scholarly treatment of this influential musical genre, Stuart Goosman chronicles the Orioles' story and that of myriad other black vocal groups in the postwar period. A few, like the Orioles, Cardinals, and Swallows from Baltimore and the Clovers from Washington, D.C., established the popularity of vocal rhythm & blues nationally. Dozens of other well-known groups (and hundreds of unknown ones) across the country cut records and performed until about 1960. Record companies initially marketed this music as rhythm & blues; today, group harmony continues to resonate for some as "doo-wop." Focusing in particular on Baltimore and Washington and drawing significantly from oral histories, Group Harmony details the emergence of vocal rhythm & blues groups from black urban neighborhoods. Group harmony was a source of empowerment for young singers, for it provided them with a means of expression and some aspect of control over their lives where there were limited alternatives. Through group harmony, young black males celebrated and musically confounded, when they could not overcome, complex issues of race, separatism, and assimilation during the postwar period. Group harmony also became a significant resource for the popular music industry. Goosman interviews dozens of performers, deejays, and industry professionals to examine the entrepreneurial promise of midcentury popular music and chronicle the convergence of music, place, and business, including the business of records, radio, promotion, and song writing. Featured in the book's account of the black urban roots of rhythm & blues are the recollections of singers from groups such as the Cardinals, Clovers, Dunbar Four, Four Bars of Rhythm, Five Blue Notes, Hi Fis, Plants, Swallows, and many others, including Jimmy McPhail, a well-known Washington vocalist; Deborah Chessler, the manager and songwriter for the original Orioles; Jesse Stone, the writer and arranger from Atlantic Records; Washington radio personality Jackson Lowe; and seminal black deejays Al ("Big Boy") Jefferson, Maurice ("Hot Rod") Hulbert, and Tex Gathings.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0204-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. 1 Antecedents
    (pp. 1-22)

    Where did group harmony come from? Well, partly, it was just as Howard says.

    “We just went with what’s easy, the flow, because we could do anything. If he wanted to do the tenor, no problem. Like I told you we go to the football games. When we sing the National Anthem—”

    Howard Davis pauses to let Mel Lipscomb, who sits next to him, finish the thought. “It amazes us.”

    The two of them have been friends since meeting at Washington, D.C.,’s Dunbar High School in 1943. They remained best friends for years after their harmony group the Hi...

  5. 2 Time and Place
    (pp. 23-72)

    Some lines of musical inquiry point beyond the extant literature around a particular style and refer us back to the street. Rhythm & blues group harmony began on the street, and was of a particular time and place. It was a postwar style and a city style. What youngsters had in singing was powerful for them. Singing had, unlike the city that contained it, a limitless, unbounded quality. Yet, to a remarkable degree, the urban environment in which it took place shaped vocal harmony—not only the musical aspects, but the social. Perhaps the vertical briefing urban structures provide, the space...

  6. 3 Entrepreneurship
    (pp. 73-136)

    In the end, maybe it is about a salary, otherwise T-Love would not be talking about who is “signed” and who is “sellin’.” Indeed, that could well sum up in two words the fervent hopes of the entire music industry, top to bottom—signed and selling (or better yet, signed, sealed, sellin’). Many of the harmony groups in Baltimore and Washington were of the urban grassroots variety or were not professionals for very long. Indeed, a number of singers will state that they were either interested in “just singing” or wanted to only cut a record, not thinking too much...

  7. 4 Mediators
    (pp. 137-182)

    The vocalists of group harmony maintained an effective if not always compelling role in their own direction and development and by no means did they work alone. They forged alliances outside family and church, worked with others, and in the process drew from their immediate surroundings and beyond. This chapter focuses on those other alliances, the variegated relations between group harmony and local radio and disc jockeys, and a ubiquitous group of music professionals comprised of agents, managers, arrangers, and producers.

    It was something of a complicated, curious interplay because the power and influence flowed both ways. These young black...

  8. 5 Patterns
    (pp. 183-240)

    A pattern is a form or model, design, prescribed route, system, interrelationship of parts, or something that occurs over again. A pattern also is or has an observable characteristic. A pattern need not necessarily be fixed and unchangeable. Indeed, within the context of black music, patterns are flexible and do change, but they show the way back nonetheless.

    Black group harmony was a musical pattern, a historical model for music and, in some instances, for social behavior. Postwar group harmony, from the Ravens through the 1950s, established guidelines to vocal performance based on earlier models, became indelibly linked to a...

  9. Epilogue Black Voices in White America
    (pp. 241-256)

    Of stories, the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe writes, “It’s one of the things humans do. Not just have a story, but tell a story.”¹ The voices in this book also have their stories. They are for us the ties that bind the experiences of those both before and after, past and present. Stories tell us something.

    One problem historically for African Americans, especially around music, is that whites do a lot of the telling, the analyzing, capitalizing, constructing, deconstructing, framing, interpreting, theorizing—whatever. It’s that imponderable white milieu. Black scholars such as Houston Baker, Derrick Bell, Henry Louis Gates, bell...

  10. Appendix
    (pp. 257-264)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 265-272)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-280)
  13. Index
    (pp. 281-291)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 292-292)