Of Doo-Wop and a Full Grown Man

Aaron Neville: I say it’s doo-wop, therefore it is doo-wop. You got a problem with that?


Aaron Neville

Blue Note

In 2006 Aaren Neville released Bring It On Home: The Soul Classics. Not much to argue about here in regards to his terminology: “Respect Yourself,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “My Girl,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” et al.—it was a range of soul, but any grousing about the songs being improperly classified wouldn’t gain much traction.

Come 2010 and Neville offers I Know I’ve Been Changed, a gospel outing with producer Joe Henry. “Stand By Me” (the gospel song, not Ben E. King’s), “Tell Me What Kind of Man Jesus Is,” “There’s a God Somewhere,” “Meetin’ at the Building,” et al.—nothing on the album wasn’t indisputably gospel, delivered with an even deeper emotional investment than the artist brought to The Soul Classics.Which brings us to about the only problem with his new My True Story album. Seems Mr. Neville regards this as his tribute to doo-wop, but he is really stretching the definition, to the point of breaking it, of this dynamic music when he includes Curtis Mayfield’s elegant, yearning soul classic “Gypsy Woman” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” among others in his tunestack. And Little Anthony will give him a stern lecture as to why “Tears On My Pillow” (or any of the Little Anthony & The Imperials classics) is not in any way, shape or form a doo-wop record.

At Brooklyn Bowl this past November, Aaron Neville previewed his new My True Story album. Special guests included Paul Simon (nice taste of ‘We Belong Together’ here), Joan Osborne (wailing on ‘Money Honey’), Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five and the Del-Vikings’ Dickie Harmon.

Doo-wop had a short commercial shelf life before its various components were absorbed, or appropriated, by R&B, soul and teen pop. In fact, hard-core doo-wop aficionados will insist it had no commercial heyday and that the best doo-wop recordings were rarely heard outside their big city point of origin, whether that be L.A. or New York or Philadelphia or Chicago or… The style evolved out of group harmony R&B balladry as pioneered by towering outfits such as the Ink Spots (with the great falsetto leads of Bill Kenney, a significant influence on Elvis’s ballad style), the Ravens (who employed the rich bass voice of Jimmy Ricks in the unusual position of lead singer in tandem with the sweet tenor of Maithe Marshall to create one of the most distinctive sounds in vocal group history), the Orioles (with the great Sonny Til) and others that rose to prominence in the late ‘40s to the mid-‘50s. Doo-wop was almost totally reliant on great voices at the top (tenor) and at the bottom (bass), employed scatted nonsense syllables as rhythmic devices and disdained much instrumentation (sometimes, at most, only a guitarist). It was/is a highly romantic music in ballad form, with an embedded moral code centered on respect (especially for women) and accountability (the spiritual element—singers confessing a sin of infidelity or thoughtlessness and seeking redemption); in its uptempo incarnation, it was joyous and life affirming, celebrating good times, or exulting in the transforming power of love (as the Marcels did in their 1961 rock ‘n’ roll-infused hit remake of Rodgers and Hart’s classic pop song “Blue Moon”); and yes, it could be ribald in a completely comic way (The Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” or Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie,” a tune so suggestive an apoplectic FCC tried to stamp it out, to no avail—it was #1 R&B for seven weeks and generated FCC-banned answer records, “Annie Had a Baby” and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” and is revived here by Neville in a suitably rousing, unabridged arrangement) or comical and touching all at once (as the Eternals proved with their 1959 monument, “Babalu’s Wedding Day,” the title character of which played second base for the Milwaukee Braves but had to borrow a dime from a friend in order to make his nuptials to his beloved Husky Babalina—clearly one for the time capsule from an era when pro athletes were paid a pittance). This is doo-wop in a nutshell, the basics; the full history is more glorious and even more entertaining than what is hinted at here. Suffice it to say doo-wop was the link between ‘40s pop-influenced group harmony and ‘50s gospel-influenced R&B, which in turn evolved into ‘60s soul music, which was informed by blues, gospel, pop and even, to a degree, country.

Aaron Neville, ‘Gypsy Woman,’ from My True Story

Aaron Neville has a bit of a different take on what is and is not doo-wop. As he states in a press release accompanying his new album: “Doo-wop started with five guys, like the Clovers—or five girls, like the Chantels or the Shirelles—singing harmony together on a bench or a stoop. My own favorite place was the boys’ bathroom at school, because it had such great acoustics. So I always thought ‘Be My Baby’ was a doo-wop song, because it’s a lead singer with harmony singers. I came up in the doo-wop era, and if I heard something and thought it was doo-wop, then it was. So if it didn’t fall in that category before, then it does now!” (Note: in his heyday, Phil Spector was a doo-wop fan, and produced a couple of memorable records in that style—namely the Alley Cats’ irresistible “Puddin n’ Tain” and Curtis Lee’s soaring “Pretty Little Angel Eyes.” Would that Neville had dug into either of these gems.)

Aaron Neville and Don Was on the making of My True Story

Which is to say, if Aaron Neville says it’s doo-wop, then it is doo-wop. And that is how you get away with including a medley of “This Magic Moment/True Love” on your doo-wop tribute album. Another way you pull this off is to hire producer Don Was, craft a gentle, folk-flavored arrangement with an undercurrent of church organ and then sing it with incomparable tenderness designed to melt hearts everywhere. It’s a roundabout way of getting to the doo-wop ethos, but it gets you there. Or you finesse another Drifters gem, “Under the Boardwalk,” by coming at it with a dreamier mindset, a subtly Latinized shuffle and a gospel-tinged male chorus humming in the background. About “Be My Baby,” it has mutated into a ‘50s-style R&B ballad—instead of competing with Ronnie Spector’s intense, Spector-ized demands, Neville coaxes and caresses, assumes he has to work for the love he seeks, and in the process remakes the song into a torch number. Similarly, his understated approach to the Jive Five’s immortal “My True Story” betrays his respect for lead singer Eugene Pitt’s incomparable reading, muscular and, as Pitt doesn’t reveal until the song’s O. Henry twist at the end, severely wounded. Think about Eugene Pitt this way: after Alabama had thoroughly shredded the Notre Dame defense en route to winning another national college football championship in January, a Crimson Tide lineman said of the powerful running back Eddie Lacy (who alone accounted for 140 yards rushing), “He’s a full grown man. You don’t want to get in his way.” Well, Aaron Neville doesn’t want to get in Eugene Pitt’s way, so he and Was enhance the song’s doo-wop aspects in a ballad arrangement—a chanting “whoa-whoa” background chorus, spare instrumentation, and an atmosphere so blue and aching it hurts.

Aaron Neville, the title track from My True Story

In fact, respect is a key component of My True Story: respect for the songs and for the artists—some now nearly forgotten (shame, shame)—that made these recordings indelible moments in pop history. Little Anthony may lecture you about he and his Imperials not being doo-wop artists, but odds are he would approve the beautiful hurt Neville puts on “Tears On My Pillow,” which nods at the abiding pain of rejection Mr. Gourdine communicates so profoundly in the original; and could our man Dion really begrudge the DiMucci swagger Neville affects in his driving, ‘50s R&B-style treatment (this is where the Drifters’ original version comes in) of “Ruby Baby”? One of Neville’s finest moments here is his last, when he closes the album with “Goodnight My Love,” lovingly rendered, understated, in a small combo arrangement that takes it into Charles Brown or King Cole Trio territory. Somewhere Jesse Belvin is smiling.

So to those who take umbrage with Aaron Neville for defining doo-wop in a manner singular to his aims on My True Story (I say it’s doo-wop, therefore it is doo-wop), be advised that you’re talking about a full grown man. And you don’t want to get in his way.

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