"Doo-wop is an art form that's uniquely American, unique to the big cities. It's the result of hanging on the corners, hanging in school halls and harmonzing," says Alan Lee, an electronics engineer whose enchantment with the 1950s group sound has mushroomed into a second career in music promotion.
"This music got very little attention from the mass media in the 1950s because most of it was recorded for small labels. And until the late 1950s some of the radio stations wouldn't play black music," says Lee. In the last few years, however, doo-wop -- the term for the velvety ballads of black male groups that flourished from 1950 until 1965 -- has received a lot of attention in the Washington-Baltimore area because Lee, 29, has pushed the music and the personalities.
Every Sunday morning Lee is host of WPFW-FM's most popular program, 90 minutes of doo-wop sounds. Every Saturday night he hosts a 1950s dance at the Holiday Inn on Scott Circle. Besides his full-time job as an electronics engineer, he helps out at his Roadhouse Oldies record shops in Silver Spring and Baltimore. For three years Lee and two partners have been reuniting the old groups for stage shows, and tonight he does his first doo-wop revival at the Warner Theater. Without a doubt, he is the official ombudsman, entrepreneur and ultrafan of doo-wop.
How did this passion start? "Well, I grew up in Philly. It was a great music town. So many people lived there -- Frankie Avalon, Chubby Checker, Fabian, the Times, the Silhouettes, the Dream Lovers. And it was a great dancing town. We had a local American Bandstand three years before it went national," says Lee, a thin, sandy-haired man. "But when the music changed to soul and psychedelic in the late 1960s and when the soul groups dropped the bass singers and gutsy sax, I didn't like it. So I went back to the harmonies of the Moonglows and all the other doo-wops.
At first Lee simply enjoyed his musical tastes, collecting records and program notes. Then, during his five-year program at Drexel Institute, a friend with a campus rhythm-and-blues radio show introduced him to deejaying.
"It had never occurred to me to get into entertainment. I still wanted to be an engineer, but I was interested in the technique of putting together a radio show. In 1972 I became the co-host," says Lee, sitting in his living room with a 1941 Wurlitzer jukebox and prints of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney.
When he finished at Drexel in 1972, Lee moved to Washington, flipped the dial and almost flipped out because no one was playing oldies. He volunteered his services to WGTB, the old Georgetown University station. "They told me you can't play doo-wop music on a hippy, dippy progressive rock station. So they put me on in dead time, Sunday mornings, and in a few months before deejays were clamoring for my spot," says Lee.
His success, 6 1/2 years on WGTB and six months on WPFW, is a product of his selective, narrow format, says Lee."I don't think you can jump all over musical history. I don't think you can do a good show playing the Beach Boys, then James Brown, then Pat Boone. Since you can't please everybody, I take the narrow view." But the show's popularity also owes a great deal to his familiarity with the history of the groups.
On the bill tonight at the Warner are the Drifters, the Coasters, Ben E. King, the Skyliners, Bobby Lewis and Bull Moose Jackson. Listen to Lee's capsule: "The Drifters were started in 1953 by the late Clyde McPhatter. They were one of the few groups to last a long time. The Coasters were the Village People of the 1950s; they started out as the Robins and in 1956 became the Coasters. This show will mark Ben E. King's first appearance with the Drifters since 1961. The Skyliners are a class act and one of the few white groups over to have a standing ovation at the Howard Theater."
When he pauses, Lee folds his hands, observing, "When you talk about musical history, it's almost like baseball. People want to know the trivia, who was the guy third from the left." And though he admits quickly that he is not a sociologist, Lee has another thought on the show's popularity. "Because the federal government is here, blacks might look back to the 1950s more fondly. The 1950s were not that kind to most blacks in other parts of the country, but blacks here had more job security."
In seven years Lee has turned a hobby into a market, and the market has found a man who cares. "It took a month on the telephone to find Hank Ballard.Finally I found his sister in New Jersey, and she located him in Florida," says Lee, his fan's enthusiasm undimmed.
"We had Screaming Jay Hawkins, one of the first acts in the 1950s to do firebombs and come out of a casket. He was doing a song called 'Alligator Wine,' and the firebomb went off and he crawled off the stage. He was kind of all shook up."
"All shook up," seemed an appropriate phrase for a 1950s music lover to use. "I get new enthusiasm from each response. And it's a thrill for me to meet each artist," says Lee.His shows usually are sellouts. The last one, in March at the Howard Theater, headlining Hank Ballard and the Flamingos, had people lined up around the block.
"And the nicest thing happened last week. A man who was a listener for seven years called to say he was moving out of the area. He said he would really miss me and considered me his friend. Now how many people do you know who call their deejay to say goodbye?"