It is one of the best stories in rock history. An aspiring vocal group called the Five Satins makes a deal with a member of St. Bernadette's Church in East Haven, Conn., to use the church's basement for a recording session. With only a primitive tape recorder and sparse instrumental backing, the group records "In the Still of the Night," a song written by the group's lead singer, Fred Parris, while on guard duty in the Army. The church member gets to play the sax solo.
Released on Ember Records in 1956, "In the Still of the Night" would make it to No. 24 on the charts, a success, but hardly a blockbuster. There was something about the song, though. Perhaps it was Parris' deadpan lead or that hypnotically chanted backup of "Sho-do-sho-be-do," but the record wouldn't die. It hit the charts again in 1960 and then again in 1961, finally becoming one of the most requested oldies of all time and selling an estimated 10 million copies.
What seems special about the song -- now rereleased as part of Solid Smoke's "You Found the Vocal Group Sound" series -- is the way it holds the feeling of a musical era. In fact, Solid Smoke's first three albums of doo-wop classics capture what is irretrievable from that era -- the romantic innocence and frivolous good humor -- better than the music of Elvis, Chuck Berry or Little Richard, artists whose flamboyance and sexuality still echo loudly in contemporary music.
The beautifully packaged "Greatest Hits of the Era -- Part I" (Solid Smoke 8031) is as good an introduction as can be found to the humor, grace and charm of the vocal group style. The chilling precision and restraint of the Harptones' 1953 version of "Life Is but a Dream" are still heavily indebted to the refined, adult sound of earlier vocal groups like the Orioles and Ravens. By 1961, we have the Edsels aiming strictly for the teen-agers with an irresistible slice of doo-wop absurdism called "Rama Lama Ding Dong."
The 14 hits of "Part I" offer plenty of rumbling bass voices, high-flying tenors and needlepoint falsettos. There are some fast-moving rockers like the Dell-Vikings' "Come Go With Me" and the Silhouettes' comic "Get a Job." Most of all, though, there is romance set to the sound of human voices baying, pleading and cajoling in rapturous consort. Not surprisingly, that night of nights gets apotheosized a few times, in the Dells' "Oh What a Night," the Danleers' "One Summer Night," the Capris' "There's a Moon Out Tonight" and the Mellow-Kings' "Tonite, Tonite."
It is "Greatest Hits of the Era -- Part II" (Solid Smoke 8032) that contains "In the Still of the Night." This collection also presents two songs, the Turbans' swaying "When You Dance" and the El Dorado's kinetic "At My Front Door," that crossed over from the black R&B charts to the then-white pop charts in 1955, thus helping to pave the way for the rock 'n' roll revolution.
"Part II" also has some of the finest lead voices to grace the era of vocal groups. The serene cool of Pookey Hudson's tremulous tenor is captured in the gorgeous Spaniels ballad "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight." Jerry Butler's rich baritone swells with near sacred intensity in the Impressions' unforgettable "For Your Precious Love." For sheer melodrama, however, it's hard to top Eugene Pitt leading the Jive Five through the autobiographical heartbreak of "My True Story."
One of the real classics on "Part II" is Maurice Williams in the Zodiacs' "Stay," a song that continues to offer a powerful invitation to all amateur falsettos. Although the Four Seasons also had a big hit with the song in 1964, and Jackson Browne in 1978, the Seasons' version is already forgotten and Browne's soon will be. If the Zodiacs' record achieves timelessness, it remains a shame that the vocal groups and their singers did not prove half as long lasting as their music. Of all the artists on these collections, only Dion, who moved from doo-wop to teen idol to folkie, managed any long-term success.
The third collection, "Best of Los Angeles' Donna and Del-Fi Labels" (Solid Smoke 8033) is the first in a planned series of Solid Smoke reissues devoted to regional doo-wop labels and scenes. Although the Del-Fi label was best known for Ritchie Valens, Johnny Crawford and various surf groups, it issued some fine vocal group records in the early '60s, when the music was making its last stand on the pop charts. The label's biggest success was Little Caesar and the Romans' "Those Oldies but Goodies." The surprise here is five dolorous cuts by the Gallahads, each infused with the haunting melancholy of the romantic loser.