By the time I was in seventh or eighth grade I was listening almost exclusively to folk and blues, but my sister Debbie had more social tastes. As a typical big brother I tended to disdain them, but then she started bringing her “gang” home after school and listening to Sha Na Na. My first reaction was to get snooty and annoyed: I was up in my room with my folk records and my acoustic guitar, and the pounding basslines were an intrusion on my precious little world. But at some point, somehow, I started to listen and got hooked.
Born in 1959, I’d missed that era of popular music. I started with the Beatles and the Monkees, and loved both, but knew nothing about what came before them, especially when it came to vocal groups. So that first Sha Na Na album was a revelation. The songs were fun, and meant for singing — the Pete Seeger sing-along tradition never produced anything as irresistibly catchy as “Remember Then” or “Sh-Boom.” And the chords were pretty straightforward, either variations on 12-bar blues or a basic I-VIm-IV-V7. So I got to work, and can still remember twelve of the fourteen songs on that record, complete with the nonsense-word back-up vocals.
That was and is the great pleasure of doo-wop: when you know a song, you know multiple parts, and when you meet other people who know it, you can sing together — not just sing along in chorus, but split up and choose roles, one person singing lead, others doing the dit-dit-dits or rama-lama-ding-dongs (or, of course, sha-na-nas), and someone (often a couple of people, because it’s a coveted role) doing the bass interjections, like “Why’s everybody always picking on me?”
It’s been years since I fell into a circle of like-minded singers, but through the ’70s and ’80s it happened pretty frequently. I remember once in Cambridge Common — none of us knew each other, but there was one guy who did a perfect Lou Christie/Frankie Valli falsetto — and a magical night on a third-story porch in Vancouver, BC, where we sang till dawn and, as the sun came up, a couple of neighbors came out of the house across the yard, not to complain but to sit quietly and listen.
Getting back to the story, I wasn’t satisfied with Sha Na Na, and began tracking down all the original versions of the songs I liked. It was a perfect moment to do that, because there was a decent oldies station in town, WROR, and ads on TV for mail-order K-Tel anthologies and cheap packaged sets at Woolworth’s. So pretty soon I had “Book of Love” by the Monotones, and all the other songs by the Crests, the Rays, the Chords, the Five Satins, the Diamonds, the Earls, and that led me to enduringly great groups like the Drifters (both versions), the Clovers, and of course the Coasters — but that went way beyond doo-wop.
Obviously, this music was not designed for one guy to play with a guitar, so I’ve done my best but encourage any and all to check out the real thing. There are some fun videos online of Sha Na Na doing this and other songs, complete with camping and choreography, but to get right to the heart of the matter, here are the Monotones: