Rock has experienced many phases over the decades but to these ears none more lovable than one of its earliest: doo-wop, the harmony-vocal-based music that helped to bridge the gap from 40s R&B to 50s rock and pop.
If you were born too late to experience this genre in its prime, you should get acquainted via the excellent crash course offered by Rhino’s Doo Wop Box series, which delivers more than 300 essential tracks on a trio of four-CD sets. After that, though, you’ll likely want to dig deeper, and three fine places to do that are new collections from the Ravens, the Larks, and the Harptones. Unlike many anthologies of reissued oldies material, these all feature impressively comprehensive programs and excellent sound quality as well as detailed track information and informative liner notes.
If you pick up just one of these releases, make it The Ravens Collection 1946–59. The Ravens may not have been quite “The Greatest Group of Them All,” as the title of one old vinyl anthology proclaims, but they were indeed great. One of the earliest of the doo-wop groups, they were as groundbreaking and influential as, say, the “5” Royales and, earlier, the Ink Spots. (Fun fact: the Ravens also have the distinction of being one of the first of many 1950s outfits in their genre to adopt a bird name, though by one account they picked the moniker because everyone was “ravin’” about their sound.)
The New York City–based Ravens—which Bob Dylan once called “one of the pioneering R&B vocal groups”—owed their importance in no small part to cofounder and frequent lead vocalist Jimmy Ricks, who remained with the band, despite numerous other personnel changes, from their early days to 1956. (He then went on to sing with Count Basie.) Ricks, who wrote or cowrote much of the group’s original material, possessed a striking bass voice that set the Ravens apart from most of their competitors, who typically featured tenors; and the Ravens further stood out when they added Maithe Marshall, a tenor who sang falsetto.
Like many doo-wop groups, the Ravens were largely overlooked in their time. Though they did score 11 hits on the R&B charts between 1948 and 1952, they never once broke into the pop Top 40. You may find that surprising after listening to this excellent four-CD, 103-track collection, which gathers nearly all of their recordings for eight labels.
The liner notes modestly state that the set “does not purport to be any kind of definitive anthology,” but it likely contains all the Ravens you need. Every one of their R&B hits is here, including a trio that made the Top 5: “Send for Me If You Need Me,” “Rock Me All Night Long,” and “Write Me a Letter.” Also featured is a motley assortment of other material that draws on jazz, pop, gospel, and more. As the program demonstrates, these guys could capably handle everything from standards like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Believe” and even Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.”
Like the Ravens, the North Carolina–based Larks never had a pop hit; in fact, they barely even made a dent on the R&B charts, though they entered those briefly with a pair of blues covers (Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Little Side Car”). They were history by the time Bill Haley rocked around the clock in 1955 but, also like the Ravens, they helped to nudge the popular music world toward a new chapter.
The Larks Collection 1950–55, a two-CD, 48-track set, hits all the high points of their brief career, which found them recording for several labels (including four in one day in 1950!) and employing assorted other names, such as the Five Larks, the Southern Harmonaires, the Four Barons, and the Selah Singers. (They are not to be confused, however, with the Philadelphia-based group called the Four Larks or with the L.A.-based Larks.)
One constant throughout their disparate discography is tenor Eugene Mumford. An excellent singer who spent time in the Golden Gate Quartet and the Ink Spots, he also took over for Jackie Wilson in Billy Ward & the Dominoes.
The program on The Larks Collection 1950–55 is as varied as the one on the Ravens set. In addition to the aforementioned blues covers, you’ll find sprightly pop-flavored numbers like “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” and barbershop-quartet-style ballads like “No Other Gal.” It’s all first-rate.
You could say the same about the material on The Harptones Collection 1953–61. This is yet another group that had no notable hits, though any decent doo-wop anthology today includes at least one of their tunes—probably “A Sunday Kind of Love,” “My Memories of You,” or “Life Is but a Dream.” All of those are on this two-CD, 54-track set, which embraces nearly all of their A and B sides for 10 labels plus records they made with other lead vocalists for other companies.
The New York City–based Harptones featured more of a pop/rock sound than the Ravens and the Larks, thanks largely to their sophisticated modern arrangements and use of orchestration as well as brass. (Check out the sax on up-tempo numbers like “Rain Down Kisses,” “Hep Teenager,” and “Oo Wee Baby.”) The group had their most potent weapon in the great and versatile tenor Willie Winfield and more ammunition in jack-of-all-trades founder Raoul Cita, who served as manager, arranger, pianist, writer, and sometime vocalist. These two were with the group when it began recording in 1951 and, amazingly, were still performing its songs together until 2014, the year Cita died.
You can hear all their best work on the new anthology, which shows them paving the way for outfits like the Crests, the Danleers, the Coasters, and the Drifters in standouts like “The Last Dance,” “Gimme Some,” “All in Your Mind,” and “Three Wishes.”
Maia Sharp, Mercy Rising. Though Maia Sharp has been recording her own albums for many years, she has also composed songs for lots of other artists—Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood, Cher, and Art Garfunkel, to name a few—and reportedly views herself primarily as a songwriter. Her skill in that regard comes across on this latest release, which features a dozen new originals (most with co-writers), but so do her performing talents.
There are some sweet songs here, among them the touching “Always Good to See You,” but Sharp knows how to stick in a knife as well, such as on “Nice Girl,” where a soothing melody belies a lyric whose memorable key line is “You’re gonna make some nice girl miserable someday.”
Ted Russell Kamp, Solitaire. This is the 13th full-length album from Ted Russell Kamp, who has also found time over the years to produce many other artists and serve as Shooter Jennings’s longtime bass player. The record is named for one of its songs, a number about being “alone inside of me,” but it also describes this project fairly well, as Kamp produced, plays most of the instruments, and wrote all the songs (albeit with collaborators in most cases). It’s an excellent set, reminiscent of roots/Americana/country releases from artists like Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker.
It’s easy to imagine other performers wanting to cover these evocative, solidly constructed tunes, but Kamp’s well-sung versions seem likely to remain definitive. Highlights abound, among them the catchy “My Girl Now,” the moody aforementioned title cut, and the up-tempo, well-titled “You Can Go to Hell, I’m Going to Texas.”