TV Gets It Right - (Almost): The PBS Special - Fifty Years of Doowop ©2000JCMarion


Despite the continual annoyances of hustling for money during public television's pledge period, the production celebrating 50 years of Doowop was a winner.Taped live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the show celebrated the musical style that was born in the late forties, flourished during the fifties, and ended its run in the early sixties. The show also celebrated the city of Pittsburgh and the memory of Porky Chedwick, that city's number one d.j. of the fifties, and the presence of Pittsburgh's three greatest groups - The Del-Vikings (from the area via the U.S. Air Force), Marcels, and Skyliners.

The host for the show was Jerry Butler, the old "Iceman" himself. The introduction for most of the groups was accompanied by shots of original vintage LP covers by the groups that were performing. Kicking off the festivities were The Platters with original member Herb Reed. They sang a great version of "The Great Pretender", staying true to the original arrangement. Following them were The Del-Vikings with original members Norman Wright and Dave Lerchey (both joined the group just before they recorded). The version of "Come Go With Me" was an enjoyable one with a recreated sax break almost note for note with the original. One of the greatest White groups of the doowop years, Pittsburgh's own Skyliners featuring Jimmy Beaumont's original lead voice, followed with their Calico Records classic "Since I Don't Have You" with complete orchestra including a string section to recreate the sound of the original 1959 recording. The group did a creditable job on preserving the sound that so many have come to know and appreciate.

The influence of the West coast was saluted by an appearance of The Penguins, consisting of original lead singer Cleveland Duncan leading a vocal trio in a warmly received version of "Earth Angel". Gene Chandler, the Duke of Earl himself, had fun doing his signature tune in high hat, cape, and cane, as he weaved his way through the audience to the stage. He was the benefactor of good backing by an uncredited vocal group doing a good imitation of The Dukays. Johnny Maestro and his big aggregation The Brooklyn Bridge did a vintage version of "Sixteen Candles", and to keep the New York groove going he was followed by Herbie Cox and The Cleftones who did a hit from late in their career, "Heart And Soul". The early sixties hit "There's A Moon Out Tonight" was done in style by The Capris. Then came one of the great moments of the evening. Pittsburgh's own hometown group The Marcels hit the stage with all five original members ! Their version of "Blue Moon" was cause for two encores of the famous ending of the tune. The one group that displayed a lot of the old moves was The Jive Five with Eugene Pitt. Doing "My True Story", the group was the essence of the old days with their unique synchronization that brought back memories of the stage show days.

A group calling themselves The Legends of Doowop was next. This vocal group consisted of members of The Passions, Fascinators, and Imaginations and was fronted by Jimmy Gallagher lead singer of The Passions who did his memorable hit tune "Just To Be With You". Jerry Butler reminded the audience that The Temptations did not invent the intricate choreography practiced on stage by many of the more well known groups, but it was The Cadillacs that started it all. With that out bounced Earl Carroll (in high hat and walking stick just like the 50s) with two friends and did a frantic version of "Speedo". Earl Lewis and The Channels were up next, and with Earl still in great voice they presented "The Closer You Are". A group of singers got together and called themselves The Golden Group Memories, and performed for the big crowd. The group included Jimmy Merchant (an original member of The Teenagers), Speedo Frazier of The Impalas, and lead singer Vito Balsamo (Vito & The Salutations) and they did the Salutations version of "Unchained Melody".

The Chantels made an appearance as a quartet and contributed a nice version of the seldom performed "Look In My Eyes" from the group's early sixties Carlton Records days. They were joined onstage by original lead singer Arlene Smith for a rousing rendition of "Maybe". The Moonglows featured a rare performing appearance by original member (and long time record company executive) Harvey Fuqua with the group carrying on the name of founder and lead singer Bobby Lester. "Ten Commandments of Love" was given a worthy presentation. Host and former Impressions lead Jerry Butler sang "For Your Precious Love" with an uncredited backup group, and Jerry was back as host with a nice intro of Willie Winfield who with The Harptones (with at least two other original members) sang "Life Is But A Dream" (And yes, Willie can still get up for that final note). Chicago's greatest, The Flamingos, did a nice version of "Lover's Never Say Goodbye", and then it was time for the wrap up to a great show, with one of the great doowop songs of all time, "Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight" by The Spaniels with original lead singer and the song's composer James "Pooky"Hudson.

One item of great interest that was part of the shill for financial pledges, was the availability of a commercial videotape of the show that contained a lot of footage taken during that memorable evening in Pittsburgh. Some of this footage was shown during the pledge breaks, and there was certainly enough to catch the eye and ear of all fans of this music. The Platters singing "Only You", The Skyliners version of "This I Swear", Johnny Maestro's "The Worst That Could Happen" with The Brooklyn Bridge (not really doowop, but a great song from the late sixties), and The Impalas featuring Speed Frazier on "I Ran All The Way Home". Also featured are Willie Winfield and The Harptones "A Sunday Kind Of Love", The Moonglows "Sincerely", The Flamingos "I Only Have Eyes For You", and The Jive Five on "What Time Is It?". The Spaniels are featured in a rare performance of their up tempo version of "Stormy Weather", Lee Andrews & The Hearts (not even included in the main program) sing "Long Lonely Nights", and in what must have been the highlight of the evening - a celebration of that most memorable doowop song ever, "Gloria". It started with Earl Carroll and The Cadillacs (who put the original on record so many years ago, and then everybody took a turn trying to outdo each other - first Jimmy Gallagher, then Vito Balsamo, followed by Earl Lewis, (and perhaps in the unedited video, there may have been others joining in), until the circle returns to Mr. Earl and a great windup with a stage full of doowop legends. A fantastic windup of an unforgettable evening in Pittsburgh.

This program coming shortly after the gathering in New York City of "A Great Day In Harlem II" (based on the famous Esquire Magazine jazz music photo) of doowop legends (some not seen or heard of for decades) serves as a two part celebration of one last great go-round of the surviving performers of this musical style as we move into the new millennium, and try to preserve the past. It is a wonderful presentation of what was, and one last attempt to remember the names and the talent of all those that might otherwise be forgotten. Despite some of the shortcomings of the PBS program, we are all that much richer for its existence.

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