Some songs take your breath away in the first chord. Maybe it's a riff that hangs out there a bit, or a pleading lyric that reminds you of the past or your own hopes or wishes.
Earth Angel still
By Tim Ryan
"Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)," recorded 47 years ago this month by The Penguins, is one of those songs.
I was just 8 years old when I wandered into Wallach's Music City at Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street to hear the wailing plea of Cleve Duncan crooning "Eaaaarth Annnngel, Eaaaarth Annnngel, will you be mine" with its imagery of an idealized young woman. Though I was several years away from puberty, I quickly plopped down 49 cents of my paper route money to buy the 78 rpm single.
Now, speaking to Duncan, 67, in a telephone interview from his Gardena, Calif., home, he jokes, "You'd be a few hundred dollars richer if you had that original."
"Earth Angel" has sold at least 10 million and perhaps as many as 20 million records, remaining one of the most popular records of all time. "Earth Angel" topped out at No. 8 on the Billboard pop charts but stayed at No. 1 in the R&B slot for three weeks in January 1955.
Duncan and the Penguins join The Platters, Cadillacs, Marcels and the Toys in a Doo Wop Hop, now slated for Oct. 6 at the Blaisdell Arena. (It was postponed in the wake of the Sept. 11 East Coast terror attacks.)
(The doo-wop label comes from nonsense syllables like "doo-wop" and "sh-boom" used in the 1940s and 1950s as rhythmic backdrops in place of instruments that street-corner a cappella groups couldn't afford.)
"What's so meaningful for us '50s artists is that the music is generational," Duncan says in a voice huskier than I remember. "We have grandparents with their children's children attending our concerts.
"A few years ago at Magic Mountain, this 10-year-old boy asked me for my autograph and when I handed it back to him he fainted," Duncan says. "Scared me half to death. They had to call the paramedics and everything."
Music has always been part of Duncan's life, beginning in the church choir then intermediate and high school glee clubs.
"I was on a talent show at The California Club in 1953 and Curtis Williams (who would become The Penguins' baritone) had written 'Earth Angel' and was in the audience," Duncan says. "He came to me after the show and said he thought my voice fit it."
Williams reportedly wrote the song for his wife Marlene, Duncan says. He didn't like Williams' melody, so he rewrote it.
The first recording of the song took place in Ted Brinson's garage studio in the back of his South Los Angeles home. "When we went into the studio we recorded a song called 'Hey, Senorita' as the A side; 'Earth Angel' was the B side," Duncan says.
Three disc jockeys take credit for discovering "Earth Angel," but once it got air play the requests were constant, Duncan says. When white artists recorded the song, it only increased the popularity of The Penguins' version.
"Earth Angel" -- like so many '50s doo-wop ballads -- was structured on the chord changes of Rodgers & Hart's "Blue Moon," in a progression commonly known as "ice cream changes" or "Blue Moon changes." Because so many '50s ballads use the same structure, oldies groups can string together seamless medleys of doo-wop classics.
The original Penguins were Duncan, Bruce Tate (baritone), Curtis Williams (first tenor) and Dexter Tisby (second tenor). Tisby left the group in 1959 and is the only other original Penguin still alive. Since the '60s, Duncan has been performing with Walter Saulsberry and Glenn Madison.
When The Penguins started, there were mostly bird names being used for groups, Duncan says, like The Ravens and The Orioles. "We were rehearsing at someone's house and his parents smoked Kools. On the pack was Willy the Penguin. I said, let's name ourselves 'The Penguins' and that was that."
"Earth Angel" has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Johnny Tillotson, The Cleftones, The Vogues, The New Edition, and even Joan Baez (at a 1977 German concert). The song has also been heard in dozens of TV shows, including "Happy Days," and in such movies as "Back to the Future" (1985) and "Earth Angel" (1990).
"It's a simple song with a meaning that everyone can understand and relate to," Duncan says. "All the music from this era is about fun, peace, love and happiness. But ya know we never got out from under 'Earth Angel.' The shadow has always been there, but there's also been a lot of sunshine for us too."
The group performs as many as a dozen concerts a year and the money is better now, he says.
"Back then you might get $50 to $100 for a personal appearance or as much as $750 a week if you were on tour," Duncan says. "But there were always those traveling expenses and advances to repay, and if there was a lot of money, we never saw the bulk of it.
"We were too trustworthy and naive. We knew music, not business."
Doo Wop Hop
Starring The Platters, Cadillacs, Penguins, Marcels and Toys; with two dance floorsWhen: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6
Where: Blaisdell Arena
Tickets: $25 & $35 available at all Ticket Plus outlets or by calling 526-4400
Note: Event is scheduled to happen as of Wednesday, barring continued air flight restrictions.
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