Doo-wop Fantástico

Los Zafiros: The Drifters of Cuban music

Because of the addlepated notion that rock 'n' roll is merely the music of rebellion and outrage, the delirious, romantic charms of doo-wop have gone virtually unnoticed among most critics and hipster elites. The music produced countless hits during rock's mid-'50s infancy and through its glory days of the early '60s. From Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King to Marvin Gaye and Dion DiMucci, a slew of pop visionaries emerged from the doo-wop wellspring. Yet only a handful of the genre's gazillions of fine groups have made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while some of rock's greatest vocalists -- among them the Chantels' Arlene Smith; the Jive Five's Eugene Pitt; and the Sheppards' twin terrors, Millard Edwards and Murrie Eskridge -- have languished between the cracks of what the late critic Robert Palmer once described as rock 'n' roll's "unruly history."

That is somewhat baffling, because doo-wop has produced some of pop's most unruly classics: the Marcels' absolutely manic reconstruction of Rodgers and Hart's standard "Blue Moon"; the surreal saga in the Eternals' "Babalu's Wedding Day"; the Chips' nonsensical anthem, "Rubber Biscuit," which the Blues Brothers bowdlerized in the late '70s; the Rivingtons' self-explanatory "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow"; the Devotions' hilarious retelling of the children's fable "Rip Van Winkle," complete with bowling alley sound effects and other hysterical studio trickery; the Marquees' lascivious "Hey Little Schoolgirl" -- the list is seemingly endless. And though most of the aforementioned songs were hits, the doo-wop well is bottomless and, as the four-volume import series Dangerous Doo-Wop attests, some of the genre's funniest, most frenzied, and finest moments were its most obscure (unless you grew up near a radio that blasted the Poets' "Vowels of Love" and the Ivy Tones' "Oo-Wee Baby" -- and I bet you didn't).

If, however, rhythmic and vocal madness were the only elements that defined the sound and style of doo-wop, you'd have redux doo-woppers hitting the same punk-paved revivalist trail as old-school rockabillies like Ronnie Dawson, Sonny Burgess, and Johnny Powers. At its best doo-wop was about the glory of romance and the tragedy of heartbreak, those moments of emotional bliss and those tormented, sleepless nights prompted by the crushing realities of loss. Within those thematic poles existed a world of sublimely beautiful, idyllic music -- ballads that featured soaring, often wrenching lead vocals; all manner of crooning, moaning, and chanting backup accompaniment; and lyrics that could be construed as insipid only by heartless souls, intellectual snobs, and art rockers.

Los Zafiros: A moment of enduring beauty in the doo-wop limelight
Los Zafiros: A moment of enduring beauty in the doo-wop limelight

The songs could be as sweet and gooey as the Danleers' "One Summer Night" or as disturbing and chilling as Nolan Strong's "The Wind." They could celebrate the intoxicating rush of young love à la the Capris' "There's a Moon Out Tonight" and the Tymes' "So Much in Love" or wallow in the kind of misery and despair that makes the Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You" such a tough record to hear, whether or not you've actually suffered a fate similar to the one that befell vocalist Jimmy Beaumont. Even such aptly named kid combos as the Students and the Schoolboys could reduce you to tears (the former with "I'm So Young," the latter with "Please Say You Want Me"). The music, meanwhile, could work along the lines of the standard R&B ballads of the '50s or offer a startling glimpse of what would later evolve into soul music. More important, the mostly anonymous producers, arrangers, and studio musicians weren't afraid to experiment with different rhythms, most notably the Latin beats that propelled the greatest collaborations between the Drifters and their primary writers and producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who first heard that group while on vacation in Mexico. The earliest mambo-driven, R&B-soaked hits of the Drifters -- most notably "Such a Night" and "There Goes My Baby" -- inspired countless groups to fool around with infectious, exotic Latino rhythms. As a result doo-wop history is littered with lost gems and pop and R&B chart hits that celebrate this commingling of genres.

I've been thinking of this genre-mingling quite a bit lately, after spending the last few weeks with Los Zafiros' Bossa Cubana. Unless you're either a Cuban music fanatic or a world-music archaeologist with a very big shovel, you've probably never heard of Los Zafiros (the Sapphires). For the better part of the '60s, however, this Havana-based quintet managed to fuse the rhythms of their native land with the doo-wop stylings of such stateside combos as the Platters, among the most popular and urbane vocal groups of the era.

The results remain both thrilling and throttling 36 years after Los Zafiros made their recording debut with "La Caminadora," a wailer driven by some dizzying wah-wahs and the powerful, tongue-tying vocals of Eduardo Elio "El Chino" Hernández. The song is one of two here penned by Néstor Milí, a producer/arranger/writer sought out in 1962 by vocalists Leoncio "Kike" Morúa and Miguel "Miguelito" Cancio to help them assemble an ensemble -- Los Zafiros -- that would allow them to do something with their passion for U.S.-based doo-wop. After happening upon Ignacio Elejalde -- in a barbershop, fittingly enough -- Los Zafiros discovered a tenor whose voice could soar so high you'd swear he was singing in falsetto. Even more so than the Platters' masterful Tony Williams, Elejalde could solo practically beyond the vocal register. His nonsensical, flat out weird wheeees cut through the shimmying "Bossa Cubana" like knives, linking the song to both the Devotions' "Rip Van Winkle" and the screwball sonic gimmickry of Juan Garcia Esquivel. The way he sails atop the corkscrew rhythms of "Cuando Yo la Conocí" is neither weird nor gimmicky but simply breathtaking.

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