There are a handful of experiences in life that leave us struggling to find the precise words to actually define them. For it is hard to actually cognize that which is felt by the heart since it bypasses all of our intellectual senses and what we are left with is essentially an indescribable feeling throughout our body and soul. Music is one of these phenomena.
How do you actually describe it? Dictionary.com describes it as “an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.”
Is that really what any of us conjure up when we think of music? I dare say, no way!
Funny that the word color, which has a visual connotation is used to describe that which is heard, not seen. Why? Because music is something that is felt and most often forms an indelible “picture” in our minds of memories, life circumstances and place in time from our lives.
You are probably wondering what this all has to do with The Bronx. So much! In fact, The Bronx has produced some of the best music that has ever been created, much of which has a timelessness and evoke a special nostalgia for so many.
Take for instance Doo Wop music.
Did you know that Doo Wop music was developed in African-American communities in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles back in the 1940’s?
We all have watched many movies that depict a group of guys standing on a street corner creating a vocal harmony which is the distinct aspect of the doo wop sound which achieved mainstream popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s. Till today, it remains one of the most mainstream, pop-oriented R&B styles of the time.
The Bronx was home to some of the greatest doo wop artists, whose music and even specific songs have etched themselves into the memories and consciousness of so many in the Borough and around the globe.
Take a walk down memory lane and reminisce about these Top 10 Bronx Doo Wop accapella singers and groups from this bygone era of rock and roll, compiled by Alexandra Maruri of Bronx Historical Tours and what she considers some of their best music.
Top 10 Bronx Doo Wop Singers and Groups
1) Dion & The Belmonts
Perhaps the quintessential and most well known musical group from The Bronx during the era of Doo Wop, Dion and the Belmonts had a string of hits in the late ‘50’s.
Although Dion Dimucci became the most well known, he actually joined the established trio, The Belmonts in 1957, whose members included Angelo D'Aleo, Carlo Mastrangelo, and Fred Milano.
To Bronxites, it’s a well known fact that the group’s name, The Belmonts, was derived from Belmont Avenue in Little Italy, on and around which all four members originated. Dion (without The Belmonts) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
Famous songs: Where or When, A Teenager in Love
2) The Chords
Talk about old school Doo Wop and The Chords will be front and center based on their humble beginnings. The five members of this band got together in 1951 in The Bronx and the story goes that they were spotted singing in a subway station, which ultimately landed them a recording contract with Atlantic Records.
The band members, Carl Feaster, Claude Feaster, Floyd McRae, Jimmy Keyes, Rupert Branker and William Edwards had an explosive hit with “Sh-Boom” and by the end of June 1954, "Sh-Boom" had climbed up the charts nationwide to #5 on the R&B and #2 on pop charts, unprecedented for its time and simultaneously introduced the white audience to black R&B music for the first time.
Famous song: Sh-Boom
3) The Chantels
This lovely all-girls group was formed in the early 1950’s when the original five members were students attending St. Anthony of Padua School in The Bronx. In fact, a bit of trivia from HistoryofRock.com, lead singer, Arlene Smith had received classical training and performed at Carnegie Hall at age 12!
The group was not together very long, as Arlene went on to embark on a solo career, however, their second single "Maybe", released in December 1957, would sell over a million copies and was awarded a gold disc! The original five members consisted of Arlene Smith, Sonia Goring Wilson, Renée Minus White, Jackie Landry Jackson and Lois Harris, and as a group, The Chantels were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002.
Famous Song: Maybe
4) The Chiffons
Beginning their singing career as Bronx classmates at James Monroe High School, The Chiffons came together in 1960. Another girl group in the Doo Wop era, the original members included Judy Craig, Patricia Bennett and Barbara Lee.
Their first single, "He's So Fine" hit No. 1 in the United States, selling over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. By today’s RIAA certifications standards, the record would have qualified for platinum status.
Famous Song: He’s So Fine
5) The Demensions
No one would dare argue the fact that out of the high schools of The Bronx there have emerged so many musical talents. Included in this elite group are The Demensions. Formed as a Doo Wop group by four members of The Melody Singers, the school choral group at Christopher Columbus High School in The Bronx, the original members of The Demensions included Lenny Del Giudice, (aka Lenny Dell), Howie Margolin, Charlie Peterson and Maria Martelli.
Their career was off, thanks to the help of Cousin Brucie, a disc jockey at New York radio station WINS who gave airtime to the group’s first single - their version of "Over the Rainbow" in 1960. The only other chart hit for The Demensions was "My Foolish Heart" released in 1962 and peaked at #95 in early 1963.
Famous Song: My Foolish Heart
6. Lillian Leach & The Mellows
As the female lead of the Mellows, Lillian Leach, became the fourth member of the group in 1954. The original members were three teenage schoolmates from Morris High School in The Bronx, who included Johnny ‘Tiny’ Wilson, Harold Johnson and Norman ‘Polecat’ Brown, who met Lillian at a party and talked her into harmonizing with them.
The quartet had a striking sound and were signed to the Jay Dee label, where they released several singles in 1955 that include ‘How Sentimental Can I Be” and ‘Smoke From A Cigarette.’
Disbanding a few years later, their songs are well remembered as romantic classics.
Famous Song: Smoke From Your Cigarette
7. Larry Chance & The Earls
This Doo Wop group was one of many who could be found harmonizing on the street corners of The Bronx in the late 1950’s. In fact, Larry Chance and The Earls were discovered singing on the street corner in front of subway station and went on to enjoy international success, to this day, performing their songs from the Doo Wop era.
Original band members included Larry Chance, Bob Del Din, Eddie Harder, Larry Palombo and John Wray. Sadly, in 1961, Larry Palombo was lost in an army skydiving accident when his parachute failed to open during an exercise. Shortly after the release of their first record In 1961, "Life is But a Dream" Larry and The Earls performed with Murray the K, as well as on Dick Clark's American Bandstand show.
As Larry has been quoted, “Who would have ever thought that a bunch of kids from the streets of The Bronx, who loved to sing for the joy and love of it, our lives would have turned out the way they did.”
Famous Songs: Life is But a Dream, Remember Then
8. The Darvels
I wonder if anyone reading this article can guess where this Roosevelt High School band derived its name. Keep reading to find out! The band had its beginnings when Warren Gradus joined The Thunderbirds, a singing group from Roosevelt and became their lead singer. Along with Gregg Paravati, Richie Capala and Vinny Cea, the guys soon changed their name to the Darvels. They were joined by another band member, Mike Gervan.
With Gregg and Warren writing songs for the group, which included "I Lost My Baby"(Gregg) and "Gone" (Warren), they would record an accappella demo, leading them to re-record with music after getting the attention of a producer. Released in 1963, the two sides of their single included "I Lost My Baby" and "Gone". Oh, and the group’s name - it was derived from combining the words Dodge DART and CARVEL ice cream.
Famous Songs: I lost My Baby, Gone
9. The Excellents
For many in the Doo Wop era, it was not uncommon to have a hit or two and then not really be heard from again. This is true for The Excellents, a Bronx sextet, which originally went by the name the Premiers. Forming in 1960 the group was made up of brothers John and George Kuse, Denis Kestenbaum, Phil Sanchez, Joel Feldman, and Chuck Epstein,
Success came for The Excellents with a B-side song called “Coney Island Baby,” that ended up climbing into the Top 20 nationally in 1962. Their last official single, released in 1964 was “Sunday Kind of Love” by the original Excellents but appeared on Bobby Records under the group name the Excellons. "Coney Island Baby," has been acknowledged as a Doo Wop classic, leading to a recent touring version of the Excellents, now a quartet, and still featuring the lead vocals of original member John Kuse.
Famous Songs: Coney Island Baby, Sunday Kind of Love
10) The DeVaurs
Another Bronx girl Doo Wop group, The DeVaurs were four schoolmate singers who came togehter in 1958 with a mutual affection for The Chantels. The quartet included Estelle McEwan, Yvonne DeMunn, Paula Hutchinson and Brenda Carrow. With luck on their side, they won a local talent show, earning the chance to cut a record with the small Brooklyn label D-Tone.
Their first single, “Baby Doll” written by McEwan, with lead vocals by Hutchinson did not have much success with local radio, but, with a switch to the Moon label in 1959, The DeVaurs hit the Top 20 on local radio station WNJR with "Where Are You.”
Famous Song: Where are You
Of course, this is only a handful of the great Doo Wop singers and groups that came out of The Bronx. Others include Darnell & The Dreams (The Day Before Yesterday), Little Bobby Riviera & The Hemlocks (Cora Lee), The Dials (Young and Lovely), The Dreamers (Because of You), Robert & Johnny (We belong Together) and Norman Fox & The Rob Roys (Tell Me Why).
Stay tuned for more music stories that capture the essence of the Heart of The Bronx!
Till next time,
Elisa is a travel blogger and freelance writer. She is co-founder of TravelinCousins.com travel blog and writes a weekly column for ThisIsTheBronx.info.