The dogged piano triplets, rudimentary four-chord harmonic structure, goofy woh-woh backing vocals and the muffled quality of¬†a¬†garage recording were typical of early doo-wop music when The Penguins’ ‘Earth Angel (Will¬†You Be Mine)‘¬†appeared in 1954. But perhaps the most distinctive feature of¬†a¬†record that sold more than 1m copies and became a classic of its genre was the pleading tenor voice of¬†Cleve Duncan, who has died aged 77 after keeping the group going in various guises for more than half a century.
As was so often the case with black vocal groups of their generation, the¬†Penguins received scant recompense for creating their miniature masterpiece. When gold discs were handed out two years after its release, the awards were accepted by the boss of their label and¬†by a record distributor whose influence had been brought to bear on radio disc-jockeys. Duncan and his fellow Penguins were not even invited to the ceremony.
The group was formed by Duncan and Curtis Williams, who had been classmates at Fremont high school in¬†Los Angeles. By the time they met again, at a talent show in 1953, Williams¬†was a member of the popular Hollywood Flames, but was on the brink of being expelled from the group. When¬†he and Duncan decided to form a new quartet, adding Dexter Tisby ‚Äď another former pupil of Fremont High ‚Äď and Bruce Tate to complete the lineup, Williams brought with him the outline of a new song.
Earth Angel really was recorded in a garage, one owned by a relative of Duncan who had created his own studio. A successful audition for Dootsie Williams, the proprietor of a local record store and the owner of the Dootone label, had won them a contract early in¬†1954. After an initial release in May had failed to make an impact, a second disc, coupling ‘Earth Angel’ with ‘Hey Senorita’, another of Curtis Williams’s songs, appeared in September.
At first it was Hey Senorita, a lively Latin-style dance tune, that received airplay. But the following month, local DJs started to play the gentle ballad on¬†the flipside, in which Duncan sang the verses while Tisby took the lead on¬†the bridge passage. By the end of¬†the¬†year, ‘Earth Angel’ was climbing the national hit parade, reaching No¬†1 in the R&B listings and No 8 in the pop charts, five places behind¬†a swiftly executed cover version¬†by a white group from Canada, the Crew Cuts.
Unhappy with Dootsie Williams’s reluctance to pay them what they believed they were due, the group turned to Buck Ram, the manager of¬†the¬†Platters, who took them away from Dootone and signed both his groups to Mercury Records, a¬†major label based in New York. The¬†relationship turned sour, however, when the Penguins failed to emulate the success of their first hit while the Platters soared into the charts with Only¬†You and The Great Pretender.
‘Earth Angel’ was enough to make the Penguins a popular live attraction in nightclubs and on national package tours. In 1955 they performed at the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas, a black-run casino-hotel that would soon be closed down by the authorities when it appeared to be attracting too much custom away from the mob-run hotels on the Strip. The following year they starred at the gala reopening of¬†Small’s Paradise nightclub, in Harlem, in¬†front of New York’s music business royalty, and at Alan Freed’s Labor Day show at¬†the Brooklyn Paramount, on a¬†bill that¬†included Fats Domino, the Teenagers, the Cleftones, the Harptones and the Moonglows.
The incorporation of a snatch of ‘Earth Ange’l in Flying Saucer, a 1956 novelty hit by Buchanan and Goodman, gave the song fresh impetus, as did its inclusion in the first volume of what became a long-lived series of ‘Oldies But Goodies’ LPs released on the DJ Art Laboe’s Original Sound label, but its copyright became the subject of legal dispute. The singer and songwriter Jesse Belvin, whose 1953 hit ‘Dream Girl’¬†(as Marvin and Johnny) had provided Curtis Williams with his template, claimed authorship and won a court action, but then mysteriously signed over the rights to Dootsie Williams.
The credits are now shared by Curtis Williams, Belvin ‚Äď who died in a car crash in 1960 ‚Äď and Gaynel Hodge, a¬†former Hollywood Flame and¬†later a co-founder of the Platters, but a¬†definitive account of the song’s origins now lies beyond recall.
As further releases ‚Äď for Mercury, Sun State and Dootone again ‚Äď failed to¬†revive the Penguins’ recording career and the early members of the group drifted away to join or form other groups, Duncan recruited new members and continued to perform. In 1963 he¬†recorded one more classic under the¬†group’s name ‚Äď ‘Memories Of El Monte’¬†written by Frank Zappa and Ray Collins. Based on the chords of ‘Earth Angel’, the¬†song recalls the celebrated rock’n’roll dances at¬†El¬†Monte¬†Legion Stadium in the San¬†Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, at which teenagers of¬†all¬†ethnic backgrounds could gather, out of reach of the restrictive bylaws that governed their nocturnal activities inside the city limits. Duncan’s¬†plaintive vocal pays tribute to such contemporaries as the Shields, Tony Allen and the Champs, the Heartbeats, the Medallions and Marvin and Johnny in a song that forms a charming elegy for a bygone era of¬†innocent pleasure.
‚ÄĘ Cleve (Cleveland) Duncan, singer, born 23 July 1935; died 6th November 2012