HISPANIC CONTRIBUTION TO DOO-WOP
The contribution that Hispanics made to the vocal group harmony scene is widely underestimated and misunderstood. There are few, if any books on Hispanic contribution to rock n roll, let alone vocal group history. In fact, there is no publication on Hispanic involvement in the vocal group scene. Perhaps the reason for this is the fact that many Hispanics were in a unique position to play the role as “crossover” in vocal groups. Hispanics were in a cross hair position to straddle the fence on both sides of the racial-ethnic ethos; the reason for this is quite obvious.
The Hispanic racial composition played a major role in the development of group singing. The Hispanic racial-type varies from blonde hair with blues eyes to black and everything in-between. Because of this make up, Latinos were comfortable and at home with white ethnic groups as well as black. The term Hispanic or Latino used here, is used with a broad general stroke that includes all peoples whose roots came from the Iberian peninsular, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
In the early development of the street corner sound, especially on the Eastern Coast of the United States during the 1950s, Hispanics primarily Puerto Ricans, were the main vocalists found singing with black and white ethnic groups. They were involved in many of the popular vocal groups. The Crests, featuring Johnny Maestro included Hispanics, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Tune Weavers, Five Discs, Vocaleers, and the Wrens had members who were Latinos. Some groups like the Claremont's featuring Vince Castro, and the Four Haven Knights had Hispanic members. A number of groups that came later like the Excellents, Valrays, Devotions, and others all played a pivotal role in shaping the group sound. On the West Coast the Jaguars, one of the very first UN groups or interracial groups had Manny Chavez.
Because of the unique position of being able to crossover, some were found in all white groups and identified as white, usually Italian, like the Mystics. Some were associated with black groups like Juan Gutierrez of the Diablo’s, and others were viewed as predominantly Latino, like the Eternals. Depending in which area or community Hispanics lived in; some took on the cultural characteristic of the prominent race or ethnic group within the community.
Thus you find, some Hispanics gravitating to black culture, Italian, Jewish or whatever the prominent culture was within their community. Regardless of whom they sang and performed with, the Hispanic vocalist contribution to the vocal group harmony scene is significant but understated. Some were involved in managing, recruiting and writing like Raul Cita the Harptones, Cliff Martinez of the Crows, Esther Navarro, the Cadillac’s, and Cecilio Rodriquez of the Imperials.
Taken as a whole, the part that they played in the vocal group picture is significant, because they had a part in uniting and building bridges of understanding along racial and ethnic borders that existed during the 1950s and early 60s. Hispanics played a role in creating a bridge between the racial groups and helped close the gap between the races. The camaraderie among group members and their friendship spilled over into their performances and had a significant impact on the audience. For this reason, Hispanics helped dispel the concept among white bigots, that rock n roll was purely a decadent form of black music. Moreover, many Latinos played a role in the overall development of rock n roll in general.
While the 1950s saw the participation of urban Hispanics in the vocal group arena, the early 1960s was an explosion of Latino talent and participation. This was due in part to the East Coast phenomenon that took place along the corridor that stretched from Boston to Philadelphia. This corridor of sound is called the a cappella corridor. Warner writes: “From 1962 through approximately 1966, an East Coast phenomenon occurred in which harmony lovers were brought in contact with hundreds of a cappella vocal groups and their recordings created just for that audience." 1
The 1960s brought many urban teenagers of all classes, the opportunity to actually record what they have been doing on the street corners, bathrooms, and hallways. For the first time teenagers were able to sing and record their own version of songs that their favorite groups recorded. All of these teenagers were continuing and emulating the R&B group sound of the 1950s, which had taken a beating as a result of the musical and social changes that was taking place.
This opportunity opened the gates for Hispanics not only to be involved in groups that were multiracial, but also to develop and insert their own unique ethnic vocal group style. During the a cappella era, a number of solid groups with Hispanic members made a significant contribution; among them were the Five Jades, Chessmen, Zirkons, Concepts, El Sierros, and Majestics just to name a few. They were all searching for an urban sound that expressed the unusual mixture and infusion of cultures encountered in daily life in Jersey City-New York area. The a cappella era of the 1960s introduced these pioneers and preservers of the group sound; what followed was a movement to record, capture and continue the R&B group sound of the 1950s.The part that Hispanics played in forming groups, helped paved the way in building bridges of understanding between the races. This is one of the major collective contributions that Hispanics made, not only to vocal group history but also to rock n roll in general.
Abraham J. Santiago
1 American Singing Groups: A History 1940-1990
Jay Warner- Billboard Book 1992-Pg. 322
© 2006 All rights reserved
Abraham J. Santiago is the co-author with Steven J. Dunham of the popular book: Acappella Street Corner Vocal Groups: A Brief History And Discography Of 1960s Singing Groups
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