…doo-wop-era songs that are more interesting than you remember.
The ’50s and early ’60s have something of a rep for harmonic simplicity. Ask anyone with half a guitar to “write you a ’50s song”, and you’ll get a slow I → vi → IV → V progression, probably pausing for a bridge that starts on the IV, only to return to I → vi → IV → V. Incidentally, the song will also have the words “you” and “love” in the chorus, but lyrical complexity is beyond the scope of this post.
This progression is so common that the Internetz just call it the “’50s progression” (also see Wikpedia’s List of songs containing the ’50s progression).
I’m not here to convince you that the ’50s and early ’60s were really a period of experimental jazz-prog. In fact, I pretty much agree that for ~15 years, chords were definitely almost as simple as Wikipedia would have you believe.
But I do think we’re throwing the II and the iv out with the… damnit, I really thought that metaphor was going to work. What I’m saying is there were a few songs that you probably think of as:
I → vi → IV → V
…that were actually more like:
I → vi → IV → V → something really interesting → I → vi → IV → V
This is similar to the general perception that all ’80s hair bands were only as good as Ratt and Warrant, but actually Guns n’ Roses is awesome and gets unfairly lumped in.
So this post, as per the title, is about “doo-wop-era songs that are more interesting than you remember”. Note it’s not just “interesting chords from the ’50s” (of which I’m sure there are a jillion), it’s songs you probably think of specifically as ’50s progression songs that are actually hiding harmonic good times beneath a thin veneer of I → vi → IV → V.
But first, let’s remind ourselves how this era earned this reputation, with an example of an absolutely vanilla I → vi → IV → V song.
Gene Chandler – Duke of Earl (1962)
[F]Duke, duke, duke, duke of [Dm]Earl, duke, duke, duke of [Bb]Earl, duke, duke, duke of [C]Earl, duke, duke, duke of...
Wow, that’s some ’50s progression, complete with syllables only appearing on downbeats and only three unique words, including “of”. Good times. Keep in mind, I like this song: it’s a great testament to what an outstanding vocal performance can do with absolutely nothing underneath it. But by and large this is how we remember this era. Even more wild: this song is from 1962, the end of the doo-wop era, when music was on the cusp of the psychedelic era, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Hendrix. Yet, even then, Duke of Earl was a #1 hit in all its ’50s progression glory.
But one fairly common digression from the norm was a slightly more adventurous bridge, often incorporating the II. If I asked you to name a few super-simple ’50s progression songs, you might well toss out “Blue Moon” in your top 5, but in fact there’s a legitimate non-diatonic II in the bridge:
The Marcels – Blue Moon (1961)
Blue [G]Moon, [Em] [C] you knew just [D]what I was [G]there for[Em], [C] you heard me [D]saying a [G]prayer for[Em] [C]someone I [D]really could [G]care for [C] [G] And then there [C]suddenly appeared be[G]fore me The only [C]one my arms will ever [G]hold I heard [C]somebody whisper, 'Please [G]adore me' And when I [A]looked, the moon had turned to [D]gold
And another song that uses a II to spice things up in the bridge, then heads back into I → vi → IV → V:
The Everly Brothers – All I Have to Do Is Dream (1958)
When [E]I feel [C#m]blue [A] in the [B]night And [E]I need [C#m]you [A] to hold me [B]tight When[E]ever I [C#m]want you, [A]all I have to [B]do is [E]Drea-[A]ee-[E]eam [E7] [A]I can make you mine, [G#m]taste your lips of wine [F#m]Anytime [B7] night or [E]day [E7] [A]Only trouble is, [G#m]gee whiz I'm [F#]dreamin' my life [B7]away I [E]need you [C#m]so [A] that I could [B]die...
Good times that the ii (F#m) and the II (F#) both appear in this bridge, about 3 seconds apart. Note I’m not giving anyone non-diatonic points for I7’s, though actually it’s not like there are a ton of ’50s progression songs loaded up with I7’s. So, fuck it, the Everly Brothers can have a bonus point for the I7. Actually Chet Atkins (who played guitar on this song) gets the bonus point, since it was probably a game-time decision on the guitar. I’m sure the Atkins Estate will be thrilled to receive said bonus point.
Going one step beyond the II-in-the-bridge, though possibly only in my imagination, is another canonical ’50s progression song:
The Penguins – Earth Angel (1955)
(writing in G, it's really around G#) Earth [G]angel, Earth [Em]angel [C] the one I a[D]dore [G]Love you for[Em]ever and [C6]ever [D]more [G]I'm just a [Em]fool a [C]fool in [D]love with [G]You [C6] [G] I [C]fell for [Cm]you [G]and I knew the [C]vision of your love loveli[G]ness I [C]hope and I pray [G]that some day I'll be the [A] vision of your hap-happiness[D] oh
I want to call out four awesome things about this canonical ’50s progression song:
- II in the bridge (OK, that’s not really awesome, it’s a low bar and it’s the third one on this post, but it’s something)
- There is absolutely no evidence for my claim that there’s a Cm (iv) on “fell for you“, but I’ll fight anyone who says it’s not there (unless you’re bigger than me) (which is everyone). I can’t put my finger on it, but I swear I’m perceiving an Eb there (so a Cm chord), though there’s no evidence for or against. It’s possible that I’m slightly obsessed with the iv chord, I suppose. Actually, fuck it, it’s my blog and I say it’s a Cm. That’s all the evidence I need.
- I love that every time there’s a C or an Am, it’s somewhere in between, and the ambiguity is entirely in the background vocals. If you take off your I → vi → IV → V hat and listen closely, it’s almost 50/50. I’m calling it C6 here, but it could just as easily be Am7, and that’s true (but slightly different) almost every time the IV comes up.
- Teaser: I have a whole post queued up about songs that keep the lyrics and melody from one verse or chorus to the next, but totally change up the vocal rhythm. It’s outside the scope of this post, but this song is a great example. Listen carefully to the two “I fell for you” lines (at 1:103 and 1:56) for an example; that line starts a total shift in accent that runs through the whole bridge.
So far all I’ve given you were mostly just I → vi → IV → V songs with a II in the bridge. Now I’ll move on to blowing your mind with a song you likely think of as a straight-up ’50s progression song that’s anything but. If I ask you to hum “Take Good Care of My Baby”, you’d very reasonably jump into the ’50s progression:
[F]Take good [Dm]care of my [Bb] ba[C]by [F]Please don't [Dm]ever make her [Bb]blue[C]
But take a closer look at what’s before and after this:
Bobby Vee – Take Good Care of My Baby (1961)
[F]My tears are [Dm]fallin' 'Cause you've [Bb]taken her a[C]way And [F]though it really [Faug]hurts me so There's [Bb]something that I've gotta [C]say [F]Take good [Dm]care of my [Bb]ba[C]by [F]Please don't [Dm]ever make her [Bb]blue[C] [F]Just tell her [F7]that you love her [Bb]Make sure you're [Bbm]thinking of her [F]In every[Dm]thing you say and [Bb]do [C]
That’s not a typo, there’s an augmented chord in this ’50s progression song. Who’s the Duke of Earl now? And, of course, no post at doctorofrock.com would be complete without me singing the praises of I → I7 → IV → iv. I’d even argue that the very last I → vi → IV → V at the end of the chorus was not the obvious thing to do; your ear is expecting a resolution to I.
Surely, you think I’m done with this song, but it’s actually a gold mine of “more interesting than you remember”, including quite a dramatic (without being melodramatic) key change:
Bobby Vee – Take Good Care of My Baby (1961) (key change)
[F]And if you [F7]should discover [Bb]That you don't [Bbm]really love her [F]Just send my [Dm]baby back [Bb]home [C]to [F]me [F]Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba [C#]Waahhhh... ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba [F#]Take good [D#m]care of my [B] ba[C#]by
I think I may even be oversimplifying in the ba ba’s; it’s quite busy harmonically during the key change.
The last example I’m going to give of a song you could easily lump into the big list of ’50s progression songs is not only among the most harmonically interesting of the bunch, but it’s literally a song about the ’50s progression, that starts with I → vi → IV → V but totally breaks the mold:
Barry Mann – Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp) (1961)
(Originally in B, writing in G) [G]Who put the bomp, in the [Em]bomp bah bomp bah bomp? [C]Who put the ram in the [D]rama lama ding dong? [G]Who put the bop in the [Em]bop shoo bop shoo bop? [C]Who put the dip in the [D]dip da dip da dip? [G]Who was that [B7]man? I'd [C]like to shake his [A/C#]hand. He [G]made my [Em]baby [C]fall in [D]love with [G]me. ([D]Yeah!)
Clearly the first thing that jumps out here is the super-cool turnaround at the end of the ’50s-progression-tastic verse: I → III → IV → II, with a nice ascending chromatic line there (the II appears as A/C#, so boom: B→C→C# in the bass). Right after that it’s back to I → vi → IV → V, but the last line in the chorus (“He made my baby…”) is a double-time I → vi → IV → V.
And in other news, that II (A/C#), followed by the double-time I → vi → IV → V, makes a cameo in the verse too:
[G]When my baby [Em]heard, [C]bomp bah bah bomp bah [D]bomp bah bomp bomp. [G]Every word went [Em]right into her [C]heart. [D] And [G]when she heard them [Em]singin' [C]Rama lama lama lama [A/C#]lama ding dong. [G]She [Em]said we'd [C]never [D]have to [G]part. [D]Soooo...
Last but not least, there’s a half-step key change at 1:31, on a ridiculous “yeah”. To its credit, the song is as self-mocking about the key change as it is about the lyrics. I dare to say this might be the first known instance of making fun of the truck-driver gear shift.
Also no discussion about this song would be complete without at least acknowledging the astonishing voiceover at the end:
Darlin', bomp bah bah bomp, bah bomp bah bomp bomp. And my honey... rama lama ding dong, forever. And when I say, dip da dip, da dip, da dip, dip dip, You know I mean it from the bottom of my boogity, boogity, boogity, boogity shoop.
I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether this is:
a. To be taken seriously
b. A total joke that they’re in on
c. A series of creepy sexual innuendos
Any way you hear it, it’s awesome, and way ahead of it’s time.
I’m going to close with just one “honorable mention”, a completely vanilla ’50s progression song, with absolutely nothing harmonically interesting, that on one hand exemplifies the genre, and on the other hand is the single weirdest song that got airplay during this entire era:
J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – Last Kiss (1964)
Hard to say what’s weirder here, the fact that it’s a song about accidentally killing your girlfriend (recorded in an era when popular sensibility wouldn’t allow Desi and Lucy to retire to the same bedroom) or the 1964 drum track that would embarrass the worst keyboard in 1984. It’s literally unclear what studio magic could have been used to create that awful drum sound in 1964. Awful drum tracks hadn’t been invented yet.
“A/C#” as “II/#4” – I’ve also notated my inversions by scale degrees, which makes more sense if I’m thinking in my more classical theory way. But writing chords themselves out, numbers always refer to “chord degree” i guess you could call it: so like a D7 in G major, its 7 is a C, not an F. It’s very infrequent I find a need to make the choice between scale degrees or chord degrees, which is why I haven’t settled on a standard way, but I’d have to lean more towards the number depending on the root of the chord itself, mainly because I think it communicates better in Pop Music. So yeah, what would II/3 do for ya?
All in all, you could also write II6 like we used to do in college, but that’s problematic since I don’t think any pop musician (including this one) is going to prefer the extra music theory know-how, not to mention extra superscripts (for second, third, and fourth inversions) needed to operate in figured bass…
Good point! II/#4 doesn’t make any sense, but it’s been so long since I had occasion to notate an inversion in scale degrees that I spaced. II/3 doesn’t help me either since the point is the C# in the ascending line, and also that would be the only point a notated inversion appears on this blog, and I’d confuse myself. Hmmm. I think I’ll go with “II”, and make a point in the text.
Yeah, actually, from a strunk and white perspective, probably “II-(1st inversion)” makes the most sense, whenever you’re not writing specifically for theory wonks… It’s worth the extra ink if it’s worth pointing out, which 1st inversions often are, inasmuch as they can truly sound different than their non inverted selves…