by Becca Jennings
Its roots were simple: Acappella singing, tight, four-part harmonies, and straightforward lyrics — sometimes with a few non-sensible made-up words like “dip dip dip and sha-boom.”
Unchained Melodies celebrates the great harmony groups of the 20th century — an era of music where voices sounded like finely tuned instruments. Where there are limited resources there is often creative ingenuity. Without musical instruments of their own, singers developed a brand new musical style using vocals to imitate the instruments they didn’t have. Who needs a bass when you have lyrics like “bom a bom bom?” And a guitar could easily be replaced with a sound like “shang-a-lang.”
For those who lived through the doo-wop decades, these smooth sounds might conjure memories of first romances, runs to the candy store, and dancing in the school gym at the sock hop. Featuring hits from groups like The Drifters and The Platters, Unchained Melodies will transport you back to those nostalgic times of street corner symphonies and through the swingin’ sounds of the ’50s and ’60s that soon followed.
Emerging from these doo-wop arrangements came the sounds of Motown and pop music, taking tight harmony a step further with groups like The Temptations, The Four Seasons, and the Beach Boys. The cast of Unchained Melodies brings these timeless tracks to life with songs like “Get Ready,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “God Only Knows.”
Since the Cabaret’s opening in early October, audiences have raved about the show calling it “outstanding,” “full of energy,” and “one of the best.” Linda H. said, “I loved it and I bought more tickets!” Florence L. shared, “I didn’t want it to end.”
“Along with nostalgia, it’s the flexibility of these performers that make the show,” added FST Associate Artist and Director Catherine Randazzo, “– a vocal Olympics, if you will.”
“These are deceptively simple songs,” added second tenor Nick Anastasia. “But there’s a warmth to this sound that’s missing from music nowadays, and that sound definitely takes a lot of focus and control in blending our four radically different voice types. But that’s where the fun lies in this show as well!”
These early harmony groups didn’t just blend voices — they also blended cultures. First developed by African American youth, the musical style was quickly adopted by all-white groups, Italian-American groups, and some groups were even racially mixed. Like its artists, the music also attracted an ethnically diverse fan base.
“From the beginning, the heart of the show was built on celebrating the diversity that made this music so unforgettable, and was an essential element in the casting,” said Rebecca Hopkins, Managing Director and Lead Developer of the show. “The roots of doo-wop go back to jazz, swing, and gospel and the early African-American R&B groups like the Ink Spots or the Mills Brothers. It ushered in the age of Rock & Roll even before the boys from Sun Records in Memphis. The simplicity of vocal harmonizing, which didn’t require electricity, more or less instruments, meant that groups could form and be discovered on sidewalks and subway platforms. It became a reflection of the urban youth and diversity. In connecting this music to today, our cities are even more diverse.”
Over the years, the sound has evolved, influencing the woven harmonies that would become signature styles for groups like The Beatles and Queen. Today, the bass notes of doo-wop can be found beneath computer-generated sounds in music by artists like Bruno Mars (“Uptown Funk”), One Direction (“Story of My Life”), and Meghan Trainor (“All About That Bass”).
For American Radio Producer and legendary disc jockey Bruce Morrow, who’s been known as Cousin Brucie to his fans over the decades, today’s popular music has a lot in common with doo-wop harmonies. “Both hip-hop and doo-wop are the music of the streets,” said Morrow. “But the streets have changed.”
From under the street lamps, and into the spotlight, male harmony groups of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s redefined music-making in a timeless way. We invite you to take a trip back in time to those golden years. You might even find yourself singing along!
Unchained Melodies is now playing in FST’s Court Cabaret. Subscriptions and single tickets are available online or through the FST Box Office at 941.366.9000.