They joined the ancestors in 2022, but left behind the gifts of their music

Some people of a certain age grew up with the sound of doo-wop, while younger folks perhaps discovered doo-wop in movie soundtracks like the 1988 cult classic Dirty Dancing.

No matter how you heard it first, “In the Still of the Night” is one of the all-time classic doo-wop love songs.  

SongFacts states:

One of the most famous songs in doo-wop history, “In The Still Of The Nite” has a very unusual origin story. It was written by group member Fred Parris, who had joined the US Army. As a recruit, he travelled by train between Philadelphia and his home town of New Haven, and it was on these trips that he wrote the song. Soon after it was recorded, he shipped off for Japan, where he was stationed. When it became a hit, he watched from afar as a different permutation of The Five Satins was assembled to tour America – only two of the guys who recorded the song were part of this lineup. Parris wasn’t discharged until 1958; when he returned, he set up a new version of the group and hit the road.

The song was recorded in the basement of St. Bernadette Church in the group’s hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. They first tried recording the song in another New Haven building (on Whalley Avenue), but street noise degraded the recording. The church basement had great acoustics and was insulated from ambient noise, making it a perfect place to record.

The group was managed by Marty Kugell, who distributed their material on his own label, Standord Records (small operations like this were common at the time). His friend Vinny Mazzetta was an altar boy at the church, and Mazzetta convinced the pastor to let the group use the basement on a Sunday afternoon following a church service. They used the church piano along with drums, a guitar, a cello tuned low for the bass sound, and a saxophone, which Mazzetta played.

Here’s Parris and the Satins performing the hit, as seen in the 1959 film Sweet Beat.

When Parris passed in January, at the age of 85, Neil Genzlinger wrote Parris’ obituary for The New York Times.

Over the years Mr. Parris varied the story of his signature song a bit, but this was the gist of it: He had met the “girl of my dreams,” as he put it, at the Savin Rock amusement park in West Haven, Conn., in 1954, and by the next year they were engaged. On the train ride back to his Army base in Philadelphia after a particularly nice visit with her, he reminisced about their first night together and began thinking about lyrics and tunes.

“When I arrived at camp, I went straight to the day room,” he told Smithsonian magazine in 2004. “There was a piano there, and I started playing the chord in my head and the words in my heart.”

But soon he had to report for his shift. That’s when the song really came together.

“Before I realized it,” he said, “it was time to go to guard duty. It was a cold, black night, and the stars were twinkling.”

The result was a song that was originally titled “(I’ll Remember) In the Still of the Nite,” to distinguish it from Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night,” said Ralph M. Newman, an R&B historian who filled in some of the details of Mr. Parris’s life.

RELATED STORY: Remembering the doo-wop sounds that rang from every urban street corner

On the distaff side of doo-wop—the girl groups—we lost both Ronnie Spector of Ronettes fame and Rosa Lee Hawkins from the Dixie Cups.

Spector was born Veronica Bennett in 1943 in New York City.

Gloria Cooksey wrote her bio for Musician’s Guide.

As a young child, Spector loved to perform for her family. Little Frankie Lymon was her idol, and she strove to imitate his girlish falsetto, singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” persistently. By early adolescence she had taken to re-arranging the family’s living room furniture into an imaginary auditorium and standing on the coffee table for a stage, after school and whenever else she had the opportunity to be at home by herself. She sang in a group with her sister, Estelle Bennett, and various cousins. For a time they called themselves Ronnie and the Relatives, until eventually she established a routine with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra Talley Ross as the Rondettes–a combination of all three girls’ names. They played amateur shows at the Apollo Theater and as teenagers showed promise. They worked with a singing coach and by 1961 the three girls were singing locally at social functions and elsewhere. The trio renamed themselves the Ronettes and signed with Colpix Records that year. The Ronettes first release was a double-sided single, “I Want a Boy””What’s So Sweet about Sweet Sixteen.” A second double-sided single released that same year was called “I’m Gonna Quit While I’m Ahead””My Guiding Light.” Several singles followed in 1962, including an old favorite, “Silhouettes.”

In addition to recording for Colpix, the Ronettes continued to work locally. Eventually, through a case of mistaken identity combined with pluck, the girls secured a regular stint as dancers at New York City’s popular Peppermint Lounge. Although they were underage, they stuffed their brassieres with tissue in an attempt to look older and maneuvered their way discretely through the 46th Street club. Through a chance meeting with a popular New York disc jockey, Murray the K, they secured a job performing with his weekly rock and roll revue at the Brooklyn Fox Theater, and they appeared every evening after school on a local radio show. The early Ronettes recorded for Colpix with little success through 1962. By early 1963 the group determined to find another producer and called Phil Spector “cold,” without introduction. Phil Spector, who produced many of the greatest rock and roll hits of the 1960s, agreed to audition the Ronettes at Mirasound Studios. Already familiar with the girls’ dancing, he wanted to see and hear more.

Phil Spector recognized immediately that Ronnie Spector’s voice was a good match for his recording technique, called the “wall of sound,” an immensely popular special effect involving the vocal overdubbing of orchestral recordings. Wall of sound involved multiple voices singing in harmony and “exploding” through the elaborate orchestral track. Phil Spector employed the wall of sound to create some of the greatest hit records of the 1960s, including “Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide” by the Righteous Brothers. Upon hearing the Ronettes, he set to work and wrote songs explicitly for the trio to sing, and by the fall of 1963, the Ronettes’ signature hit, “Be My Baby,” was written, recorded, and released on Philles Records. Dick Clark picked up the song on his perennial American Bandstand, and he introduced the song as the “record of the century.” The song was immensely popular; the Ronettes became a sensation overnight, and their lifestyle approached fantasy level. 

The rest is history.

The day before Spector’s death, Rosa Lee Hawkins also departed this world.  


Jack Kramer wrote her New York Times obituary.

As Kramer notes, the Dixie Cups’ star rose quickly, and it rose high. Who hasn’t heard their biggest hit?

The Dixie Cups epitomized the harmonizing sound of the 1960s girl group. “Chapel of Love,” their debut single and most well-known song, quickly replaced the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” as No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1964. It was later heard on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War film, “Full Metal Jacket.”

Rosa Lee Hawkins was born on Oct. 23, 1945, in New Orleans to Hartzell Hawkins, a self-employed carpenter, and Lucille (Merette) Hawkins, a state worker who registered voters.

While in high school in 1963, Barbara brought Rosa along to sing with her and Joan Marie in a high school talent show. The trio initially called themselves the Meltones, only to discover later that the name had already been taken. Since they were from the land of Dixie, and “cups are cute,” Barbara said in an interview, they came up with the name Dixie Cups (playing on the name of the popular paper cup).

Enjoy this (rather awkward) June 1964 performance of “Chapel of Love.”

As YouTube channel Classic Hits (Stereo) notes: 

The Dixie Cups are the New Orleans trio of Joan Marie Johnson and her cousins, the sisters Barbara and Rosa Hawkins. A New Orleans impresario named Joe Jones brought them to New York with some other artists to audition for producers and music publishers. When Leiber and Stoller heard them, they had them record “Chapel Of Love,” which Ellie Greenwich taught them. The trio arranged it in the vocal style they had perfected, and everyone involved loved the result. Wardell Quezergue, who was from New Orleans and knew the girls, worked up the horn arrangement and they recorded it a few days later. This idyllic song about wedding joy was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who got married the year before they wrote it. Barry wrote the lyrics with marriage on his mind, then Greenwich worked out the chord progression on a piano in their New York City apartment.

For a deeper dive into thethe group’s struggles and successes, check out Chapel of Love: The Story of New Orleans Girl Group the Dixie Cupswritten by Rosa Hawkins and Steve Bergsman.

In 1963, sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson traveled from the segregated South to New York City under the auspices of their manager, former pop singer Joe Jones. With their wonderful harmonies, they were an immediate success. To this day, the Dixie Cups’ greatest hit, “Chapel of Love,” is considered one of the best songs of the past sixty years.

The Dixie Cups seemed to have the world on a string. Their songs were lively and popular, singing on such topics as love, romance, and Mardi Gras, including the classic “Iko Iko. ” Behind the stage curtain, however, their real-life story was one of cruel exploitation by their manager, who continued to harass the women long after they finally broke away from his thievery and assault. Of the three young women, no one suffered more than the youngest, Rosa Hawkins, who was barely out of high school when the New Orleans teens were discovered and relocated to New York City. At the peak of their success, Rosa was a naïve songstress entrapped in a world of abuse and manipulation.

RELATED STORY: Let’s hear it for the doo-wop girl groups: Their songs of love and heartbreak shaped a generation

Moving on to the blues, David William Kearney—known as “Guitar Shorty”—died April 20 at 87. 

Harrison Smith wrote Shorty’s obituary for The Washington Post.

He toured with Ray Charles, influenced Jimi Hendrix and dazzled audiences with his acrobatic showmanship

A touring musician from his teenage years, Guitar Shorty — born David William Kearney — played with musicians including Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Lou Rawls, Otis Rush and his mentor, Guitar Slim, whose flamboyant performances inspired him to attempt increasingly dangerous maneuvers onstage. “You have to have a little edge in this business,” he once told the Palm Beach Post, “and doing somersaults and flips are mine.”

As he told it, the first time he tried to flip during a concert he landed on his head. On his second attempt, he “hit the concrete so hard it kind of bounced me back up on my feet.” His horn section left the stage, apparently fearing he would kill himself if he continued. But after saying a short prayer, he tried once more, getting a running start and closing his eyes as he jumped into the air. “By accident, I landed on my feet,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Then I got a standing ovation.”

By 1978, his performances seemed to defy the laws of physics. Appearing on Chuck Barris’s quirky TV talent contest, “The Gong Show,” that year, he won first prize after balancing on his head and playing “They Call Me Guitar Shorty.” (He stood about 5-foot-10, and was nicknamed by a Florida club promoter because of his size and youth while playing with an 18-piece band as a teen.)

This nearly 17-minute jam is from 2019. Guitar Shorty is 83!

Guitar Shorty could and did dazzle crowds well into his 80s, even if he wasn’t doing flips anymore.

As noted above, we lost the amazing Lamont Dozier of Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland fame at the beginning of 2022. The year’s end then brought us the loss of Thom Bell, one of the architects of the “Philly Soul” sound. He was 79. 

As Bill Friskics-Warren wrote in Bell’s obituary for The New York Times:

Along with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Mr. Bell was a member of the songwriting and production team — the Mighty Three, as they were called (and as they branded their publishing company) — that gave birth to what became known as the Sound of Philadelphia. Renowned for its groove-rich bass lines, cascading string choruses and gospel-steeped vocal arrangements, the Sound of Philadelphia rivaled the music being made by the Motown and Stax labels in popularity and influence.

A classically trained pianist, Mr. Bell brought an uptown sophistication and melodic inventiveness to Top 10 pop hits like the Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You)” (1968) and the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” (1972). He was particularly adept as an arranger: On records like “Delfonics Theme (How Could You),” strings, horns and timpani build, like waves crashing on a beach, to stirring emotional effect.

He also wrote the arrangement for the O’Jays’ propulsive Afro-Latin tour de force, “Back Stabbers,” a No. 3 pop hit in 1972.

Bob Stanley wrote this tribute for The Guardian.

He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but his parents moved to Philadelphia when he was very young. His upbringing was solidly middle-class and he was playing piano from the age of four. By the time Bell was nine he could also play drums and flugelhorn. Rock’n’roll largely passed him by; instead, he idolised Burt Bacharach and the writer and arranger Teddy Randazzo. The local Cameo-Parkway label gave Bell his first employment as an arranger in 1965, and in no time his sound became instantly recognisable. “Nobody else is in my brain but me,” he told me. “Which is why some of the things I think about are crazy – I hear oboes and bassoons. An arranger told me: ‘Thom Bell, Black people don’t listen to that.’ I said: Why limit yourself to Black people? I make music for people. I wouldn’t care if they had a horn in their head.”

When Bell was recording the US No 1 single Then Came You in 1974, he told the Spinners’ Philippé Wynne to think of his singing partner Dionne Warwick as “a feather. I want you to sing so she floats around you and you float around her.” Johnny Mathis he regarded as a “gladiator”. In interviews he would invent his own language to make a point, using words like “enthusiated”. These marked him out as someone special – most songwriters and arrangers really don’t think this way. He also believed the only two subjects worth writing about were love and escape.

Philly group the Delfonics were the first to allow Bell to boss their sound, and the results were adventurous singles like La La Means I Love You, a Top Five US hit in 1968 that was so ahead of its time it didn’t chart in Britain for another four years and still sounded special. Bell began to work with the Stylistics and then, in 1972, the Spinners, creating even bigger hits. Throughout these years, Bell kept a very close-knit team around him. The lyricist he worked with the most was Linda Creed, who he always referred to simply as “Creed”. They worked together for nine years, creating classics such as the Stylistics’ You Are Everything and the Spinners’ I’ll Be Around. When Creed died of cancer in 1986 at the age of 37, Bell was at her side.

Here’s a sample of the Stylistics performing “Betcha by Golly, Wow” on Soul Train.

Finally, 2022 saw the loss of Irene Cara, who died Thanksgiving weekend at age 63. Cara was a Black Puerto Rican-Cuban from the Bronx whose career had a special meaning for me, and all of my fellow alumni New York’s High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts). 

Cara immortalized our school in the movie Fame.

Cara was born in March 1959 in the Bronx to Gaspar Cara and Louise Escalera. Judith A. Moose wrote about her early history in this IMDB mini-bio.

Her professional career began on Spanish-language television singing and dancing before performing on shows including ‘The Original Amateur Hour’, ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’, and ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson. Her talent was also showcased On and Off Broadway in various productions including ‘Ain’t Misbehavin”, the Obie Award-winning musical ‘The Me Nobody Knows’, ‘Maggie Flynn’ starring Shirley Jones and Tony Award-nominated actor Jack Cassidy, and ‘Via Galactica’ opposite Raul Julia.
Having performed on the stage, the next natural progression seemed to be series television. She would find a home on the daytime drama ‘Love of Life’ and the educational series ‘The Electric Company’ where she participated as a member of the group ‘The Short Circus’, teaching children about grammar through music. ‘The Electric Company’s’ cast was made up of veteran actors Bill Cosby, Rita Moreno, and Morgan Freeman.

Continuing the pursuit of excellence, Irene recorded her first Spanish-language album at the age of eight and released an English-speaking holiday album shortly thereafter. Her career already blossoming, she would receive the honor of becoming the youngest member to perform in an all-star concert tribute for the legendary Duke Ellington. Held at Madison Square Garden, Irene performed along with music greats Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Roberta Flack.                                            

Here’s a very tiny Cara performing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in 1967.

But it was her role as Coco Hernandez in Fame that catapulted Cara to stardom, and Oscars history. Her website biography notes that Cara became …

… the only performer ever to sing two Academy Award nominated songs, “Fame” and “Out There On My Own” in one evening. It would be “Fame” that would go on to win the coveted award that year. Fame’s impact, provided largely by Ms. Cara, brought her 1980 Grammy nominations for “Best New Female Artist” and “Best New Pop Artist,” as well as a Golden Globe nomination for “Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical.” Billboard Magazine named Irene “Top New Single Artist,” while Cashbox awarded her both “Most Promising Female Vocalist.”

Her next major super hit was “Flashdance … What a Feeling,” from the film Flashdance. Here, Cara performs the hit in 1983.

Bethonie Butler wrote about Cara’s impact on artists of color for The Washington Post.

Cara was proud of her multicultural background, which was evoked in a number of the roles she took, including “Roots: The Next Generations” and “For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story.” Before “Fame,” she played the rising starlet at the center of “Sparkle,” which became a Black cult classic, and starred in “Aaron Loves Angela,” Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1975 film about a Puerto Rican girl who falls in love with an African American basketball player. Following Cara’s death, actress Kim Fields cited the film as the first time she saw “people of color in a love story.”

When Jet magazine asked Cara in 1981 whether she related more to her Black or Latino ancestry, she offered a fresh, beyond-her-years perspective. “We have a tendency in this country that when we say Black it automatically means Black Americans. But that’s a big mistake, and that keeps us divided,” she said. “There are Blacks all over this entire world.”

With every good wish to my editor for 2023, I’ll close here, but please join me for even more music from artists who passed in 2022 in the comments. (Editor’s note: Thanks and back at you!) 

I wish you all a happy new year as we start 2023, and hope you made fond musical memories from 2022.

May those artists who joined the ancestors last year “never be forgot.”

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