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Cleve Duncan, R.I.P.: “Earth Angel” shall forever live on. November 22, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Cleve Duncan, second from the left, was the lead tenor on the Penguins when they recorded “Earth Angel” In 1954, a hit for the ages.

Cleve Duncan, the tenor vocalist who sang the lyrics to the immortal doo-wop hit “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, died earlier this month at age 78.  Their huge hit, which to this day has sold 10 Million copies, was recorded in June of 1954 (released later un September of that year) and peaked at No. 1 on the R&B charts at the beginning of 1955.  Do the math, and that means that Duncan was only 20 years old when he sang/recorded one for the ages.  The New York Times has an excellent obituary/tribute piece on Duncan.  Anybody familiar with the well-known film “Back to the Future” would be apt to recall that the band playing at the high school dance sang that song during one of the pivotal scenes of the movie, demonstrating the song’s incredible popularity the year most of the picture took place (1955) as well as the previous year.

A recent copy of the 1954/1955 hit “Earth Angel.” The look of the independent, black-owned label did not change in over 30 years. The label’s original address was 9514 S. Central Avenue in Los Angeles. (from author’s collection)

The song itself is a reminder that it does not necessarily take a gigantic production with sophisticated equipment to have a huge hit.  The only instrumentation was a piano, a stand-up, acoustic bass, and drums.  Some of the drums covered with pillows so that when struck, their sound would not overwhelm the vocalists.  To top it all off, the song was recorded in a garage (!).  More interesting history of the song and of others can be found on this great site.

The strength of the record is the sincerity of Duncan’s singing.  That sincerity is what touched the nerve of the buying public 58 years ago, and has continued to do so for generations since.  The irony is that it was initially the “B” side of the single, with “Hey Senorita,” the “A” side (not a bad recording in and of itself).  But DJ’s soon flipped the record over and treated “Earth Angel” as the “A” side.

In a little bit of doo-wop/Oldies trivia, the Penguins started off as four students from Fremont High School in Los Angeles, and when they formed as a group, they first called themselves the Flywheels.  But they re-named their group the Penguins after the mascot on a pack of Kool cigarettes, demonstrating, if nothing else, that certain stereotypes are indeed based on truths.

But that aside, Duncan himself thought that the song would have long-term staying power in our national memory.  “I never get tired of singing it,” he said, “as long as people never get tired of hearing it.”

Addendum, 12-01-12:

Given that it is now the Christmas season, it is more than behooving to mention that the Penguins, Duncan included, recorded a fantastic d0o-wop Christmas record on the Mercury label in 1955.  Enjoy!

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