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Doo-wop, rock and roll, hot rods, and automotive-inspired juvenile delinquency of the Fifties

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” got my blood boiling and ready to drag race someone. Photo courtesy Jalopy Journal.

“Great Googamooga, Shoogamooga… Hey there, all you Mommy-Os and Daddy-Os, welcome aboard the Big ‘Rocket Ship’ Show. It’s your engineer, Jocko, your Ace from Outer Space, way up here in the stratosphere… we gonna holler loud and clear.” -Jocko Henderson

Jocko.

It was around midnight and Dad cringed as he watched me pull into the driveway, blue smoke billowing from my ’51 Mercury’s dual tailpipes and radio turned up to 50,000 decibels.

“Turn down that radio… You’ll wake the neighbors and the dead!” he ordered.

I knew he hated what he heard, a mix of doo-wop rock-and-roll—which he likened to the “screaming meemies” (nervous hysteria)—and a black disc jockey who yelled in strange-sounding, almost-incoherent sentences that I savored.

“Eee-tiddly-ock. This is the jock. And I’m back on the scene with the record machine, saying ooh-pop-a-doo, how do you do…?”

“That’s Jocko, Dad, and he’s cool,” I countered, much to my father’s consternation.

He didn’t like my other favorite DJ, “Murray the K” (Kaufman), who broadcast his “Swingin’ Soiree” on New York City’s WINS/1010, either. In fact, anything to do with doo-wop resulted in scowls, head shaking, and well-reasoned lectures on “low moral standards” (“Yakety-Yak,” The Coasters). Maybe that’s why I liked doo-wop so much.

Or maybe it was because the simple, rhythm-and-blues music, which stressed vocal harmony—high-pitched tenors and deep basses—over instrumentation, touched my soul. It also contributed to my delinquency behind the wheel.

Blame it on “Sh-Boom”
“Sh…Boom, Sh…Boom…e-yad-da-da-da-da-da-da…!” blared from the 1954 Chrysler New Yorker convertible’s radio as we sped, top down, over New Jersey’s Raritan River bridge—seagulls flying above and wind blowing the full head of hair I once had—on the way to Point Pleasant Beach.

My buddy and I, sitting in the back, were guests of a couple from our church. The young man at the wheel was driving his daddy’s supercar with Hemi V-8 and leather seats. It was cool… and I was a very excited 10-year-old listening to my first doo-wop song.

New that year, the song—sung by the Crew-Cuts—was one of the first doo-wop/rock-and-roll hits to reach the top of not just the rhythm-and-blues charts but the pop charts. I couldn’t stop singing it… and even today my senior brain associates it with cars and hot rods.

After that, I had many doo-wop favorites… the Platters’ “Only You” and “Great Pretender,” Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,” and the Monotone’s “Book of Love,” among others.

It may have been the “Book of Love” that pushed me to buy my first car, a ’51 Mercury, in 1960. Jocks seemed to attract all the girls… and so did guys driving sexy cars. Not being a jock, the solution was obvious. I needed a car like the one James Dean drove in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause.

The first girl I dated after buying the Merc, a cute 16-year-old with a ponytail, wasn’t thrilled with my car.
“What smells?” she asked, holding her nose. “Is it you or the car?”

It probably was a little of both. The car reeked of burned oil from bad rings, gasoline from a leaky carb, and carbon monoxide from “holy” mufflers. My old sneakers in the back, which had the olfactory patina of fetid swamp water, added to the mix.

Turning on the radio, it was Dion and the Belmonts singing “Teenager In Love” that saved my love life. Forgetting the foul odors, she liked the song and other doo-wop hits by Italian-American groups—and there were many to choose from such as the Four Seasons, Del Satins, Chimes, Elegants, Mystics, and others that dominated the airwaves.

The doo-wop hit “Book of Love” may have encouraged me to buy my first car, a ’51 Mercury dressed up to look like James Dean’s ride in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Would it attract girls? Photo by the author.

At the (car)hop with Frankie Valli
She wasn’t impressed with my “radio story,” however. Her eyeballs rolled when I related how hard it was to locate and install the vacuum-tube beast sitting prominently in the center of the dashboard.

It took an hour’s search in a junkyard to find it in a derelict Mercury, I explained. Looking for sympathy, I told her it cost $10 and several bloody knuckles, as well as a stiff neck from being upside down under the dash, to install it (“I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” The Silhouettes).

Proudly, I bragged about creating “stereophonic sound” by connecting it to a rear-mounted speaker purloined from a ’50s-era Cadillac.

But all she did was complain about static created by the engine, as well as speaker vibrations that made the metal dash buzz annoyingly. I liked how loud the rear speaker was… but she hated that it hissed and cut out when doo-wop tenors screeched high notes (“Devil or Angel,” The Clovers).

When it came to high notes, everyone at the Adventure Car Hop on Rt. 22 in Union, New Jersey, favored the high-pitched, shrill voice of Frankie Valli, lead singer of the doo-woppers known as the Four Seasons. Hot rods with radios even louder than engines blasted “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Candy Girl” from open windows.

Valli, who grew up in Newark, which was only a few miles from my home, was my favorite. His powerful falsetto aroused aggressive primal behaviors and stoked desires to either “make out” or drag race someone.

“Make out” feelings were encouraged by doo-wop groups such as the Crests (“16 Candles”), Diamonds (“Little Darlin’”), Skyliners (“Since I Don’t Have You”), Del Vikings (“Come Go With Me”), Impalas (“I Ran All The Way Home”), and many others.

Doo-wop singers who incited me to drag race sang about fast cars (and sometimes fast girls). Even today, my blood boils when I hear Chuck Berry sing “Maybellene”…or Charley Ryan do “Hotrod Lincoln”… or the Beach Boys scream “Little Deuce Coupe”… or the Delta Cats belt out “Rocket 88.”

Doo-Wopping and Trouble
I was “The Great Pretender” the night I drove three buddies in my ’55 Buick from New Jersey, where the drinking age was 21, into New York City, where one could drink at 18. It was the first time I drove into the city, and I felt like a “big man.” We crossed the George Washington Bridge and found a bar on a seedy Hudson River dock (“Buick ’59,” The Medallions).

Starting back after midnight, I stopped at the bridge tollbooth and searched for a quarter. Drilling through pockets, no one could find more than 15 cents. We were broke, having spent all our money on beer. The attendant told me to “turn around and get more money.”

Doing as ordered, I drove around the docks until we spotted a wino. I stopped and asked him, timidly, “Buddy, can you spare a dime? We spent all our money and can’t pay the toll.”

He laughed and said, “You’re driving a big Buick and you can’t pay the toll? I don’t know whether to believe you, but here’s a dime.” He flipped me the coin, I thanked him and off we drove to New Jersey. Good thing I didn’t run out of gas.

Seems to me “There’s A Moon Out Tonight” played loudly on my ’56 Plymouth’s radio the night three girls and two boys accompanied me to “Garbage Beach,” as we called it, a deserted stretch of moonlit sand (“Little Star,” The Elegants) along the New Jersey coastline. You had to be careful where you spread your blanket at night because sand was littered with broken glass, tin cans, and other sharp items.

Hours of submarine race watching later, our high-speed race home was interrupted by a “bubble-top” in the tiny shore town of Mantoloking.

“Quick, give me your Sen-Sen!” I yelled, and a friend passed me a container filled with little white pellets designed to improve one’s breath. I poured all the pellets—about 25 of them—down my throat and prayed they would mask my alcohol-saturated vocal emanations.

“You were driving mighty fast, boy!” an officer yelled while shining a flashlight in my face. “You been drinking?”

“What makes you think that, sir?” I responded, my Sen-Sen breath smelling like I had swallowed a bottle of mouthwash.

Just then, I noticed a few pellets were stuck in my mouth. As I spoke, they suddenly jettisoned at high velocity directly on his shirt. This distracted him as they rolled down his chest. Guess I was lucky because he didn’t give me a ticket.

“This is a warning, boy, don’t come back and speed,” he said, wiping away spit and pellets. I gratefully apologized and quickly drove away.

Doo-wop music and drag racing got me into serious trouble as the summer wore on.

I was proud my Plymouth had a powerful V-8 engine. The car looked fast (“Speedoo,” The Cadillacs) and my car and I were often challenged at the Adventure Car Hop. A kid driving a 1959 Volvo—the model that resembled a ’42 Ford—wanted to race. Blatting wonderful V-8 pulses through dual mufflers, the high-finned Plymouth dwarfed the diminutive Volvo. I was confident my American “muscle” could beat the Swedish car.

We lined up our cars at a highway turnaround while companions shouted encouragement. A horn blasted, and off we shot into the darkness.

I was winning. But a flashing red light somewhere in the rearview mirror’s distant view gave me pause. As I slowed, the Volvo streaked ahead…with a police car in hot pursuit. Relieved that my opponent, not I, was being chased, I quickly pulled through another turnaround and headed in the opposite direction.

“He’s coming after you!” someone yelled (“You Can’t Catch Me,” Chuck Berry).

Not wanting to be caught and thinking I was clever, I pulled into a parking lot and hid between trucks. Before I could breathe a sigh of relief, however, the police car was directly behind me.

“Out of the car and hands on the roof!” an officer bellowed. They didn’t have breathalyzer tests in those days. But the officer knew I had been drinking… even Sen-Sen couldn’t mask the odor.

I received a speeding ticket and eventually went to court with Dad. He never criticized or scolded me, and was quiet as we drove to the courthouse.

“What should I tell the judge?” I asked.

“Tell the truth,” he answered.

The hearing ended with the judge admonishing me for speeding. My fine: $15 and a two-month suspended license. Looking back, I was lucky to avoid a more serious fine… and possibly an accident. Perhaps my “Earth Angel” (The Penguins) was looking after me.

No more doo-wopping and hot rodding for this young man that summer (“Charlie Brown,” The Coasters).