Hispanic contribution to Doo-Wop

The contribution that Hispanics made to the vocal group harmony scene is widely underestimated and misunderstood. There are few, if any, books on the Hispanic contribution to rock and roll, let alone the history of vocal groups. In fact, there is no publication on Hispanic participation in the vocal group scene. Perhaps the reason for this is the fact that many Hispanics were in a unique position to play the “crossover” role in vocal groups. Hispanics were in a cross position to cross the fence on both sides of the racial-ethnic ethos; the reason for this is quite obvious.

Hispanic racial makeup played an important role in the development of group singing. The Hispanic racial type ranges from blonde hair with blue eyes to black and everything in between. Because of this composition, Latinos felt comfortable and at home with black and white ethnic groups. The term Hispanic or Latin used here, is used with a broad general outline that includes all the peoples whose roots came from the Iberian Peninsula, the Caribbean and Latin America.

In the early development of the street corner sound, especially on the East Coast of the United States during the 1950s, Hispanics, primarily Puerto Ricans, were the main vocalists singing with black and white ethnic groups. They were involved in many of the popular vocal groups. The Crests, with Johnny Maestro, included Hispanics, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Tune Weavers, Five Discs, Vocaleers, and the Wrens had Latino members. Some groups like Claremont with Vince Castro and the Four Haven Knights had Hispanic members. Various groups that came later, such as the Excellents, Valrays, Devotions and others, played a critical role in shaping the group’s sound. On the West Coast, the Jaguars, one of the first UN groups or interracial groups, had Manny Chavez.

Due to the unique position of being able to interbreed, some were found in all white groups and identified as white, usually Italian, such as the mystics. Some were associated with black groups like Juan Gutiérrez de los Diablo, and others were seen as predominantly Latino, like the Eternals. Depending on what area or community the Hispanics lived in; some took on the cultural characteristic of the prominent race or ethnic group within the community.

Thus, you will find that some Hispanics gravitate toward Black, Italian, Jewish, or whatever culture is prominent within their community. Regardless of who they sang and performed with, the contribution of Hispanic vocalists to the vocal group harmony scene is significant but underappreciated. Some were involved in management, recruiting, and writing such as Raul Cita the Harptones, Cliff Martinez of the Crows, Esther Navarro, the Cadillac’s, and Cecilio Rodriquez of the Imperials.

As a whole, the role they played in the image of the vocal group is significant, because they participated in uniting and building bridges of understanding across racial and ethnic boundaries that existed during the 1950s and early 20s. 1960. Hispanics played a role in bridging racial groups and helping to close the gap between the races. The camaraderie between the group members and their friendship spilled over into their performances and had a significant impact on the audience. For this reason, Hispanics helped dispel the concept among white fans that rock and roll was purely a decadent form of black music. Additionally, many Latinos played a role in the overall development of rock and roll in general.

While the 1950s saw the participation of urban Hispanics in the field of vocal groups, the early years of the 1960s were an explosion of Latino talent and participation. This was due in part to the East Coast phenomenon that took place along the corridor that stretched from Boston to Philadelphia. This corridor of sound is called a cappella corridor. Warner writes, “From 1962 to about 1966, an East Coast phenomenon occurred in which harmony lovers contacted hundreds of a cappella vocal groups and their recordings were created just for that audience.” 1

The 1960s brought many urban teenagers of all classes the opportunity to really record what they had been doing on street corners, bathrooms, and in hallways. For the first time, teens were able to sing and record their own version of songs recorded by their favorite groups. All of these teenagers were continuing and emulating the sound of 1950s R&B groups, which had been hit by the musical and social changes that were taking place.

This opportunity opened the doors for Hispanics to not only get involved in multiracial groups, but also to develop and insert their own unique ethnic group vocal style. During the a cappella era, several strong groups with Hispanic members made a significant contribution; among them were the Five Jades, Chessmen, Zirkons, Concepts, El Sierros, and Majestics, just to name a few. All were looking for an urban sound that would express the unusual mix and infusion of cultures found in everyday life in the Jersey City-New York area. The a cappella era of the 1960s introduced these pioneers and conservatives of the group sound; what followed was a movement to record, capture and carry on the sound of 1950s R&B groups. This is one of the major collective contributions Hispanics made, not only to the history of vocal groups but also to the rock and roll in general.

1 American Singing Groups: A History 1940-1990

Jay Warner – Billboard Book 1992 – Pg. 322

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