Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider Do Wah Diddy, a classic pop song from the 60s. We will start with a brief summary of the career of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who wrote the song. Next we review the original version by The Exciters, and covers of that song by Manfred Mann and the group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.
Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich:
The song Do Wah Diddy was written by the husband-wife song-writing team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Along with another husband-wife team, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry and Greenwich made major contributions to what eventually became known as the “Brill Building sound” of pop music in the 60s.
Barry and Greenwich, shown above in a photo from 1963, met in 1959. Greenwich was still in college, but was writing pop music part-time, in the aforementioned Brill Building. After they married in 1962, Barry and Greenwich began to collaborate exclusively with each other. Their career really took off after they partnered with Phil Spector. Although they wrote a slew of pop hits, initially their major success came with songs for girl groups. It’s worthwhile to note some of the groups that had hits with Barry-Greenwich-Spector songs: The Chiffons; The Crystals; The Ronettes; The Dixie Cups; and The Shangri-Las.
Greenwich and Barry had a knack for finding catchy phrases that would stick in your brain. In addition to Do Wah Diddy, they also struck paydirt with songs like Da Doo Ron Ron and Bang-Shang-A-Lang. The song Do Wah Diddy is basically the distilled essence of rock ‘n roll music – the beat and melody are everything, while the lyrics are cotton-candy fluff. A man meets an attractive woman who is walking along the street, singing to herself and dancing.
There she was just walkin’ down the street
Singin’, “Do wah diddy, diddy, dum diddy do”
Snappin’ her fingers and shufflin’ her feet
Singin’, “Do wah diddy diddy, dum diddy do”
She looked good, she looked fine
She looked good, she looked fine
And I nearly lost my mind
Unfortunately, Greenwich and Barry’s marriage didn’t survive the strain of the music business. They divorced in the mid-60s, although they continued to collaborate on writing songs for a couple of years afterwards. After Greenwich discovered singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, Jeff and Ellie wrote and produced several songs with Diamond, particularly after he was hired to Bert Berns’ BANG Records. Greenwich and Barry also sang backup on a couple of Diamond’s records.
Both on their own and as a team, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich made seminal contributions to pop music in the 60s and beyond. Particularly in their work with Phil Spector, they produced many records that became smash hits for girl groups. What a great legacy! The one thing that I can’t forgive Barry for is his gooey, syrupy-sweet song Sugar, Sugar. Yes, I know that song was written for The Archies, who were cartoon characters, and hence the song might be appropriate for a cartoon. I’m sorry, but for me that’s not a satisfactory excuse.
The Exciters and Do Wah Diddy:
The Exciters were a pop group who were mainly successful in the early 60s. Initially they were a girl-group quartet, consisting of lead singer Brenda Reid, Lillian Walker, Carol Johnson and Sylvia Wilbur. The group was initially called The Masterettes, as they were the sister organization to a guy-group named The Masters.
At some point Wilbur left The Masterettes. At that point they added Herb Rooney from the Masters and were signed to a record contract by Leiber and Stoller, who re-named them The Exciters. They were given a song originally titled Tell Her, written by Bert Berns (using his pseudonym Bert Russell). Tell Her had previously been recorded by two different male artists, and sank like a stone without denting the pop charts.
Based on the prior history of this song, one wouldn’t have predicted success. However, in 1963 Leiber and Stoller produced Tell Him for The Exciters. It became a big hit, making it to #4 on the Billboard pop charts. According to Jason Alkeny, the sassy Exciters
“…boasted an intensity that signified a sea change in the presentation and perception of femininity in popular music, paving the way for such tough, sexy acts as the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes.”
Here is a photo of the Exciters, circa 1960, L to R: Herb Rooney, Lillian Walker, Brenda Reid, Carol Johnson.
So, here is a live video of The Exciters performing their top-10 hit Tell Him. My understanding is that this is footage from a concert in Paris from May, 1963.
How fun – what a perky, bouncy song! Brenda Reid’s vocals are just perfect for this group, and she can deliver in live performance. The piano and guitar accompaniment keep the song bopping along, and the backup singers are just fine. Leiber and Stoller’s production of the song is really memorable. Tell Him has since been covered by dozens of artists – it’s a `no-brainer’ for female pop artists to cover it.
So it was a big disappointment when the Exciters recorded Do Wah Diddy later in 1963. The song had a promising provenance, having been co-written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who had scored terrific successes with girl-group songs. However, when the song was released in 1964 it made almost no impact, peaking at #78 on the Billboard pop charts, and just barely cracking the top 50 on the R&B rankings.
I couldn’t find live video of The Exciters performing this tune, so here is the audio of Do Wah Diddy.
What do you think? I find it yet another example of the vagaries of the music business. For the life of me, I don’t see why Tell Him was a top-5 hit, while Do Wah Diddy was essentially a flop. Brenda Reid provides the same smart, sassy vocals, and the backup singers continue to shine. The arrangement sounds just fine – in addition to the usual instruments, they throw in some kettledrums, castanets and chimes. The music is easy to dance to, and the tune is extremely catchy.
After their promising beginning with Tell Him, one might have assumed that The Exciters would become pop superstars. However, it was not to be. Herb Rooney and Brenda Reid got married, but the group subsequently shuffled around from one record company to another – Roulette, BANG, Shout, and finally RCA – with no further success in the charts. After a couple of changes in their lineup, the group disbanded in 1974.
Manfred Mann and Do Wah Diddy Diddy:
Manfred Mann was a British group that initially focused on blues-inspired music. In the early 60s, they were part of a British blues revival movement that included the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. A distinctive feature of Manfred Mann was their interest in marrying elements of R&B with jazz. Also, many of their musicians were rather versatile – for example, guitarist Mike Vickers also played flute and alto saxophone.
Below is a photo of Manfred Mann in Aug. 1964 at the Marquee Club, London. L to R: Paul Jones, Mike McGuinness, Mike Hugg, Mike Vickers, Manfred Mann.
For the first couple of years, the group received critical acclaim for their R&B-jazz fusion efforts, but that didn’t translate into commercial success. The group may have remained on the fringes of the British Invasion scene, until late in 1964 they put out a cover of the Exciters’ pop song, which they re-titled Do Wah Diddy Diddy.
And then – Va-Voom!! The song took off like a rocket. It shot up to #1 on the UK, Canadian and then US pop charts. You could almost see the light bulb over their heads – “OK, our cerebral R&B-jazz fusion efforts are going nowhere – instead, let’s find catchy pop tunes and just issue straightforward covers.”
As a formula for success, Manfred Mann had struck pure gold. Following the success of Do Wah Diddy Diddy, they repeated this with Bob Dylan’s The Mighty Quinn, which also reached #1 in the UK and #10 on the Billboard charts in 1968. Manfred Mann got hold of an unreleased tape of Dylan’s tune. Dylan didn’t release the song for another three years, so Manfred Mann’s ‘cover’ actually preceded the release of Dylan’s original. This was a common phenomenon during Dylan’s ‘basement tapes’ period, where Dylan recorded over a hundred songs, which then circulated for some time before being released.
After a number of personnel changes, Mann hit the jackpot once again in 1977, when Manfred Mann’s Earth Band produced a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded By the Light. That cover also hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts. It is notorious for having some of the most misquoted lyrics in pop music history. In Manfred Mann’s cover, Springsteen’s line “revved up like a deuce” sounds almost exactly like “wrapped up like a douche.”
This error is so pervasive that Springsteen has joked that his own song couldn’t make it as a pop hit, until Manfred Mann turned it into a feminine hygiene commercial! The reference to commercials isn’t entirely a joke; for a short period before forming the Earth Band, Manfred Mann and bandmate Mike Hugg were writing advertising jingles!
Anyway, here is Manfred Mann performing Do Wah Diddy Diddy. I believe that this is a live performance by the group on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964.
The Manfred Mann version is the iconic performance of Do Wah Diddy that everyone remembers. You have to admit, Paul Jones’ lead vocals are stunningly good. With his skinny beard and thick black glasses, Manfred Mann on keyboards looks like a beatnik from the 50s. The arrangement is truly memorable, and it all makes for a classic pop tune.
However, the issue remains: Manfred Mann basically copied the original version from The Exciters. Yet the Exciters’ version had no success at all, while Manfred Mann’s cover shot up to #1 in the UK, Canada and USA. Surely the secret wasn’t just adding another ‘Diddy’ to the song title? I guess it’s just one of those mysteries that we’re never going to solve.
Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich and Do Wah Diddy Diddy:
Let’s finish off very briefly with another cover of Do Wah Diddy Diddy, this one by a British Invasion quintet with a very long name – Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. In 1967 (or was it 1968?) while I was a graduate student at Oxford, a friend of mine told me about an up-and-coming rock group. They had a song called Hold Tight! that was a top-10 hit in the UK, so we caught one of their performances.
Here is a photo of Dave Dee et al, in 1974. L to R: Tich (Ian Amey), Dave Dee, Mick (Michael Wilson), Beaky (John Dymond), Dozy (Trevor Ward-Davies).
Their lead vocalist Dave Dee had been a policeman in Wiltshire. In a bizarre coincidence, he was one of the first people on the scene at the horrific auto accident that took the life of American rocker Eddie Cochran (see my post on Cochran). The group’s records were tolerable, featuring catchy hooks and tight vocal and instrumental harmonies. However, Dave Dee & Co turned out to be far less impressive in person than their studio cuts might suggest.
I guess what turned me off the most was the group’s appalling stage presence. They totally lost me after their first number, when frontman Dave Dee commented to the audience, “As the hula dancer said, Gracias” (hula dancer, ‘grassy-ass’ – get it? Oy). However, this cheeky humor was somehow consistent with their group’s name. My guess is that they reckoned that a list of their nicknames would be cute and memorable, whereas I found it cloying and annoying.
At the concert I attended, the group played a couple of their UK hits – there were no US hits – while the remaining time was spent on a mélange of unimaginative covers. I don’t remember hearing them perform Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a song that the group never issued as a single. Without further ado, here is their cover of Do Wah Diddy Diddy.
My take on this cover – competent, but nothing unique, creative or memorable. Over the years, the group soldiered through a large number of personnel changes. New members were required to take the nickname of the departed band member – so later band lineups are identified as “Mick III,” etc.
Researching this post, I came upon the following statement in the Wikipedia entry for the group:
Indeed, between 1965 and 1969, the group spent more weeks in the UK Singles Chart than the Beatles
I have spent some time mulling over this claim. It is hard to believe that it could be true – between 1965 and 1969, there were more weeks with a Dave Dee song on the UK singles chart than a Beatles song? Well, the Beatles did break up in 1968, and at some point may have been issuing albums instead of singles. In any case, even if that claim is technically correct, it is grossly misleading to compare such a minor pop group to the Beatles.
There were many instances where I under-predicted or over-predicted the future success for a rock group. However, Dave Dee etal turned out to be precisely as mediocre as I had guessed. RIP, DDDBM&T.
Wikipedia, Do Wah Diddy Diddy
Wikipedia, Jeff Barry
Wikipedia, Ellie Greenwich
Wikipedia, The Exciters
Wikipedia, Manfred Mann
Wikipedia, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
Wikipedia, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich