Earth Angel: The Penguins; The Crew-Cuts; Back To The Future.

Hello there! This week’s blog is a part of our series, Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. We feature an iconic doo-wop tune, Earth Angel. We will first review the original tune by The Penguins. Next we will discuss a cover of that song by The Crew-Cuts. Finally, we will show the song as it appeared in the movie Back To The Future.

The Penguins and Earth Angel:

The Penguins were an early West Coast pop group. Its four members were classmates from Fremont High School in Los Angeles. They formed a group in 1953 and named themselves after Willie the Penguin, the Kool cigarette mascot. They thought Willie was a cool character.

Willie, the mascot for Kool cigarettes.

Below left we show a Kool cigarette ad from the 50s. It seems crazy today – Willie is shown with the suggestion “Got a cold? Smoke a Kool for that clean, Kool taste!” Remember that Kools were cigarettes with menthol added, a touch that ad agency Brown & Williamson insisted made the cigarettes soothing, comforting and relaxing (of course, cigarettes actually produced the ‘smoker’s cough’ referred to in the ad!).

Anyway, back to The Penguins. Lead vocalist Cleveland Duncan joined Curtis Williams, Dexter Tisby and Bruce Tate to form a doo-wop combo. Curtis Williams co-wrote Earth Angel along with Gaynel Hodge and Jesse Belvin.  At left is a photo of The Penguins circa 1954.

Dootones recording group The Penguins, circa 1954.

The song was exceptionally simple. A man proposes his eternal love for his sweetheart. By the way, Earth Angel was similar to a number of popular tunes of that vintage. The melody is reminiscent of a 1953 tune called I Know by The Flames, which itself was similar to the Rodgers & Hart classic Blue Moon.

Earth angel, earth angel
Will you be mine?
My darling dear
Love you all the time
I’m just a fool
A fool in love with you

Earth angel, earth angel
The one I adore
Love you forever and ever more
I’m just a fool
A fool in love with you

I fell for you and I knew
The vision of your love-loveliness
I hoped and I pray that someday
I’ll be the vision of your hap-happiness oh, oh, oh, oh!

The lyrics of Earth Angel also showed similarities to other pop tunes. When Earth Angel became a blockbuster hit, the melody and lyrics would eventually lead to a number of lawsuits from other groups.

So here is the original recording of Earth Angel by The Penguins.

What a great doo-wop tune! The lead vocals by Cleveland Duncan are clear as a bell, and beautifully sincere. No wonder that the song has become an enduring classic.

The record Earth Angel by The Penguins, on Dootone Records.

The song is incredibly straightforward. In addition to the very simple lyrics, Earth Angel is characterized by a stripped-down orchestral accompaniment that is essentially just piano and drums. This is at least partly because the recording was originally intended just as a demo.

We have previously referred to some groups as “garage bands;” however, Earth Angel was quite literally recorded in a garage, namely the garage used by Dootsie Williams as his location to record demo tapes.

In the recording session, the drums had to be muffled by pillows so as not to overwhelm the vocals. Also, the takes had to be re-recorded every time a neighbor’s dog began barking. The idea was that this demo would later be re-recorded in a studio, and that strings, saxophone and other instruments would be added at that time.

Dootsie Williams took the demo tape to John Dolphin, owner of Dolphin’s of Hollywood All-Night Record Shop. A late-night R&B radio broadcast originated from that store, and the DJ played Williams’ demo of Earth Angel.

Immediately, the station began receiving telephone requests for the song. So Williams abandoned his notion of re-recording the song, and simply issued a record straight from the demo.

Despite the fact that the song was the “B” side of a single with Hey Senorita as the “A” side, DJs quickly began turning the record over, and the “B” side became much more popular. Earth Angel was released in 1954, and by the end of the year was the #1-ranked song on the R&B charts.

Amazingly, the song became a big cross-over hit, and eventually made it into the Top 10 in the Billboard and Cashbox charts. Not only was it rare for songs to “cross over” in 1954, Earth Angel was also the first major hit for an independent record company (as shown above, it was released on Dootsie Williams’ Dootone Records label).

And now here are The Penguins in a live performance of Earth Angel.

Legendary West Coast DJ Wolfman Jack introduces the group on the Midnight Special TV program. Once again, Cleveland Duncan’s vocals are very moving, and the doo-wop harmonies perfectly complement the lyrics. The group is notable for the gigantic white fringe on their blue suits.

In my late-50s high school garage band, we used to cover rockabilly tunes by Elvis and Buddy Holly, supplemented by R&B songs by Little Richard and Fats Domino. However, we would throw in a few doo-wop ballads, and Earth Angel was one of our favorites (along with songs such as In The Still of The Night by The Five Satins, and Sixteen Candles by The Crests).

Our doo-wop songs were rather popular, particularly because one could achieve a reasonable facsimile of the original without requiring great musical skill. But I think they were also popular because the songs were so simple and direct that they had great emotional resonance.

Over the decades, Earth Angel showed an enduring appeal. The song was still selling well, nearly 50 years after its initial release (it’s estimated that it could have sold 20 million copies over the years).
In 2005, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”

Well, by 1955 The Penguins were reporting that Dootsie Williams was not sending them any royalty checks, using the excuse that lawsuits were holding up his royalties.

At this point, The Penguins signed with agent Buck Ram. Ram signed the group to a contract with Mercury Records. The clever Mr. Ram made a deal with Mercury: Ram would throw in The Platters (another group that he managed), provided that Mercury would sign The Penguins.

Mercury snapped this up, since at this time The Penguins had a big hit with Earth Angel. But Buck Ram had the last laugh. The Platters became one of the biggest pop groups of the 50s and 60s, while The Penguins never had another hit record.

The original quartet broke up in 1962. Cleveland Duncan added some replacement singers and continued on as The Penguins until 2012.

In 1999, PBS produced a special called Doo-Wop 50, to commemorate 50 years since the first “doo-wop” songs. The concert was staged in Pittsburgh, the home of several of the original doo-wop groups. The concert and subsequent PBS pledge drives were a terrific success.

The show was hosted by Jerry Butler. Here is Butler introducing The Penguins at that concert, where he emphasizes that the Penguins epitomized the “East LA” sound.

Cleveland Duncan shows that he still can bring it even at age 70. And the audience gives the group a hearty welcome. The New York Times wrote of Earth Angel,
“For many the song evokes a glittering, timeless vision of proms, sock hops and impossibly young love.”
I second that emotion.

The Crew-Cuts and Earth Angel:

The Crew-Cuts were a Canadian vocal quartet, who became famous for a couple of covers of early rock music hits.

Rudi Maugeri, John Perkins, Ray Perkins and Pat Barrett had all been schoolmates together at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. That school had also been the birthplace of an earlier pop music quartet, The Four Lads.

Below is a photo of the Crew-Cuts from the late 1950s.

Embed from Getty Images

In 1952 they formed a group and began looking for work. They were working small clubs in the Niagara Falls area when they pooled their money and took off for New York, where they competed on the Arthur Godfrey TV show Talent Scouts.

The boys did not win, but after finishing second they managed to sign a record deal. When that did not pan out, the group continued their efforts to gain fame. Eventually their fortunes took a turn when they performed in Cleveland and met radio DJ Bill Randle.

Randle changed the group’s name to The Crew-Cuts and got them a contract with Mercury Records. By the way, “crew-cuts” referred to a hair style that was popular at the time. The idea was that the name would endear them to teenagers – at that time, “long hair” was associated with classical music, and pop stars were distinguished by their extremely short hair (my, how times have changed!)

It took the Crew-Cuts a while to find their niche. Since their singing style involved smooth harmonies, they were able to perform either old standards or pop music. Initially they divided their time between appearances with big bands and pop music concerts.

That all changed in 1954, when the Crew-Cuts recorded a cover of the song Sh-Boom that was originally recorded by The Chords. This was a time when it was not easy for colored groups to break into the pop music charts.

Many radio stations maintained segregated playlists, and would only play ‘race records’ on late-night R&B shows. So although The Chords’ Sh-Boom hit #2 on the R&B charts, it was the version by the Crew-Cuts that made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (y the way, Sh-Boom is believed to be the first rock ‘n roll song to make it to the Top Ten in the pop charts).

Anyway, after the success of their cover, the Crew-Cuts were in big demand. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and became headliners on tours of pop groups. Then in 1956, the Crew-Cuts released a cover of the song Earth Angel, originally recorded by The Penguins. So here is the audio of the Crew-Cuts in their cover of Earth Angel.

The song was released on the Mercury Label. At the time, it out-sold the Penguins version, as it reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. As you can see, the version by The Crew-Cuts has significantly better production values than the original. It features a full horn section with a prominent saxophone.

However, the style of the song is also much closer to barbershop quartet than to doo-wop. As such, the Crew-Cuts cover of Earth Angel has been much less enduring than the great Penguins classic (in fact, the Crew-Cuts version is pretty much forgotten).

Since I cannot find video of the Crew-Cuts singing Earth Angel, here is a video of them “performing” their #1 hit, Sh-Boom.

I believe that the group are simply lip-synching to their record here, but this is a rather rare clip of the group performing.

In the All Music Guide, Richie Unterberger characterized The Crew-Cuts as follows:
On most informed lists of rock & roll villains, the Crew Cuts would have to rank near the top. They weren’t rock & rollers in the first place: their clean-cut white harmony glee-club approach was really in the style of early and mid-’50s groups such as the Four Aces, the Four Lads, and the Four Freshmen. The Canadian quartet differed from those acts, however, in their concentration upon covers of songs originally recorded by R&B/doo wop vocal groups.

In addition to their covers, the Crew-Cuts also produced a number of original records. Some of these had success in Canada, but not in the States. The group continued until 1964 when they disbanded.

The Crew-Cuts later moved to Nashville, Tennessee where they re-united in 1977. In 1984 they were named to the Juno Hall of Fame (the Canadian Music Hall of Fame), together with The Diamonds and The Four Lads.

The only surviving members of the original Crew-Cuts are brothers John and Ray Perkins. We wish them well.

Earth Angel in the film Back To The Future:

The song Earth Angel appears in the 1985 sci-fi comedy Back To The Future. The picture was directed by Robert Zemeckis and co-written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale.  We originally reviewed this movie in an earlier blog post on the song Johnny B. Goode. The film became an instant classic and spawned two sequels. Below left we show the poster for the movie.

Michael J Fox, who plays the lead character Marty McFly, travels back in time with his friend, the eccentric scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). The 17-year-old McFly returns to 1955, a time when his mother was also 17.

Below is a photo of Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd, appearing in a subsequent TV series Spin City.

Embed from Getty Images

In a crucial element of the plot, Marty must be extremely careful of his actions in 1955, lest they disrupt the ‘space-time continuum’ and alter the future. Marty realizes that he has already prevented his mother and father from meeting. He thus needs to re-unite them so they can fall in love, marry, and allow Marty to be born.

In the film clip shown below, Marty hooks up with a fictitious band, Marvin Berry and the Starlighters, who are performing at Marty’s mother’s Nov. 1955 high school prom. Marvin, the lead guitarist, injures his hand, so Marty fills in on lead guitar.

Marvin Berry sings the romantic ballad Earth Angel, and Marty realizes that this is the moment when his mom Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and dad George (Crispin Glover) need to fall in love. But this appears to be thwarted when a young punk cuts in on George and begins to dance away with Lorraine.

To his horror, Marty realizes that he is beginning to disappear. His right hand ceases to function, making him unable to play guitar. Furthermore, in a photo of Marty and his siblings, the three children begin to fade away.

Fortunately, George cuts back in, pushes the punk away and reunites with Lorraine. The couple share a first kiss, and Marty is immediately restored. His right hand returns to normal, he resumes playing the guitar, and the siblings in the photo once again re-appear.

The idea for Back To The Future originated when co-writer Bob Gale found his father’s high school yearbook and realized that his dad was president of his graduating class. Gale recounted to Zemeckis “If I returned back in time to my father’s high school class, we probably would have had nothing in common.” From that premise, Zemeckis and Gale structured a story about a youth traveling back in time to his mother’s high school years.

For such a successful movie, it is fascinating that the film script was rejected by nearly every major studio. The original choice, Columbia, felt that the film was “cute and warm,” but not sufficiently sexy; all other major studios also rejected the film. Finally, Zemeckis and Gale approached Disney.
“They told us that a mother falling in love with her son was not appropriate for a family film under the Disney banner,” Gale said.

After Zemeckis’ film Romancing The Stone became a box-office smash, he had sufficient clout to re-negotiate filming of Back To The Future. Eventually, Columbia Pictures made a deal with Universal Studios. In return for Universal giving them the rights to Double Indemnity, Columbia traded Back To The Future to Universal.

Back To The Future was such a mega-hit that it is nearly impossible to imagine it without its two major stars, Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Thus is it striking that the movie might not have included either Fox or Lloyd.

John Lithgow was initially envisioned for the role of Doc Brown, but Lloyd was substituted when Lithgow was not available. Although Michael J Fox was the obvious choice for Marty McFly, actor Eric Stoltz was substituted when the producer of the TV series Family Ties refused to allow their star Fox time off to make the movie.

Eventually, it was realized that Stoltz was not the appropriate actor to play McFly, and Michael J Fox received permission to make the film. The rest is history.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Earth Angel
Wikipedia, The Penguins
Wikipedia, The Crew-Cuts
The Crew Cuts: Richie Unterberger, All Music Guide
Wikipedia, Back To The Future

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Doo-Wop, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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