Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic doo-wop song (arguably the iconic doo-wop song), In The Still Of the Night. First we will discuss the original version of the song by The Five Satins. Next, we will show the song as it was covered by John Sebastian, and finally by Boyz II Men.
The Five Satins and In The Still Of The Night:
The Five Satins were a doo-wop group that formed in 1954 in New Haven, Connecticut. As of 1956 they consisted of lead singer Fred Parris, Ed Martin, Jim Freeman, Nat Mosley and Al Denby.
Below is a publicity photo of the Five Satins from the late 1950s.Embed from Getty Images
The group then recorded the tune In The Still Of the Night. The song was written by Fred Parris, and the recording took place in the basement of the Saint Bernadette Catholic School in New Haven.
The song is sometimes spelled “In The Still of the Nite” to distinguish it from Cole Porter’s 1937 composition “In The Still Of the Night.”
The lyrics to In The Still Of The Night could hardly be more straightforward. The singer brings back to mind a spring night when he first embraced his beloved, and he vows never to abandon her.
In the still [Shoo-doop Shoo-be-doop]
Of the night [Shoo-doop Shoo-be-doop]
I held you [Shoo-doop Shoo-be-doop]
Held you tight [Shoo-doop Shoo-be-waah]
… I remember [I remember]
That night in May [I remember]
The stars were bright [I remember]
Above [I remember]
I’ll hope and I’ll pray
To keep [To keep]
Your pre- [Your pre-] cious love
In the lyrics above, we have put the background vocals inside square brackets. The song’s lyrics are delivered slowly and deliberately, to allow time to squeeze in the background vocals.
The doo-wop era was dominated by piano and saxophone; the dominance of the electric guitar would follow with groups that were inspired by either the blues or country music. In The Still Of the Night features a sweet sax solo in the break by Vinny Mazzetta, while the backup singers soldier on.
This song has become an iconic doo-wop classic; in fact, it is one of two songs that are credited with inspiring the origin of the word “doo-wop” (from the background refrain “doo-wop, doo-wah” heard during the sax solo in the break). So it is somewhat strange that this tune had a rather modest beginning.
In The Still of the Night was actually the “B” side of the single issued by the Five Satins. And the record did not fare that well at first; it had only moderate success, as the record company had a limited East Coast distribution. However, even after the song was re-released nationally a month later on the Ember label, it still stalled out at #24 on the Billboard pop charts and #3 on the “race records” playlists (this was the predecessor of the R&B charts).
However, this tune turned out to have incredible staying power. In 1959 the label Original Sound released an album titled Oldies But Goodies, Vol. 1. In The Still Of the Night was the first track on that album and provided a “bump” in sales of the original single. So In The Still Of the Night was re-released as a single in 1960 and again in 1961, but both times it failed to dent the Billboard top 50.
Then in 1987, the tune was included on the soundtrack of the 50s-revival movie Dirty Dancing. That soundtrack sold over 10 million copies.
For over 30 years, In The Still Of the Night remained in the top 5 of the Top 500 Songs Countdown for New York’s “oldies” radio station WCBS-FM. And the song was listed as #99 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In The Still Of the Night was one of the more popular songs on the setlist of our rock ‘n roll band Johnny Dee and the Kings. At that time (around 1959), we tended to play a variety of pop covers ranging from doo-wop to rock ‘n roll.
Our ensemble would play at sock hops on Friday nights at Fred Jones Dance Studio in Niagara Falls, NY. We performed on the first floor for the “White Dance,” while the second floor was the “Colored Dance” (yes, despite the fact that we were in the North and our high schools were unsegregated, in the late 50s these events were racially separated. It would be a few more years before the dances were integrated.)
I greatly enjoyed the harmonies on In The Still Of the Night, plus it’s quite easy to sing. This probably explains why I still remember this song with tremendous fondness.
So here are The Five Satins with a “live” performance of their song, In The Still Of The Night.
I put “live” in quotes here, since the group is just lip-synching their hit record from the 1959 film Sweet Beat.
Fred Parris runs through the iconic lyrics of this doo-wop song. His lip-synching doesn’t match the audio, but the quality of the “performance” by the Five Satins is consistent with the amateurish dialogue and acting in the film. By the way, note that the “Five Satins” were now down to four by the time this film was shot.
Below left we show a poster for Sweet Beat, apparently the first British rock ‘n roll movie. That film came with the following promotional taglines: “When a man lusts for a woman…there is NOTHING he won’t do to get her!” “See beautiful girls with practically nothing on parade UNASHAMED before men!”
Clearly, the film was being touted as exposing the lustful and sexual nature of rock ‘n roll. One can imagine exactly the same taglines used to describe the advent of jazz a half century earlier.
Unfortunately, Fred Parris was drafted into the Army while his hit record was still on the charts. When he returned from Army duty in 1960, he re-formed the group. They had a few local hits in the Connecticut area but nothing on the national charts.
However, the 1973 movie American Graffiti sparked a resurgence of interest in 50s rock ‘n roll; this provided Fred Parris and the Satins another opportunity to tour. The Five Satins were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.
Here is Fred Parris and the Satins at a “doo-wop oldies” show a few years ago.
This is pretty amazing – Parris sounds very much like he did in the 50s! He runs through the old classic, while the audience sings along with the “Shoo-doop” background vocals.
In The Still Of the Night is the final song in this concert, which is entirely appropriate for this timeless song. Once Parris begins the falsetto ending, all of the performers gather on the stage and we are shown a retrospective of all the acts. A good time was had by all.
Finally, I would like to mention that Thom Hickey, author of the blog The Immortal Jukebox, wrote a post on The Five Satins’ In The Still Of the Night in January of this year. You can find his post here.
John Sebastian and In The Still Of The Night:
The Lovin’ Spoonful were a highly successful folk-rock group who achieved success in the late 60s. They formed in the early 60s in New York’s Greenwich Village area when singer-songwriter John Sebastian teamed up with guitarist Zal Yanovsky.
Yanovsky had previously played with a folk group called The Mugwumps. That group became famous primarily because two of its former members (Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott) later became half of The Mamas and The Papas. An amusing summary of that period is provided in John Phillips’ autobiographical song Creeque Alley.
At first, Sebastian and Yanovsky were playing in coffee houses and bars in Greenwich Village (Creeque Alley: “and after every number, they passed the hat”). Next, they added bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler, and took the name The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Below is a photo of the Lovin’ Spoonful from the mid-60s; John Sebastian is in the raccoon coat at left.Embed from Getty Images
The band’s name was taken from a line in the song Coffee Blues by Mississippi John Hurt. In that song, the reference is to a spoonful of coffee; however, the name also is used colloquially in reference to drugs such as cocaine, and it also has a sexual connotation (look it up).
The group was signed to Kama Sutra records, and in 1965 they scored their first top-10 hit with the song Do You Believe In Magic. Along with The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the first successful folk-rock bands. The Spoonful were unique in that they had roots in jug-band music, and this early influence was evident in the laid-back and colloquial lyrics of John Sebastian’s songs.
The success of The Lovin’ Spoonful convinced several folk groups that there could be bright prospects in folk-rock music. One group that was strongly influenced by the Lovin’ Spoonful was an ensemble of folk musicians in the Bay Area.
Yes, after hearing John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful, apparently The Grateful Dead became convinced that they might have a successful future if they traded in their banjos and tambourines for electric instruments!
Music from the Spoonful also made an impression on The Beatles. Paul McCartney has said that his Beatles’ song Good Day Sunshine was inspired by John Sebastian’s 1966 single Daydream.
A little-known fact is that the producers of The Monkees TV show initially intended that The Lovin’ Spoonful would be performing the songs. In order for this to happen, Kama Sutra Records would have to release the Spoonful from their contract so that the producers would retain publishing rights to their Monkees songs. When Kama Sutra refused to release the Spoonful, that deal fell through.
The Lovin’ Spoonful was riding high in 1967, but the group suffered a major setback when Zal Yanovsky was arrested in San Francisco for possession of marijuana. Pressured to name his supplier, Yanovsky was concerned that as a Canadian citizen he might face deportation, so he cooperated with the Feds.
When word got out that Yanovsky had squealed to the cops, this caused a severe West Coast backlash against the band and against Yanovsky in particular. Yanovsky then left the Spoonful, and this incident pretty much ended his career in pop music.
The Lovin’ Spoonful then replaced Yanovsky with Jerry Yester, but John Sebastian left the band in 1968. The Spoonful continued on until 1969, when the hits came to an end and the group disbanded.
Here is John Sebastian singing a couple of doo-wop tunes in concert, beginning with In The Still of the Night.
Isn’t this wonderful? Sebastian perfectly captures the charm of the old doo-wop songs. He starts by playing the iconic four chords that defined much of doo-wop music. Still strumming those chords, he commences to sing the background harmonies for In The Still Of the Night (“Shoo-doop, Shoo-be-doop, …”).
Sebastian gets the audience to sing the harmony, while he launches into In The Still Of the Night. Eventually, he soars into the falsetto part while the audience continues to sing harmony. Clearly, Sebastian is having a ton of fun and the crowd loves it.
After that, John segues into a similar 1958 doo-wop song, You Cheated, that features the same four chords as Still Of The Night. You Cheated had an interesting history. It was first recorded by a group called The Slades, a white quintet from Austin, Texas.
The Slades released You Cheated as a single in 1958 on the Austin-based Domino label. And here is the audio of their record.
The Slades’ version of You Cheated reached #42 on the Billboard charts. However, the song’s sales were limited because Domino was unable to distribute the song nationally. So Los Angeles-based producer and songwriter George Motola created a group called The Shields.
The Shields was a trio consisting of lead singer Frankie Ervin, Jesse Belvin and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. They quickly recorded a cover of You Cheated that was released on Dot Records. And here is the audio of that record.
The Shields’ version of You Cheated had two big advantages over the original by The Slades. First, Dot Records could distribute the song nationally. Second, this song featured terrific doo-wop harmonies, in particular the soaring falsetto from Jesse Belvin. The version by The Shields reached #12 on the Billboard charts, and is the one that everyone remembers.
And now back to John Sebastian. After leaving The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1968, John embarked on a solo career. He appeared solo at Woodstock, but found little in the way of commercial hits.
John Sebastian scored one more blockbuster in 1976 when he wrote Welcome Back, the title song to the ABC-TV show Welcome Back, Kotter. Sebastian’s song shot up to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 2000, The Lovin’ Spoonful were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The original quartet of Sebastian, Zanovsky, Butler and Boone appeared and performed a couple of their hits.
Alas, this was not a joyous occasion. It became painfully evident that John Sebastian’s voice was completely shot, and the band’s performance was, well, terrible – sort of like watching a junior high ensemble perform covers of pop hits.
I won’t show that performance because it is hard to watch. But I still have my Lovin’ Spoonful albums, and so can re-live their wonderful folk-rock creations.
Boyz II Men and In The Still Of The Night:
Boyz II Men is a quartet from the Philadelphia area that achieved tremendous commercial success in the 1990s. Baritone Nathan Morris joined up with tenors Wanya Morris (no relation) and Shawn Stockman and bass Michael McCary. All four were students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
Below is a photo of Boyz II Men circa 1991.Embed from Getty Images
They were inspired by the group New Edition, and their name Boyz II Men derives from the title of a New Edition song. The group received their first big break when they managed to meet New Edition member Michael Bivins and perform for him.
Bivins was sufficiently impressed that he agreed to manage and produce the group. The boyz worked out a signature style that incorporated elements of old-fashioned soul music with hip-hop; Bivins called their sound “hip-hop doo-wop.”
Boyz II Men made a tremendous splash with their first album, the 1991 Cooleyhighharmony. That album sold 9 million copies in the U.S. and won a Grammy Award. One of the hallmarks of the group is that every member of the quartet would sing lead on some songs. And on other songs, each of the members would sing lead on one verse.
Boyz II Men released their a capella version of In The Still of the Night as part of the soundtrack for the 1992 ABC-TV miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream.
The song was then released as a single, which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in January 1993. The song was subsequently included on the re-release of the Cooleyhighharmony album. So here are Boyz II Men in a live performance of In The Still of the Night.
The group gives a fine version of this doo-wop classic, highlighted by the lead vocals of Nathan Morris. Although I am generally impressed at a capella singing (where limitations in vocal performance become painfully obvious), I am not blown away by the talent of this ensemble.
However, what do I know about modern pop music? Remember, the album that contained this song sold 9 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Following their initial success, Boyz II Men tended to dominate the pop charts. Their song One Sweet Day, a collaboration with Mariah Carey, is tied for the longest consecutive time at #1 on the Billboard pop charts (16 weeks). And Billboard magazine has ranked Boyz II Men as the #1 boy band during the period 1987 – 2012.
While Boyz II Men were originally managed by Michael Bivins, in 1993 the group parted ways with him. They then entered a period where several of their hits were written and produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. By the way, just last week my college Indiana University awarded Hoosier native Edmonds (who never attended college) an honorary doctorate.
In 2003, the group’s bass singer Michael McCary retired from the group due to his issues with multiple sclerosis. Following that time, Boyz II Men has continued as a trio.
Beginning in 2013, Boyz II Men announced that they would no longer tour, but they began performing shows in long residencies at the Mirage Hotel in Vegas. The group continues to perform at that venue.
One has to be impressed at the long-term commercial success of this group. Boyz II Men joins elite company in terms of the number of consecutive weeks that their singles were ranked #1 on the Billboard pop charts. Only Elvis, the Beatles and Mariah Carey had “#1” streaks that lasted longer than this group.
So, we congratulate Nathan, Wanya and Shawn on their success and their longevity.