Bear Family's ambitious multi-volume Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo Wop chronicles a time long before rock & roll. It begins in 1939 with the Ink Spots' "If I Didn't Care," a song that contains the DNA of doo wop within Bill Kenny's lovely, keening tenor counterbalanced by the bass of Orville "Hoppy" Jones. This slight but significant shift within vocal harmony groups can be heard throughout the 30 songs on this first volume. Almost all of these sides, all cut between 1939 and 1949, are rooted in big-band pop, not gospel, so the rhythms sway instead of jump. This begins to change in the late '40s, particularly with the Orioles' "It's Too Soon to Know," which has the swing of R&B and gospel harmonies. A few other singles here also point to nascent doo wop but most of the music on Street Corner Symphonies, Vol. 1 should be viewed as prehistory for the main event -- it is instructive, at times fascinating and entertaining, and always well-annotated by Bill Dahl, but it retains a slight musty air, possibly because the bulk of this music is so dreamy it verges on the sleepy.
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