|The Penguins at Dolphin's of Hollywood in late 1954: Dootone distributor Sid Talmadge (left),
Cleve Duncan, Bruce Tate, Dexter Tisby, Curtis Williams and Dootsie Williams.
"Earth Angel" by The Penguins, recorded in September 1954, has sold in the millions over the last 45 years and is still one of the most popular records of all time. It is consistently near the top of New York radio station KCBS's annual poll of favorite oldies.
The song evolved through several Los Angeles groups and artists before The Penguins finally committed it to tape in Ted Brinson's garage studio in the back of his house at 2190 W. 30th Street in South Los Angeles.
According to Penguins singer Cleve Duncan, "Curtis Williams had a song called 'Earth Angel.' Jesse Belvin is credited with helping to write it, but Jesse had nothing to do with it after Curtis and I got together. We worked on it together, Curtis concentrating on words and me on the music. I changed the melody to fit my style." Cleve says that Williams also wrote the flipside, "Hey, Senorita," which was originally called "Esa Chiquita." [The song was later credited on the label to Carl Green, who had been the original Johnny in Marvin & Johnny.] It was this second song, Cleve Duncan recalls, that they considered the A-side.
The group recorded both songs at Brinson's studio strictly as a demo. As producer Dootsie Williams remembered, "We had a drummer whose name I can't remember [Cleve says it was Preston Epps], Curtis played piano, and Ted [Brinson] would turn on his [Ampex] recorder and then pick up his bass. He played in that steady, fundamental style from the big bands. We muffled the drums with pillows because we didn't want the lower register to drown out the voices. Every time the dog barked next door, I'd have to go out and shut him up and then we'd do another take. I was planning to put an electric guitar and saxophone on the song later on, but first I wanted to get the recordings down to John Dolphin and get his opinion on them"
So Dootsie made an acetate dub from the tape and took it immediately over to the Dolphin's of Hollywood record store at Vernon and Central, where deejay Huggy Boy broadcasted from the front window on station KRKD. To get an audience reaction, owner John Dolphin asked Huggy Boy to play both sides over the air. When the phone lines lit up, Dootsie knew he really had something, though he still believed that "Hey, Senorita" was the hit side.
By early October, Cash Box declared "Earth Angel" a "Territorial Tip" from Los Angeles. By then, Dootsie Williams had decided to release the demo recordings as is. (There is some confusion here. Dootsie Williams often recalled various versions of his "Earth Angel" story. He once said that the demo and the released version were actually two different recordings; that after Dolphin told him the demo was getting requests, Dootsie rehearsed the group hard and took them back into the studio. Dootse also recalled that "Earth Angel" was released in the summer of 1954, but reports in Cash Box and Billboard dispute this. He may have confused "Earth Angel" with the release of "No There Ain't No News Today," The Penguins' first appearance on wax, around late July or August 1954.)
This was the original
October '54 release.
When he ran out of red paper,
Dootsie switched to blue.
By the middle of October, Billboard was giving Dootone single #348 four stars. As Dootsie would say later, "The record started selling so quickly, I ran out of paper for the label. That's why 'Earth Angel' was pressed on so many different colored labels."
For the benefit of collectors, the original Dootone label of "Earth Angel"/"Hey, Senorita" was shiny red. Then Dootsie switched to blue, then black, maroon, and later a bright, multi-colored label to thwart bootleggers. When he reissued "Earth Angel" on Dooto in late 1956 (to avoid a lawsuit by the Duo-Tone Needle Company, he'd shortened the company name) the label was yellow with red print. In England, where "Earth Angel" rose to #3 on the charts in early 1955, it was released on the Epiphone label.
The song's full title, "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)," was used on all of the Dootone/Dooto releases, but the song was usually referred to simply as "Earth Angel."
But the composer credit changed at least three times. Curtis Williams was given credit on the initial release, but when he broke his contract with Dootone and Dootsie had to fight to get back the rights to the song, using Gaynel Hodge and Jesse Belvin in his 1956 lawsuit, "Earth Angel" was credited to Hodge-Belvin-Williams. Dootsie also released the song with only "Williams" under the title. Regardless of these composer credits, Dootsie owned all the publishing and most of the composer rights.
By December 1954, thanks to heavy airplay by Alan Freed and a few other important jocks in major markets, "Earth Angel" was moving up on the national R&B and Pop charts. The Penguins' "Earth Angel" topped out at #8 Pop, and would have gone higher if The Crew-Cuts (#3) and Gloria Mann (#18) hadn't covered it for Mercury and Sound, respectively. The Penguins' "Earth Angel" stayed at #1 R&B for three weeks in January 1955 until Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" dislodged it. The Penguins sang "Earth Angel" to a national audience on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
When The Penguins were lured away from Dootone and signed with Mercury, they recorded "Earth Angel" again, on February 1, 1955, but Mercury didn't release this version until mid-1956, when it was already losing faith in the group.
One young New York vocal group was so taken by the Dootone original that they began their career calling themselves The Earth Angels. They soon changed their name to Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers.
Over the years, "Earth Angel" has been recorded by such artists as Elvis Presley, Johnny Tillotson (#57 Pop, 1960), The Cleftones, The Vogues (#42 Pop, 1969), The New Edition (#21 Pop, 1986), even Joan Baez (at a 1977 German concert). Cleve Duncan, backed by a reconstituted Penguins (Walter Saulsberry and a group called The Viceroys), included the song in the popular 1961 medley single "Memories of El Monte," produced by Frank Zappa. The Penguins' original version found new life when Art Laboe reissued it on his 1958 "Memories of El Monte" LP and then on his first "Oldies But Goodies" album (Original Sound 5001), which has remained in print for 40 years.
The recording has also appeared in dozens of TV shows, including "Happy Days," and in such movies as "Back to the Future" (1985) and "Earth Angel" (1990).
Cleve Duncan has mixed emotions about the record that will eventually outlive him. "We never really got out from under 'Earth Angel.' The shadow has always been there."
Besides leasing it to other companies for countless compilations, Dootsie Williams continued to issue "Earth Angel" as a single right up to his death in 1991. He claimed that the record sold at least five million copies. "It's part of our culture," he said.
THE ORIGINS OF "EARTH ANGEL"
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