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UPDATED: 11-10-2012
The PENGUINS and "EARTH ANGEL"
Penguins 1954 PR photo
The "Earth Angel" Penguins in 1954 (left-right): Curtis Williams, Cleve Duncan, Dexter Tisby and Bruce Tate

The world knows The Penguins as the group that recorded "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine),"one of the best-selling, most beloved oldies of all time. But to doo-wop fans, the group was more than just a one-hit wonder, and lead singer Cleve Duncan kept The Penguins functioning as a viable outfit for over 50 years.

"I was singing at a talent show at the California Club on Santa Barbara Avenue [now MLK Blvd.]," says Cleve, "and Curtis Williams came up afterward and wanted to know if I'd form a group wth him." Curtis Williams had recently left The Hollywood Flames, with whom he had recorded a couple of singles. "So Curtis got [baritone] Bruce Tate from his high school [Jefferson] and I got [tenor] Dexter Tisby from my high school [Fremont]. We learned a few songs, got on some talent shows, sang in some clubs. Then Ted Brinson heard us and got involved."

Dootsie Williams

Before his death in 1991, Walter "Dootsie" Williams, owner of Dootone Records, recalled that he first heard about The Penguins from Brinson. "He had a backyard studio over on 30th Street between Arlington and Western that was very economical, so I recorded there. My stuff was mostly songwriters demos then. They'd pay me $300 and I'd record their song. So I heard the group and liked them. The first thing I did with them was a demo of a song called 'There Ain't No News Today,' which I released.' Another singer [Willie Headon] was on the other side. "This single was credited to The Dootsie Williams Orchestra, with "Vocal by The Penguins."

What inspired their name, said Cleve, was Willie the Penguin, the cartoon logo character in Kool mentholated cigarette ads. This was a time when many young black vocal groups, inspired by late-'40s proto-doo-wop groups The Orioles and The Ravens, named themselves after birds. "What was more cool than a penguin?" Cleve says now, with a smile..

Dootsie Williams was already having some success with another young vocal group, The Medallions, but he wasn't sure if he wanted to follow through with The Penguins. "My distributor, Sid Talmadge [of Record Merchandising], wasn't impressed with them. He told me they were too pop. And for a small indie like me in those days, the distributor had a lot of say-so. He would tell me what was selling, what kind of beat people were listening to."

But Dootsie Williams' was first and foremost a music publisher, and what drew him to The Penguins was that they had brought him a couple of original songs called "Earth Angel" and "Hey, Senorita" (formerly "Esa Chiquita'). He recorded both songs as demos at Brinson's studio sometime in the late summer of 1954, and then got an unexpected amount of local airplay, first by Huggy Boy, later by Charles Trammell and Johnny Otis. By late September he started pressing up his first copies. At first he treated "Hey, Senorita" as the A-side, but the jocks flipped it over. By October "Earth Angel" was making noise all over Los Angeles, and by December it went national on the R&B charts and slipped over onto the pop charts, where it reached as high as #8 in January 1955 despite two popular cover versions by The Crew-Cuts and Gloria Mann.

the Penguins with Johnny Otis in 1956

The runaway success of "Earth Angel" overwhelmed Dootsie Williams' tiny operation and almost threatened to bankrupt him, because he had to keep pressing new records even though distributors across the country weren't paying him for copies already sold. Meanwhile, Buck Ram, a songwriter-publisher who managed another Los Angeles group called The Platters, had taken over The Penguins' management and wanted to move them onto a larger label. Mercury Records was already impressed with the group because their primitive little recording on a tiny black-owned indie had done so well on the charts against their better-promoted white cover version, so Ram made an agreement with Mercury to sign them with the company on one condition: Mercury also had to sign The Platters. During this time, Ram was also claiming that Dootsie's contracts with the group and their songwriter Curtis Williams were null and void because they had been under-age. "I told them they'd lose all their royalties," said Dootsie, "but they told me, 'To hell with your royalties, we're gonna make it big!'"

Buck Ram

The Penguins' break from Dootsie Williams became obvious when they didn't show up at the jam-packed Ookey Ook Dance Contest at the Savoy Ballroom on Central Avenue to promote the release of their follow-up single, "Ookey Ook," on February 21, 1955.

At first The Penguins' defection seemed to have put them in the big time. "We were impressed with Mercury's large size and distribution," said Cleve Duncan. But it didn't take long for things to unravel. "Ram just used us to get The Platters on the label. He actually owned The Platters and paid them a salary. So he used them to push his best songs. Everything he wrote for us, like 'Devil That I See," sounded like 'Earth Angel.' He wanted us to sell him The Penguins name, but we held out."

The Penguins toured back east, appeared at the Apollo Theater and at Alan Freed's Brooklyn Paramount rock 'n' roll shows, and performed for a national audience on "The Ed Sullivan Show."During this period they enjoyed the status of hitmakers, sharing the stage with greats like Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. But despite some good recordings on Mercury, they couldn't come up with a successful follow-up to "Earth Angel."

[In fact, Mercury even re-recorded "Earth Angel" and "Hey, Senorita," but the company didn't release them at the time. Mercury's "Earth Angel"didn't come out until 1956. Also, Dootsie Williams won all publishing rights to "Earth Angel" in his lawsuit against Curtis Williams and Peer International.]

"We had to do what [Mercury] wanted us to do," Cleve Duncan lamented. "Our sound was still there, but they wanted us to project it a different way. At Dootone it was a group effort, but at Mercury we lost control over production. Buck Ram called the shots in the studio."

When Mercury failed to renew their contract, The Penguins briefly went to Atlantic Records. But the company released only one single, "Pledge of Love," an R&B cover of a white pop hit, which lasted only one week on the R&B charts.

By the time The Penguins returned to Dootsie Williams in 1957, they were demoralized and broke. Being young and inexperienced, they had made most of the mistakes and bad judgements endemic within the ruthless, manipulative music business. Bruce Tate, having been involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident in Los Angeles over a year earlier, had already been replaced in the group by Teddy Harper. Curtis Williams fled California after a judge put out a warrant for his arrest for nonpayment of alimony and child support, so he was replaced at bass by Randy Jones.

Though competent, these 1957-58 recordings for Dooto lacked the old fire of the earlier Dootone and Mercury sides, and none of them sold. Demoralized, The Penguins broke up. Cleve Duncan tried something different by recording one single with sisters Gladys and Vesta White (The Radiants), but it likewise went nowhere.

the Penguins 1959 The Penguins in 1959
(clockwise from bottom):
Teddy Harper, Dexter Tisby,
Randy Jones and
Cleve Duncan

By 1961, however, he was approached by a young musician named Frank Zappa to record a tribute song that Zappa had written called "Memories of El Monte," a pastiche of many of the classic Los Angeles doo-wop songs like "Nite Owl," "In the Still of the Nite" and "Earth Angel" that had been a staple at Art Laboe's rock 'n' roll shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium. Laboe himself released the record on his Original Sound label, and "Memories of El Monte" turned out to be a local hit--and a perennial favorite. (The vocalists backing Cleve are reputed to be The Viceroys.) Forming a new Penguins as a trio--himself, baritone Walter Saulsberry and tenor/bass Glen Madison (formerly of The Delcos)--Cleve recorded a couple more singles for local labels to capitalize on the dance crazes of the early '60s.

This Penguins lineup steadily performed around the country for the next 40-plus years. Cleve Duncan died on November 7, 2012.

The Penguins in the 1990s:
Cleve Duncan (sitting)
with Glenn Madison
and Walter Saulsberry
the Penguins today

Penguins fans can still catch up on most of the their '50s and '60s recordings. Ace Records in England has released a Penguins CD that contains all their Dootone material, and two of Ace's "Dootone Doo-wop" compilation CDs include Cleve's sides with The Radiants (in stereo). Bear Family in Germany has issued all of The Penguins' Mercury cuts, and Original Sound has released various sides they recorded during the "Memories of El Monte" period. Their two Atlantic sides are on a couple of Atlantic 2-CD sets from Rhino Records.

--Jim Dawson

< FOR THE SMALLER PICTURES ABOVE, CLICK TO SEE FULL-SIZE IMAGE >




The Internet site http://doowop.bayside.net has audio clips of
Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild and Devil That I See by the Penguins.


THE ORIGINS OF EARTH ANGEL: The Writing of the Song

THE RECORDING OF EARTH ANGEL: The Studio Sessions

The Penguins at Show #35 (2/10/2001)




Discography

45s
Dootone 345* No, There Ain't No News Today / (not on flipside) Aug 1954
Dootone 348 Earth Angel / Hey Senorita Oct 1954
Dootone 353 Love Will Make Your Love Go Wild / Ookey Ook Feb 1955
Dootone 362 Kiss A Fool Goodbye / Baby, Let's Make Some Love Apr 1955
Mercury 70610 Be Mine Or Be A Fool / Don't Do It Apr 1955
Mercury 70654 It Only Happens With You / Walkin' Down Broadway Jul 1955
Mercury 70703 Devil That I See / Promises, Promises, Promises Oct 1955
Mercury 70762 Christmas Prayer / Jingle Jangle Dec 1955
Mercury 70799 My Troubles Are Not At An End / She's Gone Jan 1956
Wing 90076 Dealer Of Dreams / Peace of Mind May 1956
Mercury 70943 Earth Angel / Ice Aug 1956
(This is a different version of "Earth Angel," cut in early 1955.)
Mercury 71033 Will You Be Mine? / Cool, Baby, Cool Jan 1957
Atlantic 1132 Pledge Of Love / I Knew I'd Fall In Love Mar 1957
Dootone 348** Earth Angel / Hey Senorita May 1957
Dooto 428 That's How Much I Need You / Be My Loving Baby Nov 1957
Dooto 348** Earth Angel / Hey Senorita Jan 1958
Dooto 432 Let Me Make Up Your Mind / Sweet Love Jan 1958
Dooto 435 Do Not Pretend / If You're Mine Mar 1958
Dooto 451*** To Keep Our Love / I'm Betting My Heart On You 1959
Dooto 456+ You're An Angel / Please Mr. Junkman 1960
Power 7023++ Earth Angel / Hey, Senorita 1960
Original Sound 028 Memories Of El Monte / Be Mine 1961
Sun State 001 Believe Me / The Pony Rock 1961
Eldo 119 To Keep Our Love / Universal Twist 1962
Good Old Gold xx Memories Of El Monte / Be Mine (bootleg single) ____
Collectables xx Earth Angel / Hey, Senorita 1980s
Collectables 3980 Ookie Ook / Love Will Make Your Heart Go Wild 1980s
Original Sound OBG 4504 Memories of El Monte / Heavenly Angel 1984
Original Sound OBG 4515 Crying in the Chapel / (not on flipside) 1985
Original Sound OBG 4518 Your Tender Lips / (not on flipside) 1985
(Above three singles issued by Art Laboe.. OBG stand for Oldies But Goodies.)
Collectables 4885 Earth Angel / A Christmas Prayer 1994
(These are both 1955 Mercury recordings..)
*As by The Dootsie Williams Orchestra, with The Penguins
**Reissued when Penguins rejoined Dootsie Williams after Dootsie regained ownership of the song "Earth Angel" in May; then reissued again in early 1958.
***As by Cleve Duncan & The Radiants
+As by Cleve Duncan & The Penguins
++This release was the first to include the entire recordings of "Earth Angel" and "Hey, Senorita," with the full piano introductions, making the recordings several seconds longer than the original Dootone releases. Previously the recordings had faded in just as the vocals began..
EPs
Dootone 201 The Penguins 1955
Dootone EPD 101 The Penguins 1956
(Includes "Earth Angel," "I Ain't Gonna Cry No More," "Love Will Make Your Heart Go Wild" and "Baby Let's Make Some Love.")
LPs
Dootone 204 Best Vocal Groups In Rhythm & Blues 1955
(Contains 6 tracks by the Penguins)
Dootone 224 Best Vocal Groups In Rock 'N' Roll 1956
Dooto 242 The Cool, Cool Penguins 1959
(Contains their dozen 1957-58 tracks only, including tracks not released on singles, such as "Heart of a Fool," "Cold Heart," "Want Me," "Money Talks" and "Butterball.")
Bear Family 15222 The Penguins Earth Angel 1986
(Contains the group's 20 Mercury tracks, 1955-56.)
Collectables 5045 The Penguins 1980s
(Contains 12 tracks, including early A-sides.)
Ace CH 101 Big Jay McNeely Meets The Penguins 1984
(Live album, recorded at the Club Lingerie, Hollywood, in 1983.)
Ace CH 249 The Penguins 1988
(Contains Dooto LP tracks plus 1954-55 singles)
CDs
Ace CDCH 249 The Penguins 1990
(Same as Ace LP but has 3 extra tracks. Contains all 21 recordings the group cut for Dootone/Dooto, with full length versions of "Earth Angel," "Hey, Senorita" and "Ookey Ook.")
Collectables xx The Penguins 1980s
(Same as the LP.)
Juke Box Treasures 6009 The Authentic Golden Hits Of The Penguins (bootleg) 1995
(Contains 28 tracks, including the original abridge and the full-length versions of "Earth Angel," "Hey, Senorita" and "Ooky Ook.")
Rhino 2 7169 Don't It Sound Good: The Great Atlantic Vocal Groups 1995
(Contains "Pledge of Love')
Rhino 2 7209 All Night Boogie: The Great Atlantic Vocal Groups, Vol 2 1996
(Contains "I Knew I'd Fall in Love")
Original Sound xx Rare But Well Done ____
(3-CD set contains "Memories of El Monte" and "Heavenly Angel.")


Thanks to Steve Propes for his help with this discography.



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