Street Corner Renaissance
James Keyes, Claude Feaster, Carl Feaster, Floyd F. (“Buddy”) McRae, and James Edwards shared credit for writing the early Doo-Wop classic “Sh-Boom.” Collectively, they were members of the Bronx-based R&B vocal group The Chords, who had their only hit with the song in 1954. “Sh-Boom” appeared on Billboard’s R&B and Pop charts (reaching the #2 and #5 spots, respectively), a rare crossover phenomenon in that era. That same year, “Sh-Boom,” in a paler pop arrangement, was a #1 hit for The Crew-Cuts, a Canadian quartet, backed by Dave Carroll’s Orchestra. Some people consider “Sh-Boom” to be one of the first “Rock and Roll” songs (although references to “rocking” can be found as early as 1947).
I simply think of “Sh-Boom” as one of my favorite songs. Lately, I have been wondering how well “Sh-Boom” has been holding up to the test of time.
My survey begins on the Left Coast in Los Angeles with Street Corner Renaissance, a five-man a cappella group, all of whom quit their day jobs to pursue their musical muses. Their debut album, appropriately enough titled Life Could Be a Dream, came out in 2011. When last heard from, SCR was playing to big crowds in Dubai. These cats made a smooth cover which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Four Quarters
This girl group from the Great North is in no danger of displacing The Guess Who, The Band, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Neil Young & Crazy Horse or Rush on the short list of Canadian bands most Americans can count on one hand. Still, the young ladies have established a regional reputation in their native Ontario.
The quartet of Canucks are longtime friends from formative years spent at St. Joseph’s Catholic High School, and the alumnae still manage to reunite to add to their repertory of Doo-Wop covers (although their arrangement of “O Canada” is apparently their most requested tune). For the time being, a hit is something the 4Qs get on their fan page or YouTube, but they appeared on a compilation CD of Doo-Wop artists from around the world. Their version of “Sh-Boom” comes bundled at the end of a medley. The execution is earnest and wants to please but the sound is a bit thin and doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to be more daring.
Nhip Am Girls
In Vietnamese, “nhip” means a musical bar or measure. However, Nhip Am Girls was not a Vietnamese group; rather, they were students at UCLA. In 2010, the collegiate singing ensemble went co-ed and now goes by the name The AweChords.
The incorporation of dance steps and tap elements into their routine lent some satisfying kinetic energy to their performance. It would have been nice to have heard even more of that energy arc into their otherwise competent harmonies.
The O!Sharels–Tomoco, Mihoko, and Ai—purport to be the only female Doo-Wop group in Japan. They brought good energy, sass, and a quirky predilection for present participles to their English-language rendition of “Sh-Boom.” The trio put out an EP in 2013.
British bands have been covering “Sh-Boom” ever since 1954 when it was first recorded by Ken Mackintosh and His Orchestra with vocals by the The Mackpies. It was the 2010 debut album of The Overtones, however, which brought “Sh-Boom” to a new generation of fans across the pond.
The five-man Doo-Wop group draws talent from England, Ireland, and Australia. The lads were discovered by a talent scout whilst they were taking a tea break on Oxford Street in London where they were working as decorators. Cheers!
This is a French-language rendering by a solo artist from Orléans identified only as Tatay (a Tagalog word meaning “father”). The song is dedicated “pour les rageux” which may be translated roughly as “for the haters” but may be gamer lingo for devotees of Rage, a first-person shooter video game. (Rage is set in a post-apocalyptic near future, following the impact the asteroid 99942 Apophis on Earth, and thus the artist’s rendition of “Sh-Boom” may be an ironic evocation of the meteoric impact itself–Sh-Boom!–as well as a paean–“Life could be a dream”–to a conditionally brighter future.) It has been speculated that the original “Sh-Boom” was an oblique reference to the atomic bomb.
It augers well for “Sh-Boom” that its words are being translated into foreign languages. Of course, the essence of Doo-Wop–like scat–is that its strings of syllables are stripped of traditional meaning. The vocals in this instance seem Frenchified with a lot of “la la la” phonemes, making it sound cheesy to anyone except Francophiles and hardcore Christmas carolers, but overall I think the artist nailed the song in spirit if not to the letter.
The original “Sh-Boom” was an R&B-styled song that quickly found a second home with Pop arrangements. Over time, other musical genres have appropriated the song to suit their distinctive sonic profiles. The appropriation is evident in this recording of “Sh-Boom” by The Ethiopians in 1968.
I’ll leave it to the experts to pinpoint where on the ska-rocksteady-reggae continuum this particular recording resides; what’s important to note is that “Sh-Boom” has demonstrated its cross-cultural versatility. Nor is this recording a one-off: Alton Ellis (“The Godfather of Rocksteady”), Toots and the Maytals, and The Marvels also covered the tune, and other Jamaican bands have put it in their playlists.
Treskantalites hail from the Madrid suburb of Tres Cantos. Notice how the name of the band plays on the name of their home town and manages to incorporate the word “ska.” Pretty clever, don’t you think?
Two things stand out in this interpretation of “Sh-Boom.” The band turns the tune into unrepentant dance music. The horn section is given free range.
Topolino Radio Orquestra
The Big Band era was waning by the time “Sh-Boom” was first produced. In the 1980s, the Barcelona-based Topolino Radio Orquestra put out a cover of the song which is the closest thing to imagining a fully realized swing rendering.
Bonus points are awarded here for translating the lyrics into Spanish. Chi Bum!
“Sh-Boom” has made it south of the border and into this Spanish-language cover by Cuarteto Armónico. (There’s also Spanglish version sung by César de Guatemala, and an English-language version performed south of the equator by Los Jamiltons (Argentina).)
Personally, I found the organ and whistling accompaniments distracting from an otherwise solid performance.
Mannskoret Arme Riddere
If the Internet is any guide, “Sh-Boom” is required harmonizing on many college campuses. This bodes well for the song’s future, notwithstanding the fact that far too many sophomoric (ahem) arrangements make “Sh-Boom” into a vehicle for barbershop quartets or, worse yet, a hymn.
A peek online yielded these contestants for what an exemplary representative example might be: (in no particular order) the Pittsburgh Panther Rhythms, the University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers, Tufts’s S Factor, Western Washington University’s Major Treble, Western Connecticut State University’s The Parallel Fifths, the Stanford Mendicants, the Washington University Stereotypes, the Texas A&M Men of Moores, UC-Berkeley’s Men’s Octet, the Ft. Lewis College Men’s Choir, and McMaster University’s (Canada) Absolute Pitch. The Harvard Din & Tonics consider “Sh-Boom” to be their signature song.
To choose a champion among all these worthy candidates would be harder than picking the perfect bracket for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. So, I have taken the easy way out and selected–envelope please–the Men’s Choir of Poor Knights (loosely translated) at the University of Bergen.
Just thank me for not belaboring the point with high schools, summer camps, and family reunions.
The Alley Cats
What’s the harm in showcasing a group with “Cats” in its name. It’s click-bait, after all! The Alley Cats do a great a cappella al fresco cover too.
Rockabilly? Really? This is just wrong!
The California Raisins
Doubtless The California Raisins are best remembered for their 1988 rendition of the Motown classic “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” but they also did a cover of “Sh-Boom.”
“Sh-Boom” has had a complicated relationship with regional foodstuffs. Iowans of a certain age can tell you that the song was used as a jingle in television commercials hawking Dubuque Hams.
At the outset, I feel the need to get this out of my system:
What’s the difference between a ukulele and an onion?
No one cries when you cut up a ukulele.
What’s the difference between a ukulele and a trampoline?
You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.
Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the ukulele?
It saves time.
All joking aside, the amalgam of sweetness and insouciance in this rendition by Reneé Dominque was enchanting.
Remember Richard Reid? Ronnie does.
The Crew Cuts
This is the best known version of “Sh-Boom.” The Crew Cuts were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1984–having never recorded an original song.
The Chords are the originals. There is an unbridled exuberance in their performance. The harmonies, the horns, and the cantering tempo all seamlessly coalesce and build to a crescendo verging on delirium.
The year 1954 was pivotal in the nascent civil rights movement gaining momentum in the United States. The Supreme Court, in their unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, struck down school segregation as unconstitutional. Far from being universally and triumphantly heralded as a watershed moment for equal rights, racial fault lines were being exposed and racial tensions were rising.
The music industry was not immune from prejudicial attitudes or discriminatory practices. Most African-American recording artists were relegated to smaller and independent record labels with less marketing muscle and more modest production facilities than the big-name recording companies. Black groups found it hard to get airplay on mainstream media properties in a time when radio was the primary means of achieving national exposure, and disc jockeys were the gatekeepers and tastemakers of popular music. It was common for the big labels to repackage black music in ways which were perceived to be more palatable to white audiences. “Sh-Boom” shook up the status quo with its unstoppable crossover appeal, but The Chords would wind up becoming one-hit wonders and historical footnotes.
“Sh-Boom” was The Chords’s only hit song. When it was established that another band had already been using The Chords’s name, the group underwent a couple of reincarnations, firstly re-dubbed The Chordcats, and, finally, The Sh-Booms. By 1960, having switched record labels, and following some personnel changes, the group had disbanded. Buddy McCrae, the last surviving member of the original group, died in 2013.