Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Brief History of I-vi-IV-V

I'm late to the game, but just noticed that Roger Bourland had a lovely post a few weeks back about one of my favorite subjects: I-vi-IV-V.

As Roger points out, this chord progression is inescapable. Today most people know it as the "Heart and Soul" changes. With the proper metrical context (6/8) and vocal texture (falsetto lead, "doo-wopping" bass) it screams "fifties," or at least that imaginary "fifties" that involves (white bourgeois) teenagers, poodle skirts, and the Kinsey report. Well, maybe the last one is particular to me.

Incidentally, although this post is not my promised discussion of the AMS Cold War panel, the doo-wop progression is an unusually excellent example of the self-reflexivity of the Fifties that Phil Ford talked about in his presentation. By 1959, the progression had not only been standardized, it was reified as an "fifties oldie", a mere four or five years after it came to prominence!

As most of us who study it know, doo-wop is not actually a "real" genre of music. It consists of four different music scenes. What's complicated is that these music scenes did not exist at the same time, but nevertheless when you are trying to envision what doo-wop "is", you have to hold all four scenes in your head at the same time:

1. R&B vocal groups of the early fifties (e.g. the Orioles, Crows, etc)
2. rock and roll vocal groups of the mid-1950s (e.g. the Chords, Penguins)
3. the late fifties Italian vocal groups (Dion and the Belmonts)
4. The early sixties revivalists (e.g. the Marcels)

Something to keep in mind: the first two are largely black, the second two mostly white (but in complicated ways).

But we're not done yet. Added to these four musical scenes you have several distinct analytical moments. The first is what I mentioned above: 1959, when the first "Oldies" compilation albums were put together, and when Slim's arcade shop in Times Square began selling rare early R&B records. It is this moment when you start to hear reference to "doo-wop" as a genre, rather than just a technique for bass arpeggiation. Another analytical moment comes later in the sixties and early seventies, when you get Sh-Na-Na and Grease. I think this is probably the moment when doo-wop starts to lose its affiliation with African American music, and becomes a representation of a mostly white vision of the fifties. Finally, in the 1990s, Rhino put out its magisterial four disc compilation of doo-wop. Although Rhino's historiography isn't crystal clear, to their credit they do understand the basic four-part history, and arranged the discs thusly. So that's doo-wop: four musical scenes, three analytical moments.

But the next, and bigger questions: where does I-vi-IV (or ii)-V come from?

Roger talks a lot about "Heart and Soul," and that is indeed one of the early examples. But there is one crucial difference between "Heart and Soul" and the progression as used in the early fifties when it first becomes popularized: "Heart and Soul" is at a much faster tempo. By 1953 (The Crows "Gee") and 1954 (Chords "Sh-Boom") you're starting to get uptempo versions of the progression, but the forties and fifties groups almost always kept it at a slow ballad. Think about the Ravens' "Count Every Star" (1950), or the Harp-Tones "Sunday Kind of Love" (1953). And of course, "Earth Angel" is taken at an almost painfully slow tempo.

No, where all these groups got the progression was, as best as I can tell, from the Rogers and Hart standard from 1934 "Blue Moon." Apparently, "the blue moon changes" were an accepted part of the arranging vocabulary in the late forties and fifties. I have no idea why this is true. One thing is that in 1949 Mel Tormé recorded a new version of the song that sold quite well, and a number of other pop musicians followed him in recording versions as well. Since the R&B vocal groups were all inveterate fans of pop standards, it stands to reason they would all be familiar with the song in 1950.

One of my favorite examples of the tangled power of I-vi-IV-V is the Moonglows cover of "Secret Love" from 1954. The original is of course from the fabulous Doris Day musical Calamity Jane. I've given a paper on the subject (comparing it to the Orioles cover released at the same time), so I'll spare you the painful details. But basically what the Moonglows do, at least superficially, is reharmonize "Secret Love" to a doo-wop progression, complete with triplet accompaniments and a soaring falsetto that gently parodies Doris's rather, uh, exuberant, singing style. Go buy a copy on iTunes, it's really quite amazing.

But what's interesting is that they actually don't reharmonize the song at all. The intro at least sounds like a doo-wop song (although the progression is an odd one), but as soon as the verse begins, the accompaniment drops to more or less a single line, allowing Bobby Lester to sing the tune without too much fussing around to get notes to match chords. And when you get to the chorus, they stop trying all together, and a piano just plays the original chords unaltered. There is a power to I-vi-IV-V, a power that draws you into its circular world, but it's not always enough to keep you there.

Now that's half of an hour I should have spent writing my dissertation!


Jimmy Shelter said...

Thanks to the garage rockers of the King Khan and BBQ Show I recently got interested in doo-wop, and your article gives some nice background.

Very nice article!

Happywheels54 said...

Yeah, the background starts to get pretty nice.