Mabel the Bumblebee wishes everyone a very happy Halloween:
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Choreographing the Black Bourgeoisie: Masculinity and Sincerity in Live Performances of the Orioles
The early R&B vocal group the Orioles is often credited with launching the musical style later known as doo-wop, especially with their 1949 crossover hit “It’s Too Soon to Know.” A smooth romantic ballad featuring the hugely popular Sonny Til as the lead vocalist, the song turned the Orioles into objects of adoration for African American teenagers, and their live performances often became frenzied scenes of adulation. This paper will analyze these early performances, looking at them in the context of the emerging African American middle-class after World War II, the so-called “black bourgeoisie” famously critiqued by E. Franklin Frazier in the mid-1950s. Crucial to the success of the Orioles within this environment was their performance of masculinity, which in turn hinged upon creating a convincing affect of “sincerity.” Drawing upon methodologies from Performance Studies, I use interviews, recordings, and contemporary coverage in the black press to examine this affect through various artifacts of their embodied performances: hairstyles, costumes, stage choreography, and vocal gestures. In a historical moment where the newly-invented category of “rhythm and blues” had yet to coalesce into a coherent musical style, the Orioles helped create an alternative to the more aggressively sexual masculinities emerging out of jump blues. Their choreography of masculinity would become highly influential on popular music of the later 1950s and 1960s, in musical scenes such as that of Motown.