It's Top 40 days may be long past, Rebecca Hopkins says, but its appeal is timeless
Doo-wop had its day in the sun. It was invented by African-American musicians who couldn’t afford musical instruments. Necessity being the mother of invention, they used their voices instead — and music executives noticed. The Drifters, The Righteous Brothers, The Platters and other male harmony groups got a burst of airplay in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Doo-wop was soon eclipsed by its upstart brother, rock ’n’ roll. But thanks to a new generation of musicians, it finally came out of the shadows. In our area, Rebecca and Richard Hopkins’ “Unchained Melodies” celebrated the street-corner style at Florida Studio Theatre back in 2018. Turns out, rock’s little brother struck a chord in our community. The revue was the theater’s most popular ever. When FST brought it back for a return engagement this year, it immediately sold out — and the theater added a third week before the show had even started. What’s the secret of doo-wop’s enduring appeal? We posed the question to Rebecca Hopkins, FST’s managing director and the show’s co-creator. She was happy to tell us why.
Will this be the same show you did in 2018?
Yes. Same director, same band, same songs … Of course it’s never the same show. Cabaret is very real and in the moment. These guys add a lot to it. They interact with the audience; they talk to each other. Something different happens every night. That’s true for all live theater, period. But it’s especially true for cabaret. There’s always a new discovery, whether you’re in the audience or in the band. Especially this band.
Well, in the revues we’ve done in the past, the musicians came in already knowing the songs. But the young men in our band were unfamiliar with doo-wop music when we launched this show in 2018. They were all so young, and it just wasn’t part of their generational experience. These guys only had a vague notion of what doo-wop was — and that’s the first time we’ve had that experience at FST. So, they didn’t just perform this music — they discovered it. When they did, these four guys fell in love with doo-wop.
And they weren’t doing oldies they’ve heard umpteen times. Doo-wop was new to them.
Exactly. And I think that’s how we’ve captured the spirit of the original performers. The appeal is in the music itself — and not whether you heard it on the radio when you were growing up.
Ah. So, this is not nostalgic ear candy for baby boomers?
No, it’s definitely not. Hey, I love doo-wop and I’m not a baby boomer.
What are some of your favorite doo-wop songs?
Oh … “Stand by Me,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Unchained Melody” — don’t get me started, I could go on all day. I really love this music.
What do you love about it?
Doo-wop is uplifting in every sense of the word. What these kids created was so intricate and subtle — and so life-affirming and optimistic in feel. Doo-wop lifts you. The optimism in the lyrics lifts you. The harmonies lift you. Harmony, in and of itself, evokes positive emotions. The stories of the doo-wop artists are also so powerful. This was everyman’s music. Music executives didn’t invent it. It was created by kids doing a cappella harmonies on street corners. These artists did the impossible and lifted themselves up. It’s just a special kind of music — there’s nothing else like it, before or since.
So, Doo-wop is a great American success story?
Partly. But there’s tragedy, too. These artists were poor people and they were kids too. They were easily exploited. The Drifters got something like $150 bucks a week, and no royalties. The artists didn’t own their art, and that’s why they never stopped touring.
It is. But these performers also broke down doors in the music industry. The next wave of artists wanted a piece of their success. Doo-wop artists also laid the groundwork for the harmonies of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, who took it to the next level in the studio.
So it’s all connected?
Definitely. That’s what’s so fascinating to me about my cabaret work at FST. I get to find out how interconnected these music styles are. It’s kind of like the six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. You can always trace everything back to common origins.
Rock and doo-wop had the same roots. Rock grew to Godzilla-like proportions, yet doo-wop didn’t. Why?
It’s a fascinating question, and I’m still trying to answer it. I think rock and doo-wop started on the same journey, but split up in the 1960s. One became much more popular — but that’s a question of audiences, not musicians. Doo-wop and rock musicians never stopped speaking to each other — so the split was never a total split. That mutual creative influence just fascinates me. It led me to create “The Wonder Years” to look at the other side of the equation. For me, that’s how the creative process works. One revue suggests another revue; every answer creates more questions.
And you never get back to Kevin Bacon.
No. (laughs) But it’s fun to try.