Jimmy Keyes died last Saturday. If you don’t recall his name, you’ll remember his music. He helped compose “Sh-Boom” and sang with The Chords when they recorded it in 1954. This was the doo-wop song that broke the racial barrier and lifted the all-black sextet into pop music’s Top 10.
Dozens of doo-wop groups followed through the gate opened by Jimmy Keyes and The Chords, each with a mellow harmonic style as unique as a signature — The Penguins with “Earth Angel”; The Moonglows with “Sincerely”; The Five Satins with “In the Still of the Night”; The Flamingos with “I Only Have Eyes for You”; The Platters with “Twilight Time,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “My Prayer” and “Only You.”
Mr. Keyes’ passing stirs musical nostalgia, to be sure. But the nostalgia brings with it the recognition of a drift in popular culture that is deeply disturbing.
Consider where the doo-wop groups developed their rich talents. “Sh-Boom” was written in a Buick convertible parked on a street in the Bronx. In city after city, young musicians emulated that achievement. They gathered in Harlem, Queens, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, Los Angeles. Young men, usually black, huddled and sang, their voices echoing from street corners, tenement yards and subway stations — sweet harmonies melded in gritty urban tableaux.
Today, those same environs are cultural war zones. Young men still gather on street corners and in subway stations, but not to improve their natural talents and certainly not to croon love songs. Harmony in the inner city nowadays means agreeing on the price of a few rocks of crack cocaine; the music of the night is not doo-wop but gunfire.
Urban youngsters still congregate and make music, of a sort. But where male doo-wop groups sang of a young man’s devotion to a special girl (“You’re my dream come true, my one and only you”), or of the anguish thereof (“Why do fools fall in love?”), today’s rappers snarl about “whores” and “bitches.”
Where the doo-wops showed respect and adoration for women (“Life could be a dream, if I could spend my whole life loving you”), today’s inner-city rappers chant of ripping apart women’s reproductive organs.
To communicate their sentiments, doo-wop groups mastered rhythmic and harmonic intricacies and achieved subtle vocal dynamics. Today’s rappers are capable only of furious, assaultive shouting punctuated with an overpowering percussive thump that is about as subtle as artillery.
The larger point is not that doo-wop was music for the ages, nor that the ’50s was an idyllic era, nor that Jimmy Keyes and his musical colleagues were saints. The point is that those musicians and their music reflected a core of respect and human decency; they unself-consciously celebrated love — and the popular culture of their day welcomed it. The predominant music of the inner city today doesn’t merely fail to reflect decency and respect; it viciously rejects those virtues.
Despite a complaint that was often heard in the ’50s, rock ’n’ roll was not the younger generation’s handcar to hell. But its evolution over the last four decades charts a trajectory in that general direction. Jimmy Keyes’ passing invokes sweet recollections of the way we were — and, by contrast, a frightening recognition of what we are becoming. Popular music is a cultural barometer, and the prevailing winds are crude and coarse.