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Green Suits Cadillacs

Rhythm and blues vocal group music of the 1950s can be seen as the confluence of the gospel, pop and R & B vocal group styles of the preceding two decades, which occurred primarily in the northern and western cities of the United States. Most group members of the early to mid 1950s were African American and male. One of them was The Cadillacs who had their first hit in 1954 with the ballad “Gloria.”

The Cadillacs and many of the early practitioners of rhythm and blues vocal group music rehearsed where the best reverb could be had – on the street corners, playgrounds, school hallways and restrooms of the cities where they lived. Each group staked out its own territory. As lead singer Earl “Speedo” Carroll remembers, … every young kid in Harlem wanted to be a rhythm and blues singer, I mean, you could go up and down 8th avenue or 7th avenue or Lenox Avenue, which is in Harlem, and find a group. I remember 142nd street had a group called The Crows. They had a big record called “Gee.” And The Solitaires was out on 141st street; they had a couple of big records (Interview with author 1998)

The Cadillacs called the area of 7th and 8th Avenues between 131st and 133rd streets in Manhattan their own. That is where they were discovered by Lover Patterson in 1953. Again Speedo remembers it this way, He was a little older than most of us, but he had the inside dope on who to see in the record business. He took The Five Crowns, who became The Drifters … he took them to Atlantic, to George Treadwell. And he took my group, The Cadillacs, he took us to Esther Navarro, who was affiliated with the Blaine Brothers … who owned Jubilee Records (Interview with author 1998).

For the Josie/Jubilee label the group released their most famous recordings “Gloria” (Josie #765; did not chart nationally) in 1954 and “Speedo,” (Josie #785; #17 Pop, #3 R & B) in 1955 both of which have become standards of the doo-wop repertoire. The writer of these songs is listed as Esther Navarro who had become the group’s manager. But according to Speedo, You know, like we wrote most of our tunes, but Esther Navarro got the credit for ‘em because she was familiar with copyrighting and publishing. And we used to sing our songs to her and she would take shorthand and she would turn ‘em to the Library of Congress and claim the tunes … that she was the writer on these particular tunes. And a lot of managers did that in those days, it was very, you know … that was the day of the Rip-off, I imagine you would call it (Interview with author 1998).It was during this period that the group honed its trademark sound (r & b jump blues complemented by smooth ballads), image (flashy, matching tuxedos) and presentation (energetic dancing via the tutelage of tap-dancer Cholly Atkins). This was the peak of the group’s popularity, which not only meant national tours with the biggest pop stars of the day, but appearances in several films. Toward the end of the decade, influenced by groups like The Coasters (who formed in 1956), The Cadillacs tried their hand at the novelty song genre and scored a minor hit with “Peek-a-boo” (Josie 846; #28 Pop, #20 R & B) in 1958. As with the other Cadillac songs, Esther Navarro is dubiously listed as writer.

CRUISING THE OLDIES CIRCUIT: THE CADILLACS YESTERDAY AND TODAY However, by 1959 The Cadillacs also found themselves no longer considered a marketable entity by the mainstream record industry, and, like so many of their peers, because of earlier economic exploitation, they were left with little financially to show for their time in the spot-light. Earl Carroll left the group and spent the next twenty years touring and occasionally recording with The Coasters. Bass singer Bobby Phillips spent that period in various reformations of The Cadillacs and they would both meet up from time to time on what came to be known as the oldies circuit.

The origin of the oldies circuit can be traced back as early as the late 1950s, when the records of the Cadillacs and other R & B vocal groups, became the objects of a burgeoning nostalgia craze. For example, Irving “Slim” Rose opened the Times Square Record Store in New York in 1960 and featured vocal group records from the early to mid 1950s.

The Cadillacs’ record “Gloria,” for instance, was number 23 on the Times Square Records Top 100 in sales list for January 1961 (Gribin and Schiff 2000:199). This meant that a new generation of New York City teenagers had access to this music. This new, more racially diverse demographic group now included Italian American vocal groups from Brooklyn, like The Passions who recorded “Gloria” in 1960 and Vito and The Salutations whose version was released in 1962.

By 1969, with the help of DJ Gus Gossert, who popularized the use of the term “doo-wop” on his radio show, and promoter Richard Nader, who presented the first of his Madison Square Garden revival shows that year, an oldies circuit was taking shape, with the romantic image of the street-corner doo-wop group as its most potent marketing icon (Gribin and Schiff 2000:200). In 1972, WCBS-FM became the first 24-hour oldies radio station in the United States, featuring the Sunday night show The Doo-wop Shop, and many doo-wop related magazines and organizations, such as The United in Group Harmony Association, dedicated themselves to the preservation of what they considered to be an underappreciated musical heritage.In the wake of this renewed interest in their music, in 1979 Carroll and Phillips decided to reform The Cadillacs. The dance routines were brought back, flashy matching tuxedos were purchased and the Coaster-esque comedy routines were inserted to complete a polished and highly entertaining show. The current 2004 line-up of Carroll, Phillips and Gary Lewis (who is not an original member) is a testament not only to the sustained interest in a musical style, but also the survival of musicians in the face of financial hardship and changing popular taste.

The Cadillacs are significant because they continue to practice a traditional vocal style whose traits are still evident in much contemporary vocal group music. They were also one of the first vocal-groups to incorporate intricate and often elaborate choreography into their performances. By working with Cholly Atkins of the well-known post-war dancing team of Coles and Atkins from 1955 to 1959, The Cadillacs participated in the progress of the African-American jazz dance tradition. Atkins went on to work with such well-known groups as Gladys Night and the Pips and The Temptations, but The Cadillacs were among his first protégées. Today, the group is most often the closing act on the shows on which they perform, because their energetic dancing makes them such a tough act to follow. Finally, many of the groups that perform on the oldies circuit use well-known names such as The Coasters and The Drifters, but contain no original members. The Cadillacs can boast two: Earl “Speedo” Carroll and Bobby Phillips.