On the doo-wop gender train from the past

Going the Facebook rounds:

the song that was number 1 on your 14th birthday defines your life

(pretty clearly intended: #1 in the US — though you could certainly carp about that)

Hey nonny ding dong: it’s “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)” as recorded by the Crew-Cuts in 1954.

(#1) Trading card photo of The Crew-Cuts. In 1957, Topps gum cards issued a series of movie stars, television stars and recording stars.

You can listen to it here:

(#2) Top of the US charts from late August through mid-September 1954

About the song. From Wikipedia:

“Sh-Boom” (sometimes referred to as “Life Could Be a Dream”) is an early doo-wop song. It was written by James Keyes, Claude Feaster, Carl Feaster, Floyd F. McRae, and James Edwards, members of the R&B vocal group the Chords and published in 1954. It was a U.S. top ten hit that year for both the Chords (who first recorded the song) and the Crew-Cuts.

And the doo-wop group. They were Canadian:

The Crew-Cuts were a Canadian vocal quartet … that made a number of popular records that charted in the United States and worldwide. They named themselves after the then popular crew cut haircut, one of the first connections made between pop music and hairstyle. They were most famous for their recording of The Chords’ hit record, “Sh-Boom.”

It’s a teen love song, plus some nonsense syllables appropriate to the genre:

Hey nonny ding dong, alang alang alang
Boom ba-doh, ba-doo ba-doodle-ay

Oh, life could be a dream (sh-boom)
If I could take you up in paradise up above (sh-boom)
If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love
Life could be a dream sweetheart

Background: some doo-wop. Postings on this blog:

on 4/3/15, “More na na na”: on the 1957 song “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes; and the American rock and roll group Sha Na Na, named after the nonsense syllables in this song

on 8/4/16, “Zippy and the Edsels”: the 1957 doo-wop song “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by the Edsels

on 8/23/17, “Bluto says: join or else”: the 1955 doo-wop song “Speedoo”by the Cadillacs

Background: the haircut. The 1950s were a high moment for doo-wop and also for the crewcut hairstyle. From Wikipedia:

The crew cut, regardless of the name applied to the hairstyle, was not limited to, nor did the style originate in the United States. In English, the crew cut and flat top crew cut were formerly known as the pompadour or short pompadour, as well as the brush cut, and had been worn since at least the mid 18th century. The style went by other names in other languages; in French, coupé en brosse; in German, Bürstenschnitt; in Russian, ёжик. A short pompadour with a flat top was considered the standard while a somewhat curved appearance across the top was suggested for wider foreheads and face shapes. The style with a flat top acquired the name brush top short pompadour and the style with a more rounded top, round top short pompadour. Prior to the invention of electric clippers with a motor in the handle in 1921 and their ensuing marketing and widespread use, barbers considered the perfect short pompadour to be the most time consuming style to trim.

The term, originally crew haircut, was most likely coined to describe the hairstyles worn by members of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and other university Crew teams, which were short to keep the hair from being blown into the face of the rower as the boat races down the course opposite the direction the rower is seated with both hands on the oars, making it impossible to brush the hair out of the face. The name drew a contrast to football haircuts, which had been long since 1889 when Princeton football players began wearing long hair to protect against head injury, thereby starting a trend, not altogether welcome; mop haired football players were frequently caricatured in the popular press. In 1895, the championship Yale football team appeared with “close-cropped heads” and subsequently long hair went out of style for football. Almost concurrently, the first helmets began to appear.

Crew cuts were popular in the 1920s and 1930s among college students, particularly in the ivy league. The style was often worn as a summer haircut for its cooling effect.  Men inducted into the military in World War II received G.I. haircuts, crew cuts, and a significant proportion continued to wear a crew cut while serving and after, as civilians. As long hair became popular in the mid 1960s, the crew cut and its variants waned in popularity through the 1970s. The crew cut began to come back in style in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the flat top crew cut being the most popular crew cut style during the 1980s.

My crew-cut days. Back in those 1950s. Here are two pages from a 2009 volume (compiled by Ruth Anne (Maier) Bengtson about the 50-year anniversary of the youth concerts of the Reading (PA) Symhony Orchestra, in particular the summer concerts at the Bynden Wood resort on South Mountain in Wernersville PA.  I was a performer in the third Bynden Wood concert, in 1957. Two pages of reminiscences of that day, from Ruth Anne’s book, with two photos of a crew-cut AMZ in them:

(#3) The 2-piano 8-hands pieces were a lot of fun

(#4) A few years after this I was reviewing Bynden Wood concerts as a reporter for the Reading Eagle

More #1 hits from 1954. Preceding “Sh-Boom”: Kitty Kallen’s  “Little Things Mean a Lot”. Following it: Rosemary Clooney’s “Hey There”. More popular music on the relations between the sexes, but different in tone from each other, and both from a woman’s point of view — in contrast to “Sh-Boom”, which is very much a guy song.

“Little Things Mean a Lot” is a little hymn to conventional gender gestures. You can listen to it here:


Blow me a kiss from across the room
Say I look nice when I’m not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot

Give me your arm as we cross the street
Call me at six on the dot
A line a day when you’re far away
Little things mean a lot

Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls
Champagne, sables or such
I never cared much for diamonds and pearls
‘Cause honestly honey, they just cost money

Give me your hand when I’ve lost the way
Give me your shoulder to cry on
Whether the day is bright or gray
Give me your heart to rely on

Send me the warmth of a secret smile
To show me you haven’t forgot
For always and ever, now and forever
Little things mean a lot

About the song, from Wikipedia:

“Little Things Mean a Lot” is a popular song written by Edith Lindeman (lyrics) and Carl Stutz (music), published in 1953. Lindeman was the leisure editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Stutz, a disc jockey from Richmond, Virginia. Stutz and Lindeman are also known for writing Perry Como’s 1959 hit, “I Know” (which reached No.47 on the U.S. Billboard chart and No.13 on the UK Singles Chart).

The best known recording of “Little Things Mean a Lot,” by Kitty Kallen (Decca 9-29037), reached No.1 on the U.S. Billboard chart in 1954

Note that the lyricist was a woman.

“Hey There” is something else again. As sung here, it’s a woman advising herself to break off an obsessive relationship with a man:


Lately when I’m in my room
All by myself
In the solitary gloom
I call to myself

Hey there
You with the stars in your eyes
Love never made a fool of you
You use to be too wise

Hey there
You on that high flyin’ cloud
Though he won’t throw a crumb to you
You think someday he’ll come to you

Better forget him
Him with his nose in the air
He has you dancin’ on a string
Break it and he won’t care

Won’t you take this advice I hand you like a mother
Or are you not seein’ things too clear
Are you too much in love to hear?
Is it all goin’ in one ear and out the other

Hey there
You with the stars in your eyes
(Are you talking to me?)
Love never made a fool of you
(Not until now)
You used to be too wise
(Yes, I was once)

But now look at the history of the song, from Wikipedia:

“Hey There” is a show tune from the musical play The Pajama Game, written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. It was published in 1954. It was introduced by John Raitt in the original production. It was subsequently recorded by a number of artists. The recording by Rosemary Clooney reached #1 on Billboard’s chart in 1954. Another version was also recorded about the same time by Sammy Davis Jr., reaching #16 on Billboard’s retail chart.

… In the show, Sid sings it to a recording device, telling himself that he’s foolish to continue his advances to Babe. He plays the tape back, and after responding to his own comments, sings a duet with himself.

The original lyrics have been shifted to a male viewpoint — pronouns altered, “like a brother” changed to “like a mother” — and we can wonder about the consequences of this gender shift. Foolish romantic attachments are surely different in character for men and for women, and they might even be more common for men (who so often hold to a belief in The One for them) than for women, but in any case “Him with his nose in the air / He has you dancin’ on a string” doesn’t quite ring true, while (with pronouns shifted)  it sounds a lot like a man complaining about a woman he believes to be “playing him”, “leading him on”.


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