Where do old doo-wop singers go?
That's not the set-up line to a joke, but the mission of Steve Propes. And Propes, founder and director of the Southern California Doo-Wop Society, believes there is no single answer.
Dewey Terry, who had regional hits with the Pasadena-based Squires in the age of Eisenhower, made Little Richard-style rock in the '50s and worked with the English punk group Tupelo Chain Sex in the '80s.
The story is quite different for Leon Peels, lead singer of Los Angeles' Blue Jays, who has spent the last 25 years in such jobs as fry cook at a Holiday Inn.
But now their paths have crossed again, thanks to the Doo-Wop Society.
"Leon got disheartened and left music in the '60s," said Propes, 47, who describes himself as a professional "free-lance record fan" with more than 20,000 singles in his collection. "But with the help of the Doo-Wop Society he's performing regularly. He's getting the recognition he's deserved for 20-plus years."
How the society helped is a pretty simple matter. Propes mentioned Peels on the rock 'n' roll radio show he hosted on KLON-FM from 1980 through 1989. (He now does a version of the show on Simmons Cable television in Long Beach, Sundays from 9 a.m. to noon.) Soon he got a call from someone who put him in touch with the singer.
An informal group of doo-wop lovers had already formed--mainly students from a rock 'n' roll history class Propes taught at Cal State Long Beach in the mid-'80s. In early 1989 the group formally became the Doo-Wop Society in order to facilitate the rediscovery of old singers and provide a setting for them to perform.
"We just put out the word and see what comes back," Propes said. "Then we actively try to re-create the groups as much as possible and get the original sound and feel."
Both Peels and Dewey will be among the performers at the Doo-Wop Society's quarterly meeting/concert Sunday at the Hop in Lakewood. The event will also include the first performance in 30 years by Shirley Gunter & the Queens (the first female doo-wop group) and Richard Berry, who will be awarded a special gold record for writing the rock classic "Louie Louie." Berry will re-create the music of his original doo-wop group, the Flairs.
"They found me," Dewey Terry said. "It's good for people like Shirley Gunter and others who have not had a chance to get back on stage. After you've been out of it so long, people tend to forget you."
Another group on the bill is the Storytellers, which Propes takes credit for reuniting after more than 30 years.
"They were four Chicanos from the San Gabriel Valley area who got together in the late '50s and had a deal with a small record company," he said.
"They had one record under their name which is now a major-league collector's item, but at the time they had no luck with the record and stopped. I played the record on my radio show and got a call from one of them. As a result, they got back together. Now they've released a record on Classic Artists Records, a new doo-wop label--believe it or not, there are some. . . . That was the power of doo-wop on the air."
Both Propes and Terry say that the Doo-Wop Society is not just an exercise in nostalgia. "We do something new with our music," said Terry of his act with longtime partner Don (Sugarcane) Harris. "Music is a process of evolution."
And Propes noted that several groups performing Sunday are new acts that have added their own touches to the art form. Both Propes and Terry also pointed out cultural ties between doo-wop and rap music.
"There's always been a relationship," Terry said. "It's an old church thing--you say something and there's a response. Rappers just put electronic drums on it. Those were old things that came out of black neighborhoods, which evolved into what rap is today."
Propes even sees a possibility of the two forms being combined into a new hybrid, though he thinks it would take some work and imagination.
"If we could have anything to do with combining the two cultures, we'd jump on it," he said. "But it would take someone more creative than the board members. I know my limits."