Cleve Duncan, whose plaintive tenor captured the heartache of teen love in the enduring 1954 doo-wop hit “Earth Angel,” died Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. He was 78.
A spokeswoman for the Inglewood Park Cemetery Mortuary confirmed his death but could not provide the cause.
“Earth Angel,” which reached No. 1 on rhythm and blues charts, was the only hit for the doo-wop act that Duncan fronted, the Penguins.
But what a hit. “Earth Angel” sold millions of copies through the decades, has been repeatedly covered by other bands and been used in movie soundtracks as a nostalgic evocation of post-World War II youth culture.
Will you be mine
My darling dear
Love you all the time
I’m just a fool,
A fool in love, with you
“It was the first of the ultra-romantic ballads that hit the nerve of teens at the time — one of them being me,” said Steve Propes, an author and music historian. “It stood out because of the sincerity of the delivery.”
“Earth Angel” also had crossover appeal — it reached No. 8 on the Billboard pop chart, a sign of the significant role rhythm and blues was playing in the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll.
“It was one of the pioneering songs of its day,” said Tom Reed, a former disc jockey and music historian.
While the song’s dreamy romanticism would become a staple of oldies radio, the original Penguins were cast into the sea of one-hit wonders.
The Los Angeles-based group disbanded in 1957. Duncan bought the Penguins’ name and continued to perform with others until relatively recently, Reed said.
As Duncan told The Times in 1983: “The Penguins are Cleve Duncan plus whoever’s singing in the background.”
Cleveland Duncan was born July 23, 1934, in Los Angeles. He learned to sing in church and formed the Penguins along with Curtis Williams, Dexter Tisby and Bruce Tate in 1953. Williams and Tate were friends from Jefferson High School. Duncan and Tisby were buddies from Fremont High.
“We wanted to be cool, so we took our name off Willie the Penguin, the trademark on Kool cigarette packs,” Duncan told The Times.
The following year, they recorded their first single in a garage studio under the fledging Dootone Records label. “Earth Angel” was the B side of “Hey Senorita.”
When a local disc jockey played both on the radio, it was “Earth Angel” that lit up the request line.
After the original Penguins disbanded, Duncan eventually earned a living as an aerospace machinist.
A longtime Gardena resident, he is survived by his wife, Emilie, and stepson Brian Bowman.
A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Bethany Baptist Church of West Los Angeles, 4141 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Duncan will be buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery.