Future Punks Embrace Doo Wop

Future Punks Embrace Doo Wop

Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s longtime musical collaborator, was also bitten by the rock ’n’ roll bug at an early age. Born in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, he moved around with his parents to the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn before settling in North Brunswick, New Jersey, as a teen. “Growing up in New York,” Kaye said, “most of the music that came to me was seeing the older kids sing doo-wop on the corner, but of course you’re also very close to the cultural centers of Greenwich Village. Even though I was too young to go there, you felt part of the cultural crosstalk in the city.” Most doo-wop groups around New York during the Brill Building era were basically street bands—young men who sang on corners and in school talent shows and recreation centers. “I hoped that I would be a high tenor in a doo-wop group, and that’s what singing on the corner is about,” Kaye said. “But it was mostly for fun and we weren’t very serious about it.” This was also true of future Ramones frontman Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) and his little brother Mickey Leigh (Mitchel Lee Hyman), who as kids heard the sounds of doo-wop street singers creeping into their bedroom. Their window faced another building across the alley, which created an echo, so kids would congregate there to sing songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens. Pointing out the affinities between doo-wop and 1970s punk groups, Leigh said, “Those teenagers who were singing doo-wop in the street, you could say that was the first manifestation of DIY groups. They didn’t really need anything. They just needed a bunch of guys, and they figured out who was going to sing which parts.” Kaye also believes that the appeal of early doo-wop had to do with its accessibility. “If you weren’t trained to be a classical musician, you could sing on the corner emulating the records that you heard on the radio,” he said. “It was a sense that I think punk would also access—that you didn’t have go through a conservatory to make the music.”

From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


Brill Building
1619 Broadway, New York, NY 10019