A brief history of doo-wop in New Haven:
“The Five Satins. Ooooooh!”
Brief enough for you? But such concision lacks the harmony, community, street smarts and nuance that Fred Parris and the rest of The Five Satins were all about when they formed in New Haven nearly 60 years ago.
When the rock-nostalgia club Bopper’s ruled the downtown College Street dance club scene back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the closing-time anthem every night was The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.” That song has existed in countless contexts, from comedy movies to a Disneyland theme park attraction, but can still raise chills however you happen to hear it—especially here in New Haven, where it was recorded in the basement of St. Bernadette’s Church in Morris Cove back in 1956. (The church had been established less than 20 years earlier, and in the mid-’50s was raising money to build its own Catholic school building.)
By setting a sultry urban New Haven mood to music—of star-filled nights, of holding on, of existing “well before the light”—The Five Satins inspired a scene. A doo-wop scene that persisted into the 1960s and beyond, yes, but also a Five Satins scene that’s never entirely waned in New Haven.
As numerous local compilation CDs (some bootlegged, some legit) have documented, The Five Satins were far from the only doo-wop group in New Haven. (Many of the New Haven doo-woppers were high school students who practiced in school hallways or near the basketball courts, enthralled by the sound and success of the Satins.) In 2004, the Collectables label released an album titled New Haven Doo Wop. The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” opens the comp, the same group’s “Wonderful Girl” closes it, and their “To the Aisle” is on there, too.
But the CD also offers The Nutmegs, The Scarlets (Parris’s earlier group), Nicky & the Nobles, The Starlarks, The Academics, The Barries, The Carnations, Roger & The Travelers, Four Haven Knights, The Chestnuts and The Premieres. It’s a jukebox-full of great local tracks from the golden age of doo-wop—those “Oo-wah” verbal punctuation marks; that sense of a shared voice and a shared style. All those lyrics about “Why Don’t You Write Me” or “In My Lonely Room” or “Story Untold” or “Whispering Sorrows” (all singles by New Haven area doo-wop acts) impart the sad realization that even when one’s sentiments are arranged and sung in multi-part harmony, one can feel alone and misunderstood.
One name from that list of groups that jumps out to local doo-wop fans is The Academics, who are notable partly because they’re still performing. Like The Five Satins and so many groups of this vintage, an all-original-line-up is too much to ask for, but any founding member is a distinction. The Academics still boast two guys who’ve been with the group since it formed in 1956, and one who joined in 1958.
Like them, Parris is a real doo-wop survivor. He formed The Five Satins in 1956, wrote their first hit “In the Still of the Night” and reportedly coaxed his fellow Satins to fill in the gaps caused by the lack of a full back-up band with their now-classic “shoo-doop-shoo-be-doop”s. But Parris went into the U.S. Army just at the time that “In the Still of the Night” was becoming a hit. (The song was actually the B-side of the group’s first single, and we can all be glad it caught on rather than the frisky yet unremarkable, not to mention very short, A-side “The Jones Girl.”)
While Parris was stationed in Japan, the group enlisted Bill Baker as its new lead singer. Baker was with the group just two years, during which time the Five Satins had another chart hit, “To the Aisle,” before breaking up in 1959. The story is that the group wanted to change their sound but the record label wouldn’t let them. Parris restarted the Five Satins in the 1960s with himself as the sole member from the previous lineups. Bill Baker started his own Five Satins in the early ’80s, which led to a lengthy battle over who had rights to use the group’s name. A court ultimately decreed that Parris had custody of the name while Baker could claim certain photographic images associated with the band. Several of Baker’s post-Satins groups were Connecticut-based, including The Chestnuts. Baker, who was born in Auburn, Alabama, lived the last 26 years of his life in West Haven and worked for 32 years as a tube fitter in New Haven when not performing in oldies shows.
The international renown and recognition for the group didn’t stop Connecticut fans from thinking of The Five Satins as a local group. Parris has maintained strong connections with his hometown throughout his long career, and often found Satins members in his own backyard. One long-serving Satin from the 1980s and ’90s, Richard Bogan (who passed away in 2008), also gigged regularly with the local bands The Bogan Brothers and Gutt Buckett.
As for Parris, he and the Satins found themselves at the forefront of the ’70s doo-wop nostalgia wave when they appeared in the timely concert documentary Let the Good Times Roll. Induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame still eludes the group, but the Five Satins were brought into the R&B Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003. When, in 2007, there was some noise among Democrats at the State House regarding the creation of a Connecticut Music Hall of Fame, The Five Satins were on the short list for potential inductees.
“In the Still of the Night” gained new life when it was used in the 1987 dance romance Dirty Dancing; other movies which have used the song range from the pet romp Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore to David Cronenberg’s psychological horror flick Dead Ringers to two separate Robin Williams comedies, Jack and Toys. The song was installed in the Grammy Hall of Fame (intended “to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance”) in 1998. Credited as giving the entire doo-wop genre its name, “In the Still of the Night” has been covered by acts as diverse as Debbie Gibson, The Beach Boys and Boyz II Men.
Now 77 years old and a Satin since he was a teen, Fred Parris has provided soothing vocals and taut doo-wop emotions for several generations of anxious lovers. His voice will pierce the still of the night Friday, July 19, as part of the free summer concert series sponsored by the Hamden Arts Commission. It’s a return engagement for the group, which last played the series in 2007.
Hold them again, with all of your might, in the still of the night.
Fred Parris & The Five Satins
performing a Hamden Arts Commission 2013 Free Summer Concert
Town Center Park, 2761 Dixwell Avenue, Hamden (map)
7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 19th
Written by Christopher Arnott.