1953, Los Angeles, CA
Claims to fame:
- Their 1954 smash "Earth Angel" introduced doo-wop to a pop audience for the first time
- "Earth Angel" is often considered one of the first "rock and roll" records
- A major factor in the development of the West Coast rock and roll scene
Cleve Duncan (born Cleveland Duncan, July 23, 1935, Los Angeles, CA; died November 7, 2012, Los Angeles, CA): lead vocals (tenor)
Curtis Williams (born December 11, 1934, Los Angeles, CA; died August 10, 1979, Los Angeles, CA): vocals (bass baritone)
Dexter Tisby (born March 10, 1935, Los Angeles, CA): vocals (second tenor)
Bruce Tate (born January 27, 1937, Los Angeles, CA; died June 20, 1973, Los Angeles, CA): vocals (baritone)
Future Penguins leader Curtis Williams was already a member of the Hollywood Flames, a vocal group who'd already had a minor hit with "Buzz Buzz Buzz," when he bumped into former classmate Cleveland Williams wowing the crowd at the California Club on what was then Santa Barbara Avenue. Williams, impressed by Cleve's ability, asked him to front a new group he was forming, and before long they were a quartet, rounded out by Dexter Tisby, the best singer Cleve knew from his high school, and Bruce Tate, the best singer Curtis knew from his. Cleve's cousin, Ted Brinson, was also entrenched in the local scene, having played bass for Jimmie Lunceford, and he also knew Dootsie Williams, head of Dootone Records. Before long, the new group had a contract and a studio.
Mixing hard R&B with the "pop vocal" style common to vocal groups of the day, the Penguins were in the right place at the right time; they were also self-contained, with Williams claiming to have penned two original songs, "Hey Senorita" and "Earth Angel." That notwithstanding, Dootsie opted to have them record two of his songs first: "There Ain't No News Today" and "I Ain't Gonna Cry." Neither single attracted much notice, and so Dootsie finally okayed the next single: "Hey Senorita," with "Earth Angel" on the flip. Local DJs, knowing what was up, immediately started playing the flip instead, and the success was so great and grew so quickly that Dootsie couldn't afford keep up the pressings.
This is when Buck Ram, manager of the Platters,
stepped in, taking over the group and promising them the big time. His first move was to get them signed to Mercury, but only if the label also took hos other act, The Platters. Having used the Penguins as leverage, and owning the Platters outright, Ram then began to give all his good songs to the latter group, leaving the Penguins with a lot of novelty songs and "Earth Angel" rewrites. Though they continued on afterwards, even scoring a few minor R&B hits, the Penguins' salad days were behind them. However, they enjoyed great success on the oldies circuit, touring behind their legendary hit for four decades. Lead singer Duncan passed away in 2012.
Penguins awards and honors:
- Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2004)
Penguins facts and trivia:
- Named after "Willie the Penguin," a cartoon mascot for Kool cigarettes
- Frank Zappa helped restore the group to popularity in the early '60s when he got Duncan to appear on his West Coast doo-wop tribute song "Memories of El Monte"
- The Crew Cuts, as they had with the Chords' "Sh-Boom," covered "Earth Angel" for white radio, but pop audiences preferred the Penguins' version
- Other members have included Randy Jones, Ray Brewster, Teddy Harper, Walter Saulsbury, Vesta King, Evelyn King, Vera Walker, Rudy Wilson, and Glenn Madison
Notable Penguins recordings:
"Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)," "Hey Senorita," "Pledge of Love," "There Ain't No News Today," "Ain't Gonna Cry No More," "Kiss a Fool Goodbye," "Ookey Ook," "Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild," "Baby Let's Make Some Love," "Lover or Fool," "Do Not Pretend," "If You're Mine," "Be My Lovin' Baby," "Cold Heart," "Sweet Love," "Let Me Make up Your Mind," "Butterball," "Money Talks," "Heart of a Fool," "Want Me," "That's How Much I Need You," "You're an Angel," "Don't Do It," "It Only Happens With You," "Walkin' Down Broadway," "Be Mine or Be a Fool," "My Troubles Are Not at an End," "Devil That I See," "Promises, Promises, Promises," "She's Gone, Gone," "Dealer of Dreams," "Ice," "Peace of Mind," "Cool Baby Cool," "A Christmas Prayer," "Jingle Jangle," "Will You Be Mine," "Sound of Your Voice"
Movie and TV appearances (movies in italics): "Doo Wop 50" (1999)
Covered by: Elvis Presley, New Edition, The Vogues, Aaron Neville, The Crew Cuts, The Four Seasons, Dion, Frankie Avalon, Death Cab for Cutie, Lowell Fulson, Bobby Vinton, Johnny Preston, Johnny Otis, Neil Sedaka, The Crests, Connie Francis, Bobby Vee, Sha Na Na, Marvin Berry and the Starlighters