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Remembering the Legacy of '50s Quartet the Crew Cuts : THE CREW CUTS; "The Best of the Crew Cuts: The Mercury Years", Mercury/Chronicles

August 09, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN

Because they are generally regarded as the Pat Boone of 1950s vocal groups, there has probably been less written about the Crew Cuts than any other repeat hitmakers from rock's first decade. This retrospective--one of five new releases devoted to '50s vocal groups affiliated with Mercury Records--finally lets contemporary pop fans hear the Canadian quartet's best-known recordings.

These aren't moments to remember musically, but they do play an important part in rock history. The most valuable of the five new packages is the one by the Penguins, the Los Angeles vocal group best known for "Earth Angel." It will be reviewed in a future edition of the Vaults.

The Crew Cuts--brothers John and Ray Perkins, Pat Barrett and Rudi Maugeri--chiefly recorded songs that had already been regional hits by R&B artists, including most notably "Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)," which spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the national pop charts in the summer of 1954.

The record, the first rock-affiliated single to top the charts, opened the door in 1955 to "cover" versions of R&B hits by such white pop groups as the Fontane Sisters ("Hearts of Stone") and the McGuire Sisters ("Sincerely"), as well as such solo acts as Pat Boone.

Of them all, the Crew Cuts made the weakest records. Though competent vocally, the group tried to transform the R&B songs into traditional pop works, with generally hapless results.

The main reason the Crew Cuts' recording of "Sh-Boom" made it to No. 1 in place of the far superior original version by the Chords was that most mainstream disc jockeys around the country thought the watered-down pop version would be more acceptable to their listeners.

One of the most telling commentaries on the Crew Cuts' lack of feel for genuine R&B comes from the group's John Perkins. In the liner notes, he says, "When we first heard the Chords' record, we thought it was pretty muddy sounding and that the song didn't have much potential as a hit."

The sterility of the Crew Cuts' version was exposed once the teens started hearing real R&B and rockabilly records on key radio stations--a move that spelled the end for groups like this.

* 1/2 The Diamonds' "The Best of the Diamonds: The Mercury Years." Mercury/Chronicles. This is another Canadian pop vocal group that started out on the charts with remakes of R&B tunes. The Diamonds reached No. 12 in 1956 with a version of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," in which they--in contrast to the Crew Cuts--did try to duplicate much of the R&B spirit of the original version by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. It was hopelessly inferior, however. After more covers, the Diamonds finally came up with a hit that was reportedly written for them: the "American Bandstand" dance fave "The Stroll."

** The Danleers' "The Best of the Danleers: The Mercury Years." Mercury/Chronicles. The Danleers were a Brooklyn R&B group that only had one Top 10 single, but it was one of the definitive R&B teen romantic ballads of the '50s: "One Summer Night." The 1958 hit was a piece of magic widely imitated, but not even the Danleers themselves could recapture the feel. The rest of the album is uneven, but even the most ordinary tracks carry an authenticity lacking in the Diamonds and the Crew Cuts.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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