Henry Farag was 11 years old when he got his hands on a crystal radio, built from a kit and barely able to pick up a signal from more than a few miles away. As the music sparked up, the first thing he heard was The Dells singing “Oh, What a Nite,” an early doo-wop classic.
It was a transformative moment for Farag, a Gary, Ind., native who has spent a lifetime promoting, performing, writing and producing doo-wop, a key component of R&B that also had a profound influence on rock ’n’ roll.
Farag is bringing his long-running “The Ultimate Doo-Wop Show” to the Brown Theatre tonight, one of 60 such performances this year. A rotating cast of groups, all of which feature at least one original member, makes up the tour’s roster, and Farag’s own group, the award-winning Stormy Weather, often joins the lineup.
Farag has been producing similar shows since the mid-1970s, and they’ve always done well, he said, but interest has exploded over the last decade in the wake of the 1999 broadcast of “Doo Wop 50,” a PBS pledge-drive concert special.
That would be mainstream interest. Among the music’s fans, who include prominent musicians such as Questlove from The Roots and pop sensation Bruno Mars, doo-wop didn’t need a revival.
“I believe that doo-wop music is a true part of Americana. It has stood the test of time and is completely American,” said Farag, 68. “Doo-wop seems to be overlooked, but it’s actually one of the more popular American forms of music. It’s like 60 years old and it’s still drawing crowds.”
Tonight’s lineup stars The Marcels (“Blue Mood”), The Vogues (“Five O’Clock World”), The Spaniels (“Goodnight Sweetheart”), The Edsels (“Rama Lama Ding Dong”), Stormy Weather and the Blue Suede Orchestra. There will also be a tribute to Motown, the Detroit label with roots deep in doo-wop, featuring former members of The Contours, Miracles and Temptations.
Farag’s resume also includes a history of doo-wop called “The Signal,” named in honor of his crystal radio, that was first published by Indiana University Northwest and debuted this week on the Kindle at Amazon.com. The book not only puts the genre in its proper context, but has evocative passages about the music’s pioneers, most of whom Farag has befriended.
The sound of doo-wop varies, but one thing never changes: The music is built on the power of the human voice, both harmonies and lead vocals. While there was usually a band in the music’s formative days, one that often swung in a Louis Jordan style, it was music that didn’t necessarily need one.
“I was attracted to the group harmony, but I was strongly attracted to the idea that you could make your own music on the street corner,” Farag said. “You didn’t need instruments if you had the right harmony.
“It was kind of like urban folk music of the day, if you will. It was what carried the message of the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll through the streets. Guys would gather and sing outside, have battle of the groups, so it was like a telegraph that spread the rock ’n’ roll news.”
Farag’s early hometown heroes were The Spaniels, a band that began in Gary and became huge thanks to the massive hit “Goodnight Sweetheart.” He later teamed with the group to write and record new material and has featured The Spaniels on his shows since the beginning.
Although original member Willie C. Jackson has had to bow out of tonight’s show because of pneumonia, longtime Spaniel Billy Shelton will take over. Farag is a stickler about authenticity.
“Anybody can put a tribute group together, and some of them are very good, but that’s not what this is,” Farag said. “This is a representation of the true art of doo-wop. You’ll hear the music the way it’s meant to be heard.”
Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160.