Were there British Doo Wop groups

SH-BOOM is a song by the Afro-American doo-wop group The Chords, which is considered an important link between rhythm & blues and rock'n'roll, often - even if incorrectly - referred to as the “first rock'n'roll song” becomes.

I. History of origin

SH-BOOM, also known as SH-BOOM (LIVE COULD BE A DREAM), is a joint composition by Jimmy Keyes (1930-1995), Floyd “Buddy” McRae (1927-2013), Carl Feaster (1932-1981) ), his brother Claude Feaster (1933-1975) and Ricky Edwards (1925-1964). It was her first and only hit. All five had tried in vain to gain a foothold in various doo-wop groups in the Bronx, New York, where they were born and raised before they came together as The Chords in 1951. The group's bassist, Ricky Edwards, brought the name with him. Another permanent member was Rupert Branker (1933-1961) as a pianist until 1956, who accompanied the chords during their live performances, but was not involved in the creation of SH-BOOM.

SH-BOOM was created in the summer of 1953 and was offered to Bobby Robinson (1911-2011), owner of Red Robin Records, that same year. He listened to the group, but found the song not commercial enough and declined with thanks. In the spring of 1954 she came into contact with Oscar Cohen (* 1935), President of the Associated Booking Corporation, an artist agency founded in 1940 by Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and his manager Joe Glaser (1896-1969). Cohen had literally spotted the chords on the street while performing in a New York subway station. He introduced her to Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006), vice president of Atlantic Records, founded in 1947, and Jerry Wexler (1917-2008), the label's A&R manager. Since Atlantic was looking for a suitable artist for a cover version of the Patti Page hit “Cross Over the Bridge” (1954), the chords came at just the right time, because they had this song in their repertoire. On March 15, 1954, under the direction of Jerry Wexler, they recorded four tracks in the Atlantic Studio with the legendary sound engineer Tom Dowd (1925-2002) at the mixer. In addition to “Cross Over the Bridge”, three of their own tracks were also created during the session: “Hold Me Baby”, “Little Maiden” and SH-BOOM. The arrangement was written by Atlantic Haus arranger and composer Jesse Stone (1901-1999). The quintet was accompanied by musicians from the Jesse Jones Orchestra, who were brought in as session musicians for Atlantic Records at the time.

For the B-side of the single "Cross Over the Bridge" producer Jerry Wexler chose SH-BOOM. The record was released in late March 1954 both as a 78 Shellack and a 45 single on a recently founded subsidiary label of Atlantic, Cat Records. As was common back then, the quintet is shown on the single as a “vocal quartet” regardless of the actual number of participants. The fate of the song was decided on the American west coast, when the Californian radio DJ Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg (1928-2006) in Los Angeles tried the B-side instead of the A-side with the Patti-Page cover Put the record on and received an overwhelming response from the audience. This was preceded by the unusually frequent selection of the B-side of the singles in the jukeboxes, which was not hidden from the radio maker. The news of the overlooked hit quickly made the rounds.

In view of the success of the B-side, Atlantic decided in June 1954 to release all further pressings under the same catalog number with SH-BOOM on the A-side and another chord song from the recording session of March 1954 as the new B-side, “Little Maiden” to publish. The single has since sold so well that Atlantic wanted the publishing rights of both sides in house and could do without the pull of the Patti Page hit. In September 1954, Atlantic had to stop selling the song under the name of the Chords, as it had turned out that a group of the same name was already registered with Gem Records in Chicago. On all subsequent pressings of the single, still under the same catalog number, the chords were now called The Chordcats. It turned out to be a disaster for the group. SH-BOOM was meanwhile also in a cover version with the Canadian Crew Cuts on Mercury Records, a major label, on the market. This version with the David Caroll orchestra, adapted to mainstream taste, replaced the original all the more easily since the name of the group with which the first publication was associated had meanwhile disappeared from the market.

II. Context

The vocal groups, also known as Street Corner Singers, developed into a mass phenomenon in the black quarters of major cities in the United States after World War II, which, after reaching the recording studios of record companies, was also known as doo-wop (after a frequently used accompanying phrase). Young people of color discovered the most virtuoso transfer of pop hits to a purely vocal male or female, very rarely mixed quartet or quintet line-up as a free time fun in which the amateur groups - similar to the later hip-hop battles - in alternating succession for the favor of the audience vied. Often they could actually be found on the side of the road. It didn't take long for the music industry to embrace this trend and supply the steadily growing rhythm & blues market with such vocal groups, which were then accompanied by an economical instrumental accompaniment during the recordings. One of the first of these vocal groups on the music market in 1948 was the Orioles with “It's Too Soon to Know”. By the early 1960s, hundreds of such mostly short-lived vocal groups followed, which rarely had more than one hit and were therefore also referred to as “One Hit Wonder”. It quickly became apparent that such productions had enormous crossover potential and that the US music market, which was strictly segregated along the lines of skin color, was thoroughly upset. There were already colored musicians in the 1940s, for example with Louis Jordan (1908-1975) and his Tympany Five, who successfully placed themselves in the (white) pop charts. But these remained individual phenomena that did not change the basic principle that was played, produced, broadcast and organized separately for “black” and “white”. In the summer of 1954, it was evident from the selection of songs in the jukeboxes that a trend reversal was emerging. In the Billboard jukebox charts, the doo-wop groups now regularly achieved top positions in the (white) pop sector. And they were among the first representatives of the Afro-American minority population in the USA, who, despite their skin color, appeared on the screen with their harmonic-oriented sentence singing.

The attention that SH-BOOM received, and the song's rapidly growing popularity, was already associated with the fact that the title phrase - actually taken from the teenage slang of the Bronx - was also used as an onomatopoeic equivalent for the media image of one Atomic bomb explosion can be interpreted. The fear of the mega-bomb was a basic mood that pervaded all areas of public life in the USA at the time. In November 1952, the United States pulverized Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands with the world's first thermonuclear explosion. In 1954, the first hydrogen bomb was tested on Bikini Atoll, and the mushroom explosion also hit television screens. When the news went around the world in 1953 that the Soviet Union had also succeeded in detonating an atomic bomb, fear in the American public turned into downright hysteria, fueled by protective exercises in schools and universities, the issue of identification tags to the population and a Propaganda which, under the slogan “duck and cover”, turned dubious protective measures into an inescapable message on all media channels. In contrast, the agreed lack of seriousness of a pop song with the sound image of the title phrase reminiscent of a comic strip seemed to promise something like relief, because otherwise the song actually does not qualify for the outstanding status it received in the summer of 1954.

III. analysis

SH-BOOM is an AABA song based on eight bar phrases, which also follows the AABA scheme within its form parts, so that the following overall structure results: Intro - A (aab-a ') - A (aab-a') - B (a'-a ') - A (aab-a') - Outro. The four-bar intro begins a capella, after two bars the instrumental accompaniment begins with the drums. The verse lets the short melodic phrases in the tenor, which unfold via choral vocalises (“doo, doo, doo”), each time a chorical “Sh-Boom” follow on the fourth quarter of the bar and the first quarter of the next bar, so that a kind of chant emerges (call and response). The melody moves in a shuffle rhythm (two-note groups of the same length are intoned as “long-short” due to a minimal delay), so that a moving overall character is created. The vowel setting follows a principle that is called “closed harmony”: The voices are guided in such a way that they always form chords in close proximity, which gives the set a very compact character. The third eight bar group (b) gets its contrasting character by changing the lead voice from tenor to bass. The subsequent repetition of the eight-bar main phrase (a ’) modifies the arrangement by replacing the lead voice in the tenor with chorus singing, which sets a culmination point in the standard sequence. These thirty-two bars of Part A are repeated with altered text. Only the second eight-bar phase (a) takes up the vowelises set here in the text almost word for word (“Day dong da ding-dong, Sha-lang-da-lang-da-lang ...”), creating a kind of refrain. Part B consists of a sixteen-bar saxophone solo that varies the melodic material of the eight-bar main phrase (a). This is followed by a repetition of Part A before the song ends with the chorus-like vocalises.

Song architectures with a multi-level AABA structure have been a standard in popular music in the United States since the early 20th century. Also filling the banal text with nonsense phrases (“Life could be a dream (Sh-boom) / If only all my precious plans would come true (Sh-boom) / If you would let me spend my whole life lovin 'you / Life could be a dream, sweetheart [Do do do do, sh-boom]… ”) was a phenomenon typical of the time. Behind this, there was not only a sound image-oriented handling of language (vocalises). Such nonsense phrases were also an expression of a distanced, irrelevant “coolness”, which as an aesthetic attitude is characteristic of the African American culture as a whole in those years. Even if the song haunted the annals of pop history as the "first" rock'n'roll song (Dawson 1992: 122), musically it has little to do with rock'n'roll. It was granted this status due to its conspicuous parallel placement on the ethnically still segregated music markets. It was only later noticed that it was neither the first nor the only song. The combination of a standard form of US pop song with a sense of rhythm and style of singing from Afro-American music actually paved the way for American rock'n'roll.

IV. Reception

On July 3, 1954, SH-BOOM entered the American rhythm & blues as well as the pop charts and reached number 2 and number 9 respectively in the following weeks. The cover version of the Crew Cuts, published in the summer of 1954, held from the end of July a total of 20 weeks, of which nine weeks in August and September 1954 in first place. The popularity with which the song made headlines in 1954 subsided just as quickly as it had emerged. The original version was published again by Atlantic in 1961 as part of the renaissance of the doo-wop sound triggered by Motown, but without any response. The group had since been renamed The Sh-Booms to avoid obscurity by referring to their former monster success, but without being able to stop the process of being forgotten. The later cover versions, such as that of the British Mackpies (1955) or the Darts (1980), also based in Great Britain, are all based on the arrangement of the crew cuts. It wasn't until the song was ranked among the forerunners of rock'n'roll in the 1970s that the chords reappeared from oblivion. Rolling Stone magazine lists SH-BOOM at number 215 among its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.




Composition & Text: The Chords
Arrangement: Jesse Jones
Vocals: The Chords (first tenor: Jimmy Keyes; second tenor: Floyd McRae; baritone: Carl Feaster, Claude Feaster; bass: Ricky Edwards)
Tenor saxophone: Sam Taylor
Guitar: Mickey Baker
Double bass: Lloyd Trotman
Drums: Joe Marshall
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Sound engineer: Tom Dowd


  • The Chords. “Cross Over the Bridge / Sh-Boom”, 1954, Cat Records, 104, USA (Shelllac / single).
  • The Chords. “Cross Over The Bridge / Sh-Boom”, 1954, Cat Records, 45-104, USA (vinyl / single).
  • The Chords. “Sh-Boom / Little Maiden”, 1954, Cat Records, 104, USA, Reissue (Shellac / Single).
  • The Chords. “Sh-Boom / Little Maiden”, 1954, Cat Records, 45-104, USA (vinyl / single).
  • The Sh booms. “Sh-Boom / Little Maiden”, 1961, Atlantic Records, Atco 45-6213, USA, reissue (vinyl / single).
  • The crew cuts. “Sh-Boom / I Spoke Too Soon”, 1954, Mercury Records, 70404, USA (Shellac / single).
  • The crew cuts. “Sh-Boom / I Spoke Too Soon”, 1954, Mercury Records, 70404X45, USA (vinyl / single).


  • The Mackpies. “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream) / Plink, Plank, Plonk”, 1955, EMI, B 10698, UK (vinyl / single).
  • The darts. “White Chrismas / Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream) / Don’t Say Yes”, 1980, Magnet Records, MAG 184, UK (vinyl / single).


  • Dawson, Jim: What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record? London: Faber & Faber 1992.
  • Goldberg, Marv / Redmond, Mike: The Chords. In: Yesterday’s memories 2/3 (September 1976), 4-6.
  • Groia, Philip: They All Sang on the Corner: A Second Look at New York City’s Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups. New York: Phillie Dee Enterprises 2001.
  • Miller, James: Flowers in the Dustbin. The Rise of Rock and Roll 1947–1977. New York: Fireside 1999.
  • Salem, James M .: "Sh-Boom" and the Bomb: A Postwar Call and Response. In: Columbia Journal of American Studies 7 (2006), 2-28.
  • Warner, Jay: The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History, 1940-1990. New York: Billboard Books 1992.

About the author

Prof. Dr. Peter Wicke teaches theory and history of popular music and is director of the Center for Popular Music Research at the Humboldt University Berlin.
All contributions by Peter Wicke


Peter Wicke: “Sh-Boom (The Chords)”. In: Song dictionary. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/shboom, 04/2017.