Back in the mid-1950s, if you walked down the street in just about any urban neighborhood, you might have encountered at least one group of young men sitting on a stoop, harmonizing as they belted out some ode to the joys of romance or the heartbreak that resulted when it went wrong.
It was called doo-wop, and everyone who tried it dreamed of being as good as the Cadillacs. The Harlem quintet could not only handle the high and low notes with effortless finesse, but they looked so darn good doing it. They wore crisply tailored, flashy suits and did intricate, deftly choreographed dance routines that presaged such big 1960s groups as The Temptations. And they were so cool that they named themselves after the flashiest car around, a status symbol that belied their humble origins.
The king of those hep cats was Earl “Speedo” Carroll, who died on Nov. 25 at age 75 in New York City. Here are five intriguing facts about Carroll and the group that he helped make famous:
- When the group formed in 1953, they originally called themselves the Carnations, and each member wore one of the flowers on his lapel. But talent agent Esther Navarro, who discovered them at an amateur “battle of the groups” competition, insisted that they change their name. In Carroll’s version of the group’s genesis, they decided to call themselves the Cadillacs because “you can’t get much classier than that.” But according to music historian Jay Warner, the author of American Singing Groups: From 1940 to Today, Navarro actually appropriated the name from another group who had wanted to sign with her.
- The Cadillacs’ first single, “Gloria,” recorded and released in 1954, showcased Carroll’s vocal range and emotive delivery. According to Warner, the song “would end up being the measure by which every East Coast would-be do-wop group for the next 30 years would judge their harmonizing abilities.”
- Carroll’s nickname was Speedo, but not because of quickness or an affinity for the form-fitting swimsuits. A fellow Cadillac, Bobby Phillips, gave him the nickname while the group was performing in an armory in Massachusetts. Phillips, noticing a vintage torpedo on display, thought that it resembled Carroll’s pointy head. “Hey Speedo, there’s your torpedo!” he called out. Carroll didn’t like the moniker initially, but on the ride home, it inspired them to dream up a song, “Speedoo,” that became another hit for the group.
- The Cadillacs split in 1957 — not figuratively, but like an amoeba, into two competing groups that both used the Cadillacs name. Eventually, some of the members reformed into a lone version of the group, which Carroll sang with until 1964, when he jumped to the Coasters, another famous singing group. He sang with them until the late 1970s. In the 1980s, he reunited with the group to do a car commercial — not for Cadillac, oddly, but for Subaru.
- Despite his place in pop-music history, Carroll never became wealthy, and in the early 1980s, he took a job as a custodian at his former school, P.S. 87 on West 78th Street in Manhattan. Carroll came to love working around the “teenie-weenies,” as he called the students, and his habit of regaling them with songs and colorful stories about show business won him a new generation of young fans. Here’s a clip of Carroll performing “That’s What Friends Are For” at a school graduation in 1994, posted by a former student who noted that the do-wop virtuoso was “a great guy, very kind to us.”