In 1954, the music industry was beginning a dramatic change that the following year would thrust rock ‘n’ roll into the dominant position on the music charts, a position it has never relinquished.
Rock music has made huge stars from Elvis Presley and Fats Domino, to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen and Madonna to Lady Gaga in a long list of big name singers.
But in 1954, in a little recording studio in a garage in South Central Los Angeles, four 20 ish age guys recorded a few songs. The likelihood of anything becoming of those songs was small.
For those four guys were black in a deeply segregated America and they sang rock music when it was still called rhythm and blues (R&B) and therefore their chance of receiving significant radio airplay on major stations was nearly zero.
These guys called themselves the Penguins and they recorded what they thought was their best song, “Hey Senorita,” one they hoped would somehow become a hit. They had another song as well, a “throw-away” flip side to “Hey Senorita.”
But as rock ‘n’ roll began to revolutionize popular music, their record got airplay, but not “Hey Senorita.” The song that got the airplay was one that has since been used by television shows and movies to capture the 1950’s and is a staple on oldies radio shows that feature that era.
The song is “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine),” with Cleve Duncan on lead vocals.
In early 1955, it hit No. 8 on the Billboard Top 40 record chart and might have risen to No. 1. But as was common in the mid-1950s, when a rock ‘n’ roll song from a black group or singer started to hit big, it was quickly recorded by a white group or singer.
In this case, the Crew-Cuts recorded “Earth Angel,” and their version rose to No. 3.
But with time, the Crew-Cuts’ version faded away and the original Penguins’ version continued to sell. Today, it has sold a staggering 10 million copies and keeps being downloaded from all over the world.
However, the Penguins never again had a hit record, and the original group broke-up in 1958.
But “Earth Angel” was so popular, that for nearly 50 years, Cleve kept re-forming the group with various new members as his back-up singers and kept singing it at oldies shows.
He sang at oldies shows into his 70’s. But on November 7th, 2012 in Los Angeles, Cleve passed away at the age of 78.
However, “Earth Angel” remains highly popular. As Cleve said, “I never get tired of singing it, as long as people never get tired of hearing it.”