The Penguins



Best known for their hit single “Earth Angel,” the doo wop quartet the Penguins were never able to replicate the success of their only Top 40 hit, but the song became a rock & roll classic. The Penguins formed in 1954, when the members — Cleveland Duncan (lead vocal), Curtis Williams (tenor vocal), Dexter Tisby (baritone vocal), and Bruce Tate (tenor vocal) — were all attending Fremont High School in Los Angeles, CA.

Although he wasn’t the lead singer, Williams was the leader of the group. He learned “Earth Angel” from vocalist Jesse Belvin — some sources claim that Williams wrote the song alone, others say he co-wrote the song with Belvin, while others claim Gaynell Hodge, a member of the doo wop group the Turks, wrote

Best known for their hit single “Earth Angel,” the doo wop quartet the Penguins were never able to replicate the success of their only Top 40 hit, but the song became a rock & roll classic. The Penguins formed in 1954, when the members — Cleveland Duncan (lead vocal), Curtis Williams (tenor vocal), Dexter Tisby (baritone vocal), and Bruce Tate (tenor vocal) — were all attending Fremont High School in Los Angeles, CA.

Although he wasn’t the lead singer, Williams was the leader of the group. He learned “Earth Angel” from vocalist Jesse Belvin — some sources claim that Williams wrote the song alone, others say he co-wrote the song with Belvin, while others claim Gaynell Hodge, a member of the doo wop group the Turks, wrote the song with the duo (in fact, Hodge won a lawsuit filed in 1956 that gave him a co-writing credit) — and had the Penguins sing the song.

Around 1954, the Penguins signed with the local Los Angeles independent label Dootone Records. The group’s first single was going to be the up-tempo “Hey Sinorita,” and the ballad “Earth Angel” was going to be the B-side.

Upon the release of the single in the latter half of 1954, Los Angeles radio stations were receiving more requests for “Earth Angel”

– Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The world knows The Penguins as the group that recorded “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine),”one of the best-selling, most beloved oldies of all time. But to doo-wop fans, the group was more than just a one-hit wonder, and lead singer Cleve Duncan has kept The Penguins functioning as a viable outfit for the past 45 years.

“I was singing at a talent show at the California Club on Santa Barbara Avenue [now MLK Blvd.],” says Cleve, “and Curtis Williams came up afterward and wanted to know if I’d form a group with him.” Curtis Williams had recently left The Hollywood Flames, with whom he had recorded a couple of singles. “So Curtis got [baritone] Bruce Tate from his high school [Jefferson] and I got [tenor] Dexter Tisby from my high school [Fremont]. We learned a few songs, got on some talent shows, sang in some clubs. Then Ted Brinson heard us and got involved.”

Before his death in 1991, Walter “Dootsie” Williams, owner of Dootone Records, recalled that he first heard about The Penguins from Brinson. “He had a backyard studio over on 30th Street between Arlington and Western that was very economical, so I recorded there. My stuff was mostly songwriters demos then. They’d pay me $300 and I’d record their song. So I heard the group and liked them. The first thing I did with them was a demo of a song called ‘There Ain’t No News Today,’ which I released.’ Another singer [Willie Headon] was on the other side. “This single was credited to The Dootsie Williams Orchestra, with “Vocal by The Penguins.”

What inspired their name, says Cleve, was Willie the Penguin, the cartoon logo character in Kool mentholated cigarette ads. This was a time when many young black vocal groups, inspired by late-’40s proto-doo-wop groups The Orioles and The Ravens, named themselves after birds. “What was more cool than a penguin?” Cleve says now, with a smile..

Dootsie Williams was already having some success with another young vocal group, The Medallions, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to follow through with The Penguins. “My distributor, Sid Talmadge [of Record Merchandising], wasn’t impressed with them. He told me they were too pop. And for a small indie like me in those days, the distributor had a lot of say-so. He would tell me what was selling, what kind of beat people were listening to.”

But Dootsie Williams’ was first and foremost a music publisher, and what drew him to The Penguins was that they had brought him a couple of original songs called “Earth Angel” and “Hey, Senorita” (formerly “Esa Chiquita’). He recorded both songs as demos at Brinson’s studio sometime in the late summer of 1954, and then got an unexpected amount of local airplay, first by Huggy Boy, later by Charles Trammell and Johnny Otis. By late September he started pressing up his first copies. At first he treated “Hey, Senorita” as the A-side, but the jocks flipped it over. By October “Earth Angel” was making noise all over Los Angeles, and by December it went national on the R&B charts and slipped over onto the pop charts, where it reached as high as #8 in January 1955 despite two popular cover versions by The Crew-Cuts and Gloria Mann.

The runaway success of “Earth Angel” overwhelmed Dootsie Williams’ tiny operation and almost threatened to bankrupt him, because he had to keep pressing new records even though distributors across the country weren’t paying him for copies already sold. Meanwhile, Buck Ram, a songwriter-publisher who managed another Los Angeles group called The Platters, had taken over The Penguins’ management and wanted to move them onto a larger label. Mercury Records was already impressed with the group because their primitive little recording on a tiny black-owned indie had done so well on the charts against their better-promoted white cover version, so Ram made an agreement with Mercury to sign them with the company on one condition: Mercury also had to sign The Platters. During this time, Ram was also claiming that Dootsie’s contracts with the group and their songwriter Curtis Williams were null and void because they had been under-age. “I told them they’d lose all their royalties,” said Dootsie, “but they told me, ‘To hell with your royalties, we’re gonna make it big!'”

The Penguins’ break from Dootsie Williams became obvious when they didn’t show up at the jam-packed Ookey Ook Dance Contest at the Savoy Ballroom on Central Avenue to promote the release of their follow-up single, “Ookey Ook,” on February 21, 1955.

At first The Penguins’ defection seemed to have put them in the big time. “We were impressed with Mercury’s large size and distribution,” says Cleve Duncan. But it didn’t take long for things to unravel. “Ram just used us to get The Platters on the label. He actually owned The Platters and paid them a salary. So he used them to push his best songs. Everything he wrote for us, like ‘Devil That I See,” sounded like ‘Earth Angel.’ He wanted us to sell him The Penguins name, but we held out.”

The Penguins toured back east, appeared at the Apollo Theater and at Alan Freed’s Brooklyn Paramount rock ‘n’ roll shows, and performed for a national audience on “The Ed Sullivan Show. “During this period they enjoyed the status of hitmakers, sharing the stage with greats like Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. But despite some good recordings on Mercury, they couldn’t come up with a successful follow-up to “Earth Angel.”

[In fact, Mercury even re-recorded “Earth Angel” and “Hey, Senorita,” but the company didn’t release them at the time. Mercury’s “Earth Angel” didn’t come out until 1956. Also, Dootsie Williams won all publishing rights to “Earth Angel” in his lawsuit against Curtis Williams and Peer International.]

“We had to do what [Mercury] wanted us to do,” Cleve Duncan lamented. “Our sound was still there, but they wanted us to project it a different way. At Dootone it was a group effort, but at Mercury we lost control over production. Buck Ram called the shots in the studio.”

When Mercury failed to renew their contract, The Penguins briefly went to Atlantic Records. But the company released only one single, “Pledge of Love,” an R&B cover of a white pop hit, which lasted only one week on the R&B charts.

By the time The Penguins returned to Dootsie Williams in 1957, they were demoralized and broke. Being young and inexperienced, they had made most of the mistakes and bad judgements endemic within the ruthless, manipulative music business. Bruce Tate, having been involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident in Los Angeles over a year earlier, had already been replaced in the group by Teddy Harper. Curtis Williams fled California after a judge put out a warrant for his arrest for nonpayment of alimony and child support, so he was replaced at bass by Randy Jones.

Though competent, these 1957-58 recordings for Dooto lacked the old fire of the earlier Dootone and Mercury sides, and none of them sold. Demoralized, The Penguins broke up. Cleve Duncan tried something different by recording one single with sisters Gladys and Vesta White (The Radiants), but it likewise went nowhere.

By 1961, however, he was approached by a young musician named Frank Zappa to record a tribute song that Zappa had written called “Memories of El Monte,” a pastiche of many of the classic Los Angeles doo-wop songs like “Nite Owl,” “In the Still of the Nite” and “Earth Angel” that had been a staple at Art Laboe’s rock ‘n’ roll shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium. Laboe himself released the record on his Original Sound label, and “Memories of El Monte” turned out to be a local hit–and a perennial favorite. (The vocalists backing Cleve are reputed to be The Viceroys.) Forming a new Penguins as a trio–himself, baritone Walter Saulsberry and tenor/bass Glen Madison (formerly of The Delcos)–Cleve recorded a couple more singles for local labels to capitalize on the dance crazes of the early ’60s.

Since then this Penguins lineup has been steadily performing around the country (and occasionally overseas), and Cleve Duncan still sounds pretty much the same as he did that day in Ted Brinson’s garage. As soon as he opens his mouth to sing “Earth Angel,” the last 45 years just fall away.

Penguins fans can still catch up on most of the their ’50s and ’60s recordings. Ace Records in England has released a Penguins CD that contains all their Dootone material, and two of Ace’s “Dootone Doo-wop” compilation CDs include Cleve’s sides with The Radiants (in stereo). Bear Family in Germany has issued all of The Penguins’ Mercury cuts, and Original Sound has released various sides they recorded during the “Memories of El Monte” period. Their two Atlantic sides are on a couple of Atlantic 2-CD sets from Rhino Records.

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