The Penguins: Earth Angel
Change is one of the few things that we can count on. Marriage equality, which not so long ago seemed first impossible, then unlikely, is now the law of the land. Donald Trump has changed from a bufoonish businessman to a bufoonish politician. In my lifetime, we have gone from a world with a handful of TV stations, a music industry dominated by large companies issuing vinyl and computers that filled rooms to virtually unlimited access to all media, including on powerful computers we carry in our pockets.
When Plato and Aristotle passed for scientists, they understood that there were four elements—earth, air, fire and water, and maybe a fifth, “aether.” A similar five element system was posited in Hindu writings, and the Buddha taught about the first four. The Chinese philosophers had five—Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood, while Japanese tradition followed the Hindu system. Or at least, that’s what Wikipedia says. Modern science, however, considers elements to be substances defined by their atomic numbers, with 118 of them currently identified. If anything, the classical elements are now loosely identified with the states of matter—solid, gas, liquid and plasma.
The song, “Earth Angel,” refers to one of the classical elements directly, and even, to some degree, to the aether, because that’s where angels dwell. It was the one and only hit song by the Penguins (penguins, of course, live where Water is often a solid, although the group was from Los Angeles, where Water is now at a premium, the Earth quakes, Fire ravages the countryside and the Air is almost solid). The Penguins, a doo-wop group that morphed from an earlier group, the Hollywood Flames (Fire!!), literally recorded the demo version of the song in a garage in 1954, often having to stop recording when a neighbor’s dog barked.
The music business was so different in those days that the demo, physically carried to a record store as an acetate by producer/label owner Dootsie Williams (who also recorded comedy records by Redd Foxx and violinist Johnny Creach, who years later, as Papa John Creach, played with the Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Hot Tuna), was played on a radio show, requests came in, Williams decided to release it without dubbing any more instrumentation, and a hit was born (despite the fact that Williams insisted on releasing it as the b-side of the now forgotten "Hey Señorita"). The success of the song created a demand that apparently almost bankrupted Williams, who ran out of label paper. Its timelessness and beauty has resulted in sales of millions of copies over the years, numerous cover versions and soundtrack appearances. And not surprisingly, it resulted in years of litigation among Williams, members of the group, putative song writers and Mercury (an Element!) Records, which later signed the Penguins and released a more produced and less successful version of the song. One of the songwriter claimants, Jesse Belvin actually was required by the judge to stand up and sing his version, which led to his being awarded a portion of the credit. The Penguins later released a nostalgia novelty song called "Memories of El Monte," based on the "Earth Angel" chord changes, and containing bits of other doo-wop songs, including "Earth Angel," which was written by Frank Zappa and Ray Collins, pre-Mothers of Invention.
I was introduced to this song years ago by my parents, who are high school sweethearts and remembered dancing to the song during their courtship during the 1954-55 era. My parents married in 1959 and are still together. And while that hasn’t changed, like all relationships, theirs has changed over the years, from being young marrieds with small kids, to successful adults who put those kids through college, to amazing grandparents. I’ve seen my parents dance over the years, usually at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and while I’m sure that they dance differently now than they did back when “Earth Angel” was a hit, I know that their love and respect for each other hasn’t changed, and, if anything, has grown stronger.