By Doug Levine
Does the name Cleve Duncan ring a bell? What if I preface it by saying “founding member of the ‘50’s vocal quartet The Penguins” Cleve Duncan?
Ok, so he wasn’t a household name, but Duncan, who died November 7 at age 77, sang lead on one of the most beloved doo-wop songs of all time, “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine).”
The soulful ballad was recorded in 1954 and went on to sell millions of copies worldwide. It enjoyed a second life 31 years later when it was featured in the film “Back To The Future.”
Doo-wop music was a little before my time, but growing up with two older brothers who were Top 40 radio addicts, strains of a cappella harmonies, along with my dad’s jazz albums, bounced off the walls. So you might say I had no choice but I’m sure glad I became a fan. Anyway, I first heard “Earth Angel” years after it broke through the Top 10 on Billboard’s pop chart. It’s one of those tunes you just can’t get out of your head. To this day, my favorite part is their harmonizing on the word you at the close, “a fool in love with you.”
The original Penguins consisted of Cleve Duncan, Curtis Williams, Bruce Tate and Dexter Tisby, who were still teenagers when they formed the group in 1953. In no time, they hopped on the era’s so-called “bird” group bandwagon – which included The Orioles, The Cardinals, The Flamingos and The Ravens – naming themselves after a penguin famously pictured on a cigarette package. Under the watchful eye of music publisher Dootise Williams, owner of Dootone Records, The Penguins recorded two singles, “Hey Senorita” and “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine),” during the summer of 1954. “Hey Senorita” was released as the lead single, also known as the “A-side,” but disc jockeys gave more airplay to “Earth Angel,” and it ended up becoming a runaway hit. The song became even more famous when the Canadian vocal group The Crew Cuts released their version in 1955.
As for Cleve Duncan, he re-formed The Penguins and remained lead tenor after their breakup in 1962. They were the pride of oldies shows from coast to coast, but none rivaled their performance of “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” on the 1999 television special Doo Wop 50, seen here with an introduction by the great Jerry Butler.