Picture a songwriter sitting at a piano, fiddling around on the keys. He’s got a beautiful melody mapped out, a verse and a half of lyrics, a roughed-out idea for the chorus. The studio’s booked; the singers are showing up in 20 minutes. In desperation, he throws in a few nonsense syllables to fill out the measure. And lo and behold – THEY WORK.
So, in tribute to all those lazy lyricists on a deadline, here’s my Top Ten List of Songs Without Words.
10. “Sh Boom” charted not once but twice in 1954 – first for the Chords, and then a brighter and whiter version by a Canadian band called the Crew Cuts (which of course sold way more). I’ve read that the phrase “sh boom” referred to the atom bomb, which was no doubt on everyone’s mind in 1954 – but I don’t believe it for one moment. This is just too upbeat a number for that (“life could be a dream / If I could take you up in paradise up above / If you would tell me I’m the only one that you love…”) Sh-boom is the sound of a drummer’s rim shot, and anyone who tells you anything else doesn’t get doo-wop.
9. Doo wop really dug nonsense syllables, which were ideal for using vocalists to fill in instrumental parts. The classic “Rama Lama Ding Dong” (1958) by the Edsels lays down a pretty cool vocal guitar riff, but the real masterstroke here is the Rivingtons’ “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” (1962). If you’ve ever heard this song you know that you are compelled to sing it WAY down deep — and presto, you’re performing the bass line.
8. “Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” Otis Redding’s 1966 R&B classic, took a page from the doo-woppers to trade off his vocal fa-fa-fa’s with a real horn section. But like everything else Otis Redding did, this took somebody else’s technique to a whole new level. Just hear how he wails into those fa’s. “Sad songs are all I know,” he remarks, with a soulful shake of the head. “When you sing this song / It’ll make your whole body move.” Indeed it does, Otis. Unh-HUNH.
7. The phrase “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop” (1960, Little Anthony and the Imperials) doesn’t sound like instrumentals – it sounds like a body gyrating. Just hear the rustle of clothing, the clack of footsteps, the thump of bodies colliding. I don’t think you can even say this title without starting to dance a little. This song is dated, granted – it’s set in a hut in Africa where a native girl begins to . . . ah, you don’t want to know. Just babble the lyrics and dance to that delirious rhythm.