Doo-Wop Dies Another Little Death As Store Closes

Mar 18, 2012
Originally published on March 18, 2012 10:04 am

The style of music known as doo-wop had at least two heydays: Once in the 1950s and '60s, when the music was first recorded, and again during a revival in the '70s, thanks in part to nostalgic movies such as American Graffiti and Grease. But doo-wop is in a slump again, and one of its beacons in the northeast is about to close its doors after decades.

For some fans, nothing will ever replace the great vocal harmony groups.

"There's a certain purity to this music. A certain rawness that you don't get today," says one of those fans, Sandra Italiano. Her husband, Ronnie, was a fan, too. They even met at an oldies concert. Ronnie always hated the label "doo-wop"; his preferred term was "group harmony." Whatever you call it, he promoted the music with a vengeance, producing concerts and hosting a local radio show.

Sandra says her husband quit his job as a delivery man to start his own record store in 1972: Ronnie I's Clifton Music, on Main Avenue in Clifton, N.J.

"He took a big risk, leaving a good day job," Sandra says. "And it was the best thing he did, 'cause he was doing something he loved for so many years. He kept the music in his life, and he was able to share it with many."

Sandra kept the store going after Ronnie passed away four years ago, but at last, the day has come. After 40 years in business, Ronnie I's is closing this month. Sandra says the business has been in decline for years.

"It's just the regulars that have been coming, some of them since the store opened," she says. "The majority have passed on and moved away. Even some of the customers who used to come and buy stuff here are now downloading online. Why buy a CD with the song, when they can download it for cents on the Internet?"

Regular customers used to drive from all over the New York area to shop at Ronnie I's. Steve Siniawa of Saddlebrook, N.J., says Ronnie had the best selection. He knew more about the players and producers who made the records than anybody, Siniawa says.

"He should have been a detective. He was able to find a lot of the original singers to get information from them. And he grew up with the music," Siniawa says.

Warren Jacoby used to drive 50 miles from Ocean Township to Ronnie's almost every weekend.

"When I found out Sandie was closing the store, frankly, it's taken a piece of my heart away," Jacoby says. "I was not into The Beatles. I was not into any of those groups. I only wanted the stuff from the late '40s, the '50s. And I found it here. It's a sad time. You know, you think it's gonna go on forever. But I guess nothing does."

Jacoby hopes the music he loves will survive. Even if doo-wop does have another revival, Ronnie I's Clifton Music will already be history.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The style of music known as doo-wop had at least two heydays: Once in the 1950s and '60s, when the music was first recorded, and again during a revival in the '70s, thanks in part to such nostalgic movies as "American Graffiti" and "Grease." Now doo-wop is in a slump again, and one of its beacons in the Northeast is about to close its doors after decades.

NPR's Joel Rose has the story.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: For some fans, nothing will ever replace the great vocal harmony groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU")

SANDRA ITALIANO: There's a certain purity to this music, a certain rawness that you don't get today.

ROSE: Sandra Italiano is one of those fans. So was her husband, Ronnie. The two even met at an oldies concert. Ronnie Italiano always hated the label doo-wop; his preferred term was group harmony. Whatever you call it, he promoted the music with a vengeance, producing concerts and hosting a local radio show.

RONNIE ITALIANO: Well, I guess I call them the finest R&B quintet to ever record, The Five Keys on Aladdin. You're listening to Ronnie I's R&B Party, Medgar Evers Community Radio...

ROSE: Sandra Italiano says her husband quit his job as a deliveryman to start his own record store in 1972: Ronnie I's Clifton Music, on Main Avenue in Clifton, New Jersey.

ITALIANO: He took a big risk, leaving a good day job. And it was the best thing he did, 'cause he was doing something he loved for so many years and he kept the music in his life and he was able to share it with many.

ROSE: When Ronnie Italiano passed away four years ago, his widow, Sandra, kept the store going.

(SOUNDBITE OF GREETINGS)

ITALIANO: Hey, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How are you, sweetie? Good to see you.

ROSE: On a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens of people came to pay their respects when they found out the store is closing this month. They browsed through the old wooden racks of CDs, LPs and 45s, but Sandra Italiano says the business has been in decline for years.

ITALIANO: It's just the regulars that have been coming. Some of them have been coming since the store opened. Some of them have passed on. The majority have passed on or moved away. Even some of the customers who used to come and buy stuff here are now downloading online. Why buy a CD with the song, when they can download it for cents on the Internet?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODNIGHT SWEETHEART")

ROSE: Regular customers used to drive from all over the New York area to shop at Ronnie I's. Steve Siniawa of Saddlebrook, New Jersey, says Ronnie Italiano had the best selection and he knew more about the players and producers who made the records than anybody.

STEVE SINIAWA: He should have been a detective 'cause he was able to find...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SINIAWA: ...find a lot of your original singers to get information from them. And he grew up with the music.

ROSE: Warren Jacoby used to drive 50 miles from Ocean Township to Ronnie's almost every weekend.

WARREN JACOBY: When I found out Sandie was closing the store, frankly, it's taken a piece of my heart away. You know, I was not into The Beatles. I was not into any of those groups. I only wanted the stuff from the late '40s, the '50s, and I found it here. It's a sad time. You know, you think it's going to go on forever. But I guess nothing does.

ROSE: Jacoby hopes the music he loves will survive. But if doo-wop does have another revival, Ronnie I's Clifton Music will already be history.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODNIGHT SWEETHEART")

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.