The Cadillacs: One of the Pioneering Doo-Wop Groups


Introduction to The Cadillacs

The Cadillacs were an American doo-wop/R&B/rock and roll group formed in Harlem, New York in 1953. They are considered as one of the pioneering doo-wop acts at that time, being the first black doo-wop a group to cross over the pop charts. They also imposed other “firsts” – such as the first doo-wop group to wear flashy costumes and choreographed dances onstage, as well as the first black doo-wop act to attract white audiences. The core members of the group were Earl “Speedoo” Carroll, Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, James Clark and Gus Willingham. Later Clark and Willingham left and were replaced by new vocalists Earl Wade and Charles Brooks. It was this lineup that released a single titled “Speedoo”, based on Carroll’s nickname. “Speedoo”, released on Josie label, became a pop hit in 1955, and has remained the group’s best-known song. Despite the success, differences among the band members caused them to disband, and as a result, arrive at two offshoot groups – The Four Cadillacs and Earl Carroll and the Cadillacs. In 1958 the two groups merged together, but there were some members who left at the time the “reunion” happened. In any case, the band had scored a few more hits like “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Peek-a-Boo”, and “What You Bet” and a few minor hits before they split in 1962. During the 1970s the Cadillacs reformed but split again. Carroll, since after the 1962 split, had been with another group The Coasters until the early 1990s; he died in 2012. Another ex-Cadillac member Phillips passed away the year before. They had been inducted into the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame in 2004.

The early years of The Cadillacs and their formation

Known mainly for their 1955 hit “Speedoo,” the American rock n roll and doo-wop group The Cadillacs were initially named as The Carnations in 1953. They consisted of four members: Earl Carroll Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake (bass vocal) and Gus Willingham. All of them hailed from Harlem, New York.

The Cadillacs recordings and their big hit “Speedoo”

The Carnations soon added James “Poppa” Clark when they began recording; it was also followed by changing of their name to The Cadillacs. In 1954, they had their first recording on Josie Records where they performed their versions of “Gloria” (a Top 20 hit for the Mills Brothers in 1948) and Wonder Why” (first recorded by Vic Damone in 1951).

In 1952, Willingham and Clark left the band and were replaced by Earl Wade and Charles Brooks. The Cadillacs’ manager Esther Navarro instructed the group to put some choreography in their performance which might have helped the single “Speedoo” to become a hit. Derived from Carroll’s nickname, “Speedoo” peaked at #17 on the pop charts while it was #3 on the R&B chart. In 1956, J.R. Bailey became a member, filling in for Drake’s position.

Personnel changes, reunions and post-Cadillacs years

Different and disagreeing opinions among the members caused the Cadillacs’ disbandment in 1957. Bailey, along with the former Cadillacs band mate Drake, formed their own band called The Four Cadillacs which included new recruits Roland Martinez and Bobby Spencer. Spencer was the one who wrote one of the best-selling ska song “My Boy Lollipop.” The Cadillacs’ current members, Carrol, Wade, Brooks and Phillips became Earl Carroll and the Cadillacs. Bailey became a part of the Jesse Powell and the Caddy’s. Both groups were still under Josie Records. In 1958, all the groups of the former Cadillacs were united. However, Wade, Brooks and Phillips who were Carroll’s backing vocalists, retired. Carroll, Bailey, Drake, Martinez and Spencer performed for a while but Carroll soon left the group, forming Speedo and the Pearls in in 1959. In that year, The Cadillacs appeared in the movie Go Johnny Go.

In 1960, The Cadillacs split for a while but reformed later that year, consisting of Carroll, Martinez, Kirk Davis and Ronnie Bass. The new formation included Carroll, Martinez, Spencer and the members of The Solitaires’ (also actively performing by that time) Milton Love and Reggie Barnes.  In 1961, the previous formation later called The Coasters but it shifted again to Carroll, Martinez, Curtis Williams, Ray Brewster and Irving Lee Gail. In 1963, Carroll left the group. The Coasters now consisted of Carl Gardner, Billy Guy and Ronnie Bright (ex-Cadillacs). In 1963, Brewster, Martinez, Spencer and Bailey gathered together, releasing several records. But shortly, the group broke up and Bailey joined the Jive Five. In 1969, Spencer became the lead vocalist of a bubblegum music group Crazy Elephant.

Along with new member Leroy Binns, The Cadillacs had a reunion in 1970 with Bailey, Spencer and Phillips. Phillips was replaced by Steven Brown and the group was joined by drummer Teddy Pendergrass. In the mid-70’s, the group finally split. Along with some members, Pendergrass joined Melvin and the Bluenotes.

In their recent years, Carroll had been with the Coasters but left in the early 1990’s to form The Cadillacs once again, comprising of Phillips, Brown, Gary K. Lewis and Eddie Jones, the musical director. In 2003, Brown left the group. In 2004, The Cadillacs were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

Phillips died in March 2011. Carroll died on November 25, 2012.

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