Positively angelic

Cleve Duncan, who died last week at seventy-seven, is one of the few singers who ever got to sing his own name on a record:

This was what they nowadays call a “metasong,” a song whose major purpose is to recall other songs, and in fact, it was meta-er than most such. In 1960, L. A. deejay Art Laboe put out a compilation album called Memories of El Monte, songs recorded by vocal groups who sang at the dance parties he held in, yes, El Monte, California. Frank Zappa, a major doo-wop fiend, thought there ought to be a song called “Memories of El Monte,” and broached the idea to future Mother of Invention Ray Collins, who came up with a verse or two based on the chord changes of “Earth Angel.”

Laboe, needless to say, thought this was a swell idea, and what eventually emerged was a song incorporating bits of doo-wop favorites that were presumably regularly heard in El Monte, although only two of the songs thus name-checked (“You Cheated” and “Cherry Pie”) were actually on Laboe’s compilation LP. The masterstroke was getting Cleve Duncan, who sang lead for the Penguins on “Earth Angel,” to sing this one. He’s identified herein as “Cleve Duncan along with the Penguins,” which was technically true, though the original Penguins had long since broken up and Duncan was trying to create a new version of the group. Walter Saulsberry, who sings lead on some of the other song fragments, would remain a Penguin; the backing vocals were done by the Viceroys. Zappa produced the single, which wound up being credited to the Penguins; Laboe released it, and while it never made the national charts, “Memories of El Monte” is still loved and cherished in places where vocal groups never really ever went away.

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