Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pause for music: The Penguins

Clockwise from top: Curtis Williams, Bruce Tate, Dexter Tisby, and Cleve Duncan.

When Back to the Future came out in 1985, I was already well into 50’s music. I obviously knew that Johnny B. Goode was originally sung by Chuck Berry, but that was the first time I heard Earth Angel. I fell in love with it right away, and in my opinion it was right up there with songs like the Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes for You, and the Five Satins’ In the Still of the Night. Later, I went on to learn that the original version was sung by the Penguins.

The Penguins’ place in 50’s music fell into a category well-known as One Hit Wonders. At the time, rock n’ roll and doo wop were among the types of music most heard by young people. But that didn’t make it easy for vocal groups to strike hits. Earth Angel was a great hit, but they never managed to reproduce another song with the same success.

The Penguins were formed in 1953, when Cleve Duncan and Curtis Williams (ex-Hollywood Flames) got together with Dexter Tisby and Bruce Tate to form a vocal group. The group name came from Willie the Penguin, featured on Kool cigarettes' ads, which one of the members smoked. In those days, a lot of groups named themselves after birds, but as Cleve Duncan would say later on, what could be more cool than Penguins?

In 1954, they recorded for Dootone records, but it wasn’t until the next year that they started getting some attention. In September of ‘55, a single was released with Hey Señorita on one side and Earth Angel, which Curtis Williams had been working on even before the group was formed, on the other. Strangely enough, Hey Señorita was obtaining an initial success when, one month later, Earth Angel started being noticed. It was a slow climb, but eventually it reached #1 on the R&B charts. On a curious note, at the time, it was common for white groups would record cover versions of songs done by African American groups and end up having more success on the charts. The Crew Cuts did a cover of Earth Angel, and while they were #3 on the Pop Charts, the Penguins were #8 with the same song.

Cleve Duncan with G. Madison and W. Saulsberry
After changing labels to Mercury and then back to Dootone, the group never made the charts again. After break ups and having different formations throughout the years, since the 70's, Cleve Duncan tours with Glenn Madison and Walter Saulsberry as the Penguins.

For those looking for a good Penguins’ CD, I recommend “The Best of the Penguins – The Mercury Years”. It contains 21 songs and features a second version of Earth Angel recorded with Mercury, with some bells in the background, that came out really sweet.


  1. The first time I heard 'Earth Angel', was when I saw 'Back to the Future' too. I have no words to describe the emotion!

    Do you have 50's music LPs?