Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)

Album: California Doo Wop (1954)
Charted: 8
  • songfacts ®
  • Lyrics
  • One of the most popular doo-wop songs of all time, "Earth Angel" was just the second doo-wop song to hit the Top 10 on the pop charts, following the Chords' "Sh-Boom."

    The Penguins were four black high school students from Fremont High in Los Angeles who were named for the logo on Kool cigarettes - a penguin named Willie (the group was originally called The Flywheels). They recorded this song in a garage and released it on a small black-owned label called Dootone Records. When it sold over 4 million copies, it proved that independent record labels could succeed, and many more began operating across America.
  • The composition of this song has a strange and convoluted history which came under scrutiny after it proved to be a lucrative hit. A singer-songwriter named Jesse Belvin composed the first version of this song. He was among the group of friends, including members of The Penguins, who would share ideas and work with each other's songs. The Penguins recorded a demo of the song in 1953 and took it to Dootone Records, but when they tried to record it, it was clear that the song needed more work. The Penguins bass player Curtis Williams helped simplify the arrangement, and a session piano player named Gaynell Hodge tweaked the song further. According to Dootone owner Dootsie Williams, a member of the group The Flairs named Cornel Gunter also helped out. Williams told Record Exchanger magazine: "They had the melody and the harmony but they didn't have the background. This Cornel Gunter got with them and rehearsed them. 'Man,' I said, 'Now we've got something.' In my estimation it had the perfect melody, the perfect harmony and the perfect background which are the three things that it needed."

    Doing forensics on the songwriter credits was up to a judge, and complicated by the fact that Curtis Williams sold the song to a publisher. If Law & Order was around in the '50s, this would have made a great episode: Jesse Belvin was asked to stand up and sing his version of the song in court, which convinced the judge that he deserved some, but not all of the songwriting credit. The judge ended up awarding the credits to Belvin, Curtis Williams and Gaynell Hodge.
  • The song was recorded in June 1954, and released in September. It was issued as the B-side of another song called "Hey Senorita," but DJs flipped the record and "Earth Angel" was deemed the A-side. It was a huge hit, and landed The Penguins a major label record deal with Mercury Records. The Penguins never had another hit, although a re-release of "Earth Angel" bubbled under at #101 in 1960. It wasn't the worst deal for Mercury Records, however, as the Penguins were managed by Buck Ram, who as part of the deal insisted that Mercury also sign another of his acts: The Platters. The Penguins broke up in 1962, but The Platters had 23 US Top-40 hits, including four chart-toppers: "The Great Pretender," "My Prayer," "Twilight Time" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
  • In the '50s, most hits by black artists were quickly recorded by white artists who often ended up with the bigger hit (Pat Boone did this to Little Richard more than once). The white group who recorded this on a major label was The Crew-Cuts (a band name just screaming "conformity"), whose version went to #3 in the US and hit #4 in the UK.
  • Besides the Crew-Cuts, artists to chart in the US with this song are: Gloria Mann (#18, 1955), Johnny Tillotson (#57, 1960), The Vogues (#42, 1969), New Edition (#21, 1986).

    Counting up every version of this song, you arrive at over 30 million copies sold, making it the top R&B record of all time in terms of continuous popularity. This gives the Penguins the dubious honor of the one-hit wonders who had the biggest hit.
  • Angels were (and still are) one of the most common songwriting metaphors out there, but not among black groups. In the years preceding "Earth Angel," the most popular blues/R&B songs dealt with far less romantic topics, but the Penguins proved that a black group could be just as successful using a proven lyrical trope simplified to its essence. The song is a beloved classic, but it's not complicated: "Earth Angel, will you be mine? My darling dear, love you all the time. I'm just a fool, a fool in love with you." The only instruments on the track are drums and piano.

    Vocally, the song is more complex, and it took The Penguins about six months to work it out. The lead is by their tenor, Cleveland Duncan, who delivers a suitably dramatic reading backed by second tenor Dexter Tisby and baritone Bruce Tate echoing the refrain while Curtis Williams added various gasps and other vocalizations.
Please sign in or register to post comments.

Comments: 12

  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn April 13th 1960, Johnny Tillotson performed a covered version of "Earth Angel" on the ABC-TV program 'American Bandstand'...
    At the time his "Earth Angel" was in its first week on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart, and was at position #74; a little over a month later on May 15th, 1960 it would peak at #57 {for 1 week} and spent 7 weeks on the Top 100...
    And on the same 'Bandstand' show he also performed the record's B-side, "Pledging My Love", and it was also in its first week on the Top 100 at position #86; it stayed on the chart for 6 weeks, peaking at #63...
    Mr. Tillotson will celebrate his 76th birthday in one week on April 20th {2015}.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn January 11th 1970, Tiny Tim, accompanied by the all-girl band Enchanted Forest, performed "Earth Angel" on the CBS-TV program 'The Ed Sullivan Show'...
    R.I.P. Tiny Tim, born Herbert Khaury, (1932 - 1996) and Mr. Sullivan (1901 - 1974).
  • John from Mineola, Ny"Earth Angel" was certainly a fine song, a classic, even, but not doo-wop! It was a Tin Pan Alley ballad. The B-side, "Hey Senorita", was doo-woop, and has been so underrated as to be practically unknown today. Ironically, "Hey Senorita" was originally intended to be the A-side. Too bad it didn't stay that way.
  • Musicmama from New York, NyOK, I admit it. I've become my mother. This has always been her favorite song. It's not number one for me, but it's very high on my list. I mean, who wouldn't want to slow-dance with his or her sweetie to this song? But what I love most about this song is its vocals: They're innocent and complex at the same time. The only song from the fifties that I like as much is Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue."
  • Darrell from EugeneThere is also a version of this song that has material about a concert hall called (I think, it's been well over 40 years and I've never lived in California) El Monte, and the added lines are (I think) about a couple dancing to this song at El Monte. I have not heard this version of "Earth Angel" since Nixon was president and we were in another useless, illegal war, but in Vietnam and not Iraq, so I cannot remember the exact details. Maybe someone else on Songfacts can fill me in.
  • Phil from Sydney, AustraliaU guys haven't heard of Human Nature's live version that they did for the musical "Happy Days"!
  • Jim from Avon, CtFunny, when I was a kid, I thought this was Johnny Tillotson's song...I never heard the Penguins' version until much, much later!
  • Frank from Westminster, ScIn the US, this so called "race music" was only heard in the black community, for the most part. White solo acts and groups began to take these songs to a white public and make them into hit records. Unfortunately, most of the performers didn't have a genuine feel for the music, so it was all pretty tame and lifeless, as compared to the original black artists. Over the course of time, the originals have pushed the cover versions aside. You almost never hear Pat Boone, the Crewcuts, the Mc Guire Sisters or other white covers of these classic songs anymore on US stations; only the originals. Unfortunately, many of the performers and songwriters got screwed out of their royalties by the slick operators in the music industry.
  • Edward from S'pore, Singaporebloody brilliant,
    The Crew cuts version is darn right inferior compared to this, but why did the public still lap it all up and sent it up to #3..
  • Jerry from Brooklyn, NyBoxz II Men did a great cover of this. They used the same chart and nailed it perfectly.
  • Rob from Santa Monica, CaThis is the song Marty McFly is playing onstage when he begins to disappear from existence in 'Back to the Future'.
  • Cynthia from Phoenix, Azit is truly one of the best oldie songs of all time!
see more comments