The Penguins

The Penguins

The world knows The Penguins as the group that recorded "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine),"one of the best-selling, most beloved oldies of all time. But to doo-wop fans, the group was more than just a one-hit wonder, and lead singer Cleve Duncan has kept The Penguins functioning as a viable outfit for the past 45 years.

In 1961, however, he was approached by a young musician named Frank Zappa to record a tribute song that Zappa had written called "Memories of El Monte," a pastiche of many of the classic Los Angeles doo-wop songs like "Nite Owl," "In the Still of the Nite" and "Earth Angel" that had been a staple at Art Laboe's rock 'n' roll shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium. Laboe himself released the record on his Original Sound label, and "Memories of El Monte" turned out to be a local hit--and a perennial favorite. (The vocalists backing Cleve are reputed to be The Viceroys.) Forming a new Penguins as a trio--himself, baritone Walter Saulsberry and tenor/bass Glen Madison (formerly of The Delcos)--Cleve recorded a couple more singles for local labels to capitalize on the dance crazes of the early '60s.

Since then this Penguins lineup has been steadily performing around the country (and occasionally overseas), and Cleve Duncan still sounds pretty much the same as he did that day in Ted Brinson's garage. As soon as he opens his mouth to sing "Earth Angel," the last 45 years just fall away.

Penguins fans can still catch up on most of the their '50s and '60s recordings. Ace Records in England has released a Penguins CD that contains all their Dootone material, and two of Ace's "Dootone Doo-wop" compilation CDs include Cleve's sides with The Radiants (in stereo). Bear Family in Germany has issued all of The Penguins' Mercury cuts, and Original Sound has released various sides they recorded during the "Memories of El Monte" period. Their two Atlantic sides are on a couple of Atlantic 2-CD sets from Rhino Records.