Formed in 1954 in Fremont High School, Los Angeles, California, USA, the Penguins were one of the most important R&B vocal groups from the west coast in the early 50s. Their hit ballad ‘Earth Angel’ remains one of the most fondly recalled ‘doo-wop’ recordings. The group comprised lead vocalist Cleveland ‘Cleve’ Duncan (23 July 1935, Los Angeles, California, USA), Bruce Tate (baritone), Curtis Williams (first tenor) and Dexter Tisby (second tenor). Williams learned ‘Earth Angel’ from Los Angeles R&B singer Jesse Belvin, and passed it on to his group. Some sources give co-writing credit to Williams, Belvin and Gaynel Hodge, a member of vocal group the Turks. Hodge won a 1956 lawsuit recognizing his role in the writing of the song. However, most reissues of ‘Earth Angel’ still list only either Belvin, Williams or both. The Penguins, who took their name from a penguin on a cigarette packet, signed with the local DooTone Records, owned by Dootsie Williams. Their first recording date was as a backing group for a blues singer, Willie Headon. They next recorded ‘Hey Senorita’, an up-tempo number. ‘Earth Angel’ was chosen as their first single’s b-side but when both sides were played on LA radio station KGJF, listeners called in to request that ‘Earth Angel’ be played again. It ultimately reached number 1 in the US Billboard R&B chart. It also reached the pop Top 10, but was eclipsed by a cover version by the white group the Crew-Cuts. The song has also charted by Gloria Mann (1955), Johnny Tillotson (1960), the Vogues (1969) and New Edition (1986). The Penguins continued to record other singles for DooTone (plus one album for the related Dooto label) and then Mercury Records, before disbanding in 1959. Members Williams and Tate have since died, Tisby retired from music, and Duncan later formed new bands under the name Penguins.

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