Soul music has produced so many subgenres including doo-wop, its close harmonies still impacting acts such as Manhattan Transfer and Pentatonix. The 1950s act The Cadillacs were pioneers of the tradition, introducing soul to wider audiences with their smooth harmonies and heartfelt delivery. While best known for their 1955 hit "Speedo," the gorgeous ballad "Gloria" perfectly represents the doo-wop genre's unique blend of lush vocal arrangements, soul, and just a touch of jazz.
The Cadillacs began in New York's Harlem in the early 1950s under a different name: The Carnations. Teenagers Earl "Speedy" Carroll, LaVerne Drake, Robert Phillips, and "Cub" Gaining gained popularity singing at their high school dances. One such appearance caught the attention of Lover Patterson, who was once associated with one of the Carnations' greatest influences: The Orioles. Liking what he heard, Patterson recommended the group to the Shaw Artist Agency, an outfit that also wrote songs. After their audition, The Carnations underwent several changes; Phillips switched to bass, and Gaining was replaced by James "Poppa" Clark and Johnny "Gus" Willingham. Thus the final vocal lineup was in place: Phillips (bass), Carroll (lead tenor), Drake (tenor), Clark (tenor), and Willingham (baritone). One more adjustment took place: they had to change their name, as "The Carnations" was already being used by another group According to AllMusic's Bruce Eder, "The Cadillacs" was selected because of "its association with automotive elegance and to separate the group from the spate of bird and flower names that were common among singing groups."
Now all The Cadillacs needed was a record label. The Shaw Artist Agency's Esther Navarro gave them "Gloria," and Patterson contributed "I Wonder Why." When The Cadillacs brought the recordings to Jubilee Records, the label agreed to release the two singles. "Gloria," which debuted in July 1954, experienced moderate success, as did "I Wonder Why." However, the group's career finally took off in 1955 with the hit "Speedo" (a takeoff on Carroll's nickname); they subsequently became part of DJ Alan Freed's Christmas show, exposing their music to a broader audience. Those appearances helped break The Cadillacs out of the R&B charts on to pop, a difficult feat at the time for African-American artists.
While not their biggest hit, "Gloria" has endured due to its simple sound, sublime harmonies, and timeless lyrics. While the single listed Navarro as the composer, it was actually a revised version of an earlier tune. Songwriter Leon René (known for classics such as "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" and "Rockin' Robin") first penned the track for the Mills Brothers, who issued their version in 1948. The Cadillacs' take on "Gloria" strays from the original in that it features different lyrics (it only retains the "Gloria / It's not Marie . . . "it's not Cherie" line), different chord changes, and a distinctly soul feel. Carroll's no holds-barred vocal performance better communicates the narrator's unrequited love. "She's not in love with me," he cries, the other members providing additional bass lines and other rhythmic elements.
The backing instrumentation is basic but effective, featuring bass, piano, and organ. The stars of the show are Carroll's ethereal voice and Phillips' bass vocalizations. Carroll wants listeners to feel his pain, particularly in the bridge. "Yes, maybe she'll love me / But who am I to know," he asks, the other members repeating the words "maybe" and "love me" like a Greek chorus. The vocal tour de force occurs at the end, as Carroll hits impossibly high notes as the rest of the group cushions his vocals in lush harmonies. Carroll's voice slightly fades as he sings "Gloria," once again underscoring his undying love for the woman.
Later harmonic groups would rediscover this gem, with jazz artists finding this example of doo-wop soul close to their unique singing styles. Manhattan Transfer tackled "Gloria" on their second album, their version featuring more instrumentation but a virtually identical vocal arrangement. No matter who covers the tune, "Gloria" represents a time when R&B was crossing over into pop, proving that the two genres could peacefully coexist. The Cadillacs may be primarily remembered for "Speedo," but "Gloria" remains an essential slice of doo-wop and classic soul.