Posted September 26, 2008

Harmonizing, in the Still of the Morning

Ocean Grove Journal


ON a bright Sunday morning, as church bells beckoned, Robert Napolitano sat in Founders’ Park here with the other members of his a capella group huddled around him. The lead vocalist, John Poitras, 58, of Bay Head, began singing, and soon the other members joined in. The second tenor’s finger was snapping, the baritone was swaying back and forth like a porch swing, and Mr. Napolitano was tapping his cane on the ground to the beat.

It was a weekly jam session for the Emburys, a 1950s-style doo-wop group named for the porch on Embury Avenue on which they sometimes practice. The group’s members are in their late 50s and early 60s. Most live in Ocean Grove, and most still smoke cigarettes, even as they sing. Nearly all have tattoos obtained so long ago that the images are blurred.

As the practice went on, the singers moved closer and closer to each other, as if proximity would make their voices blend better.

Sometimes, when I’m all alone

Feeling kind of low

You come round to cheer me up

Because you love me sooooo...

It was a song by Danny and the Juniors, who popularized “At the Hop.”

Suddenly, the Emburys hit a sour note and arms began to fly.

“You two guys were on the same note,” said Robert Franzese, 65.

“He’s on my note,” said Billy Farrell, 64, of Ocean Township, pointing to the man next to him.

“As a matter of fact, he’s singing like a baritone,” Mr. Franzese said, shaking his head in disgust.

They tried again.

Sometimes, when I’m all


And again.

The Emburys are an anachronism. While there is no shortage of professional doo-wop groups in New Jersey, amateur groups like the teenagers who used to sing vocal harmonies on urban street corners in the late 1950s and early 1960s are all but gone.

But most Sunday mornings, the Emburys can be found singing just outside Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium or in the park. And every time they sing, a small crowd gathers to listen.

Mr. Napolitano, known as Boogie, has been singing doo-wop since he was a teenager growing up in Bradley Beach.

Now, he’s 62, with thick wavy white hair and a moustache. On this afternoon, he is wearing a white tank top and gold neck chain. He is a retired maintenance worker for the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, the church group that runs the town, founded as a Methodist retreat. He used to lift heavy objects and drive around town in a camp meeting truck. Last year he learned he had prostate cancer. Now, he walks with a cane and must sit down a lot.

Years ago, Mr. Napolitano sang with an amateur group called the Splendids. Three years ago, he formed the Emburys.

William Kelly, head of the Integrative Arts Department at Penn State University, said doo-wop, made popular by groups like the Coasters and Little Anthony and the Imperials, was once ubiquitous, especially in the Northeast.

Though not mainstream anymore, he said, “it never really goes away.”

At the Great Auditorium, doo-wop groups are a big draw during two annual summer shows, says Shelley Belusar, who books the acts. But she said it’s getting harder to find groups with original members.

“The performers are dying off,” Ms. Belusar said. “And the people who watch them are dying off.”

Mr. Napolitano has been asking Ms. Belusar for years if his group can warm up for one of her doo-wop concerts. She has so far declined, so they keep performing on the street, or in the park.

They played a gig recently — a block party — though they were paid nothing. And someone recently videotaped them in what’s left of the Casino building linking the Ocean Grove and Asbury Park boardwalks, singing “Up on the Roof,” “Diamonds and Pearls” and two other songs. The songs were individually put on YouTube, giving the Emburys their largest audience ever — more than 2,000 total views so far. Several group members needed someone to show them the Web site as they don’t own computers.

As the group continued to practice this particular Sunday, Mr. Napolitano’s sister, Angelina Fantini, pulled a bottle out of her pocket. She unscrewed the top, revealing a small wand through which she blew a thin stream of bubbles that soon surrounded the group.

“She’s trying to get us on ‘The Lawrence Welk Show,’ ” Mr. Napolitano said.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company