In the Spotlight: The Cadillacs

The "Speedoo" lineup of the Cadillacs.


1953, Harlem, New York


Doo-wop, Vocal Group, 50s R&B

Claims to fame:

  • One of the pioneering doo-wop groups
  • The first doo-wop group to crossover to the pop charts
  • A major influence on vocal groups of the '60s, particularly the Temptations and the Four Tops
  • Their 1954 hit "Speedoo" remains a landmark of the genre
  • The first of the doo-wop groups to wear flashy clothes and name themselves after a car
  • The first vocal group to have choreographed dance moves
  • Earl "Speedo" Carroll is one of the great vocal group leads, singing for nearly half a century with the Cadillacs and, later, the Coasters

Principal Members:

Earl "Speedo" Carroll (born Gregory Earl Carroll, November 2, 1937 in New York, NY; died November 25, 2012, New York, NY): lead vocals (tenor)
LaVerne Drake (born October 8, 1938, New York, NY; died 1979): vocals (tenor)
Charles Brooks (born 1937, New York, NY): vocals (tenor)
Earl Wade (born 1937, New York, NY): vocals (baritone)
Bobby Phillips (born 1937, New York, NY; died March 6, 2011, New York, NY): vocals (bass)

Early years:

The core of the Cadillacs were two Harlem friends so close they were literally like family: Earl Carroll, orphaned at the age of 11, and Robert Phillips, whose family took him in soon after. While in high school, the two began singing with mutual friend LaVerne Drake (a male, despite the name) as the Carnations, and eventually added neighborhood friend "Cub" Gaining to bolster their harmonies.

They developed quite a following singing slow, romantic numbers, inspired by their idols the Orioles, at the St. Mark's Church community dances on 132nd Street. Sufficiently encouraged, the Carnations entered a talent contest at their high school, P.S. 43, where they were discovered by Lover Patterson, who had worked for the Orioles and managed the Five Crowns.


Patterson was interested in taking them on, hooking them up with songwriter Esther Navarro, who had some talent agency connections of her own. But first the name, which was already taken, had to go; frustrated that the other groups had cornered the market on bird and flower names, they went with something more modern, choosing the name of the most popular luxury car around and dressing in flashy clothes to match. Navarro insisted on moving Phillips to bass, forcing Gaining to quit and replacing him with two members: the Five Crowns' James "Poppa" Clark and Johnny "Gus" Willingham. Navarro's first single she penned for this new lineup, "Gloria," is considered a classic of the genre, but it didn't sell. Their follow-up, however, an uptempo number named "Speedoo" after Carroll, actually became a bigger hit on pop radio than R&B.

Later years:

At the forefront of the new rock revolution, the Cadillacs seem poised for massive success, but finding the perfect sequel to "Speedoo" proved difficult, and although influential DJ Alan Freed took them under his wing, making them one of the first black groups to tour before white audiences, the hits were hard to come by. An endless series of lineup changes helped the group maintain as a popular live act through the early '60s, but by that time Carroll had left to join a reformed Coasters.

Both groups wound up on the oldies circuit for the next two decades, but Carroll left in the '80s to reform the Cadillacs for a car commercial. He continued touring with them until 2005, also maintaining his beloved day job as a custodian for P.S. 87 in Manhattan. He passed away in 2012.

Cadillacs awards and honors:

  • Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2004)

Cadillacs facts and trivia:

  • Other members of the Cadillacs have included J.R. Bailey, Roland Martinez, Bobby Spencer, Kirk Davis, Milton Love, Jesse "Tex" Powell, Reggie Barnes, Ronnie Bright, Curtis Williams, Ray Brewster, Irving Lee Gail, Leroy Binns, Bobby Baylor, Fred Barksdale, Leroy Binns, Steven Brown, Johnny Brown, and Gary K. Lewis
  • Though "Speedoo" is about the singer's speed at picking up women, Carroll has also changed he had the nickname as a child, ironically because he moved so slow; others claim that it rhymed with "torpedo," an in-joke about the shape of Carroll's head
  • A young Teddy Pendergrass was once a member of the group
  • It was Navarro who hired a choreographer for the group to make them stand out
  • Navarro and Carroll both formed versions of the Cadillacs at one point in the late '50s

Notable Cadillacs recordings:

"Speedoo," "Gloria," "I Wonder Why?," "Wishing Well," "Carelessly," "I Want to Know About Love," "No Chance," "Sympathy," "Party for Two," "Corn Whiskey," "Down the Road," "Window Lady," "Zoom-Boom-Zing," "Let Me Explain," "You Are," "Oh! Whatcha Do," "Shock-A-Doo," "Why," "(That's) All I Need," "Baby's Comin' Home to Me," "The Girl I Love," "Betty My Love," "Woe Is Me," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Don't Take Your Love from Me," "If You Want to Be a Woman of Mine," "About That Girl Named Lou," "Sugar-Sugar," "Broken Heart," "C'mon Home Baby," "Hurry Home," "Lucy," "From This Day On," "My Girlfriend," "Don't Be Mad With My Heart," "Buzz Buzz Buzz," "Yea Yea Baby," "Holy Smoke Baby," "I Want to Know," "Ain't You Gonna," "It's Spring," "Speedoo Is Back," "A'looka Here," "Great Googly Moo," "Copycat," "Oh, Oh, Lolita," "Peek-A-Boo," "Jelly Bean," "Please Mr. Johnson," "Your Heart is So Blind," "Cool It, Fool," "Who Ya Gonna Kiss," "The Vow," "You're Not in Love With Me," "Romeo," "Always, My Darling," "I Want to Be Loved," "I'm in Love," "Let Me Down Easy," "Louise," "Wayward Wanderer," "What You Bet"

Movie and TV appearances (movies in italics): "The Dick Clark Show" (1958), Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), "Doo Wop 50" (1999)

Covered by: Ry Cooder, The Youngbloods, The Orioles, Brinsley Schwarz