By Greg Sandow
Updated April 22, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

This dates me, I guess, but when I was in junior high, we used to turn out the lights and dance to the Penguins’ ”Earth Angel,” a trembling doo-wop ballad. The time was the mid-’50s, long before the Beatles—and, most important, long before Grease, Sha Na Na, and Henry Winkler as the Fonz had turned doo-wop and its era into a nostalgic joke. We didn’t think our music was quaint. We clutched and kissed in the dark, and the songs made us shiver.

Those shivers come back to me in The Doo Wop Box, a four-CD set billed by the label as the ”definitive” doo-wop compilation. Listen, for instance, to the Cadillacs’ ”Gloria.” It’s easy now to hear that the vocals aren’t quite in tune and that the piano sounds like it’s groping in the dark. But that’s exactly why the music gives you chills. ”Glo-o-ria,” cries the lead singer (the unforgettably named Earl ”Speedo” Carroll); ”oo-oo-woo-oo,” the group moans in response. And as Carroll soars into a falsetto, it’s the homemade honesty of the sound that makes you hang on to every note, until Carroll tumbles back down to earth with the saddest words ever sung: ”She’s not in love with me.”

Listen to 40 songs like this (plus at least 40 more that are fast and snappy), and you begin to understand just how informal doo-wop really was. The music, after all, was nurtured around the country in the early ’50s by poor black teenagers (and, later, by Italian kids) singing on the street. The groups didn’t have any accompaniment, but they made up for it by turning their voices into instruments, pushing the rhythm forward with doo-wop’s famous nonsense syllables: ”doo-ba, doo-ba,” ”ch-wadda-wadda,” ”ra-ta-ta-ta oo,” and all the rest. These phrases are easy to smile at, but without them, the music- and its quivering romantic sexuality, so devastating against the repressed backdrop of the ’50s-quite literally wouldn’t exist.

How well does the box document all this? For me, doo-wop peaked from 1954 to 1956, when, with limited instrumental accompaniment, it still sounded close to the street. The compilers of this set, on the other hand, think its golden age began in 1957, when producers added suave electric guitars and other studio tricks to songs like the Crests’ ”16 Candles.” As evidence that they’re wrong, I’d cite (a) everybody’s usual list of the greatest doo-wop songs, most ; of which, like ”Earth Angel” and the Five Satins’ ”In the Still of the Nite,” come from those early years, and (b) the boxed set itself, which, if you listen all the way through, starts to sag on the third disc, just when it reaches doo-wop’s supposed peak.

Of course, the people who assembled the set couldn’t leave out the second half of the music’s history. Nor did they skimp on early doo-wop: They go all the way back to the late ’40s, demonstrating doo-wop’s roots in black vocal groups like the Orioles, whose 1948 smash ”It’s Too Soon to Know” is so erotically soulful that you’ll reach for the light switch. Still, did they have to follow doo-wop even into the ’80s, when-unknown to anyone except the most eager fans-sweet but essentially meaningless new songs in the style of ’50s emerged? It’s as if the box’s compilers had watched too many Happy Days reruns.

So, yes, they do a good, responsible job chronicling their version of doo-wop history, including nearly every song anybody has to hear, from the Crows’ love-struck 1953 hit ”Gee” up through the Marcels’ kicky ”Blue Moon” (1961). But then they drag the set down with flaky or sentimental novelties, such as a live performance from a 1987 oldies show.

For anyone who wants to learn about doo-wop or just craves a collection of favorites, The Doo Wop Box eclipses everything else. But if the compilers had taken the early years a little more seriously, they might have given doo-wop its rightful historical place as the most meltingly sexy music of the ’50s-and the first great rock & roll that was brought to the mainstream by kids from the street.