Now they often called him “Speedo” but his real name was Mr. Earl. Mr. Earl Carroll that is, and this week we lost him. He put the Cadillacs (then the Carnations) together in Harlem way back in 1953. Earl sang lead, backed by the other Cadillacs Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, Gus Willingham, and James Clark. A year later, the group had their first hit for Josie Records, the indelible doo wop classic “Gloria.”
It was in 1955 that the Cadillacs really made their name however. By that time Clark and Willingham had left the group and were replaced by Earl Wade and Charles Brooks. It was the year that the Cadillacs began adding choreography to their act, making them pioneers in that area. What was really important about 1955 however was that it was the year that the Cadillacs had their enormous crossover hit “Speedoo”. It was a crucial record in the history of popular music because it was one of the first moments that white teenagers were drawn to the black music that would eventually become rock and roll.
“Speedoo” (a variation on Carroll’s nickname) came about in an unusual way. As legend has it, early in 1955 the Cadillacs were performing at an armory in Massachusetts. Bobby Phillips caught sight of a torpedo on display and said “hey Speedo, there goes your torpedo.”
Carroll wasn’t thrilled with the reference to his somewhat pointy head and replied, “my name is Earl.” All the way home they batted in around, and by the time they arrived back in New York, the song had emerged. They recorded it the very next day.
By the time 1957 rolled around there were already internal problems. Some of the Cadillacs left. The ones that remained morphed into Earl Carroll and the Cadillacs, while others formed groups like the Four Cadillacs, and Jesse Powell and the Caddys. Then Carroll’s guys decided to retire, and he joined one of the other groups. He wasn’t the lead singer though, so he left to form Speedo and the Pearls in 1959.
There was more shuffling. The Cadillacs reformed and by 1961 they were resembling the Coasters musically. Carroll decided he might as well try to join the Coasters if he was going to emulate them, and he did. The Cadillacs rolled on without him. They vanished from the scene for awhile, but returned in 1970 with none other than Teddy Pendergrass as their drummer.
Carroll stayed with the Coasters until the early ’90s, when he left to reform the Cadillacs with original member Bobby Phillips. By that time Carroll had a job as a janitor at PS 87 in Manhattan. He’d gone to the school in 1982 to take a literacy class to improve his reading level. While there he heard about the job opening and decided to fill it. He remained at the school until his retirement in 2005.
For all those years he would regale the students with stories from his career in music, sometimes singing as he went about his day at work. In 1988 he told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he loved keeping the school clean, and the adoration he received from the students.
Earl Carroll had an important career in music, but perhaps even more important was his influence on the generations of school children who passed through the halls of PS 87 while he was there. He died in Manhattan on Sunday. Mr. Earl Carroll was 75 years-old.