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The Doo-Wop Song at the Mournful Heart of ‘The Irishman’

In Martin Scorsese’s latest, one song greets you and then hangs over the rest of the film’s 209-minute run time: the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” which once signified youth but, under Scorsese’s direction, comes to capture the passage of time

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Earlier this fall, an 83-year-old doo-wop legend named Fred Parris was watching television at home when he saw an interview with Robert De Niro. The actor was promoting The Irishman, his long-in-the-making reunion with Martin Scorsese: a sweeping, career-culminating gangster epic whose price tag makes Casino’s $50 million budget look spartan. Parris was intrigued. “It sounded interesting,” he says. He had not heard much about the film. Nor did he have any idea that his most famous song—a hit when De Niro was still in junior high—appears on its soundtrack.

Actually, “appears” is an understatement. Parris’s mid-’50s smash “In the Still of the Night”—which he wrote and helped sing as the leader of the doo-wop group the Five Satins—is used so prominently in The Irishman it might as well be its theme song. It’s the first thing you hear during the lengthy tracking shot that opens the film, as the camera winds its way into the retirement-home dwelling, and memories, of an aging mob hitman named Frank Sheeran (De Niro). It pops up twice more throughout the film’s expansive 209-minute run time: during a wedding sequence set in 1975, and again at the end, when the narrative circles back to an aging Frank ruminating on regrets from a lifetime of brutal mob enforcement. It is, more or less, the central musical motif of the film, even more than Robbie Robertson’s score.

The song infuses the film with a profound sense of melancholy, which may be unexpected by moviegoers anticipating a foul-mouthed mafia joyride. During the opening scenes, it conveys more about memory and loss than any voice-over narration could communicate. And it slots right in with Scorsese’s historic affinity for doo-wop and girl group classics, as epitomized by his decision to forego original scores for preexisting pop soundtracks in Mean Streets and Goodfellas.

“Anything that can add a little popularity to the song—it’s great with me,” Parris raves when I get him on the phone in early October. He tells me he’s only just been notified by the song’s publisher days prior that it was licensed for the film. (MPL Communications holds the publishing rights to the track; the company confirmed this but declined to disclose specifics of the deal.) In the background, I can hear Parris’s wife, Emma Parris, nudging him: “Tell him we would welcome the opportunity to meet Robert De Niro.” Eventually, she just takes over the phone. “Unfortunately, somebody dropped the ball and didn’t let us know in enough time to go to the premiere,” she says. “That’s unfortunate.”

It’s fittingly odd, this story about “In the Still of the Night” and how it came to soundtrack Scorsese’s lengthy rumination on the scope of human life, the passage of time, and how pain, lies, and loss have a tendency to build up as unremarkably as the ticking of a clock. Once a song about new love half a century ago, it is now a knell that conveys memories both good and bad, and the confusion and ambiguity in between. So poignantly of a different time, “In the Still of the Night” forces the audience to consider the song’s, and their, place in history—a magic trick that Parris didn’t even mean to perform. When I ask him whether he’ll be receiving a check for that, he shoots back, “I better!

“I think it was blessed,” says Parris’s former bandmate Jim Freeman. “I think the place we recorded at was blessed, the church basement.”

Sixty-three years ago, the Five Satins could not have imagined their hit would endure well into the 21st century. When the group of African American teens from Connecticut cut “In the Still of the Night” in early 1956 in the basement of New Haven’s St. Bernadette Catholic School, it was merely the B-side to a more up-tempo tune, “The Jones Girl.” But on the last night of the session, they brought home an acetate disc of “In the Still of the Night.” “We played that when we got back to the projects,” Parris recounts. “People were opening up their windows. Everyone was wondering what it was, because nobody had ever heard anything like that.”

Trouble was, Parris was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Japan just as the song became a hit. “He told me, ‘If the record does anything, get some guys together and save me a place when I get out of the service,’” recalls Freeman, who is 82. “I had to get a whole new group to promote that record.” When Parris returned in 1958, he resumed his role as the Five Satins’ leader. By then, despite a flurry of minor hits, “In the Still of the Night” had emerged as the outfit’s signature song. “It was what you had back then when young kids were singing on street corners,” Freeman says. “You didn’t have these machines that could make a different sound. It was just honest street music.”

When the song was first released, during the sleepy heart of the Eisenhower era, it signified youth. Parris, who was just 18 when he penned the song, wrote it about a teenage love interest. “[We were] five black kids from the hood, going to a Catholic church and recording a rock ’n’ roll song,” he says. “What happened with it was wonderful!” For years to come, the hit would soundtrack high school proms and doe-eyed teenage rendezvous. (When I texted my own father to ask whether he remembered the song, he replied immediately: “Of course. We used to slow dance to it at school socials.”)

Yet the song wasn’t an immediate classic. Rather, it was a sizable hit in 1956, peaking at no. 24, and again in 1960, when it reached no. 81 after disc jockey Art Laboe included it on an Oldies but Goodies compilation. When the tune was rereleased again the following year, it became the first and only recording to chart three separate times. In time, “In the Still of the Night” came to crystallize the doo-wop phenomenon and cemented itself in the esteem of listeners and radio DJs as one of the genre’s greatest standards. Some sources even claim the “doo wop, doo wah” refrain inspired the name “doo-wop,” though Parris is skeptical: “‘Shoo-be-doo’ was more our word, anyway,” he muses.

The song’s profile rose dramatically in 1987, when it appeared in Dirty Dancing. By then, films like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married had awakened nascent nostalgia for the ’50s and early ’60s. For the Five Satins, the Dirty Dancing boost was significant: The film’s soundtrack sold an ungodly number of copies, and “In the Still of the Night” was introduced to an entirely new generation. Five years later, the ’90s R&B darlings Boyz II Men covered it and made it a hit once more.

Much of The Irishman is set against the roiling milieu of that era—the ’50s, ’60s, early ’70s—as it depicts the backroom dealings of organized crime and the labor movement as they became perilously intertwined. Like any Scorsese epic, it calls upon an eclectic mix of songs to set the vibe: Fats Domino’s early rock ’n’ roller “The Fat Man” and the Baião staple “El Negro Zumbón,” to name two. But “In the Still of the Night” gets the most screen time.

“I think it’s a very evocative piece of music,” says the film’s music supervisor, Randall Poster. “In terms of the vocal styling, it has a great ethereal quality.” Poster says that Scorsese chose the song, perhaps because it speaks to his own past. “Marty is very instinctive about the music he chooses. He has an affinity to one song or another. I think it landed, and became a sort of bookend for the movie. … I think every director—all of us—we have songs from the past that either spark a particular memory or seemingly were going to be the harbingers of adulthood.” Scorsese spent more than 10 years trying to make The Irishman. Perhaps he spent many more waiting for the right opportunity to use “In the Still of the Night.”

Today, the song is anything but youthful. It’s an antique, a hazy dispatch from a distant era—an “oldie,” in the parlance of radio programmers and jukebox manufacturers. When used in a film, it functions as aural shorthand for “This takes place a very long time ago.” In the context of The Irishman, it’s practically a death rattle, sounding out into the retirement home. The film is by far the most elegiac and remorseful of Scorsese’s mob movies, lingering on the mob’s grim legacy of violence—and the emptiness it instills in survivors—during its somber final act. And in that sense, doo-wop has possibly never sounded as sad as it does in The Irishman. That it works is a testament to Scorsese’s ear for iconic needle drops. “When Marty lands on something, it just feels right,” says Poster. “He’s not bound by anybody else’s rules on how to use music.”

In Mean Streets (which displayed his love of doo-wop early on), Scorsese homed in on the gritty potential of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Goodfellas legendarily exploited the coked-up, paranoid mania of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” for its great helicopter sequence. Casino located and detonated the brooding violence that was always lurking inside the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” For the people who love these movies, each of these recordings has become inextricably linked to their corresponding film. And 10 years from now, when people hear the title The Irishman, “In the Still of the Night” will likely start playing in their heads.

Strangely enough, the Five Satins are having a bit of a moment. It’s not just The Irishman. On September 24, a musician named Patrick Geraghty, who records under the name Gal Gracen, tweeted out a clip of a harsh, skronking saxophone solo that sounds as though it had been transplanted from a Captain Beefheart album and plopped into an otherwise staid rock ’n’ roll tune. “This is absolutely the worst solo I have ever heard by any instrument,” Geraghty wrote, and as a testament to the utter bizarreness of the thing, his tweet went viral, racking up more than 171,000 likes.

The solo belongs to a Five Satins recording: an alternate take of “The Jones Girl,” the single that was issued with “In the Still of the Night.” Even weirder, Geraghty’s tweet wasn’t inspired by the Scorsese film at all. He hasn’t even seen The Irishman. “I just love doo-wop and was listening to a Five Satins collection while working,” Geraghty explains over email. “I heard the solo in the background and kind of took notice towards the end, put the needle back, and realized just how awful it was. I shared it because it was funny, but now I kind of feel bad because I actually love the solo. It’s very unique.” It’s true—the solo really does have a certain avant-noise charm to it, though one imagines “avant-noise” is not what a youthful doo-wop group in 1956 was going for.

When I mention all this to Freeman, who wrote “The Jones Girl,” he laughs and laughs. His grandson showed him the tweet. “Whoever wrote that was telling the truth,” he chuckles. “It was awful. I agreed when we finished recording the [song]: It was the worst.” The sax solo, he explains, was played by his cousin, the late Vinny Mazzetta. When the song was cut, “I knew right then, I had written the worst record in the world.”

“But I can’t blame Vinny,” he says sadly. “He tried.”

This unexpected viral moment, paired with The Irishman, marks the most surreal episode yet in the Five Satins’ long cultural endurance. Parris is not likely to capitalize on the resurgence with a tour, even though the group has continued performing well into its twilight years. “I stopped about a year ago,” he says, “because of all kinds of problems—mostly health problems.” Still, the singer is recognized and approached by fans often. “When he does the shows, people will come up and say, ‘Oh, Fred, let me tell you how I met my husband or wife,’” Emma Parris says. “One lady said all four of her children were conceived to ‘In the Still of the Night.’ We hear that story quite often.”

Perhaps the Parrises will continue to hear that story as Scorsese introduces the song to a new generation. Then again, The Irishman isn’t much of an aphrodisiac.

Zach Schonfeld is a freelance journalist and writer based in New York. He was formerly a senior writer at Newsweek.

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