DETROIT. For Marvin Deshields, former lead singer of the 50′s doo-wop group The Fabulous Croutons, every excursion out into public is an occasion for anxiety. “Somebody like you,” he says to this reporter, “you don’t think twice about ordering a cup of coffee or picking up your dry cleaning. For me,” he says, his voice faltering, “it’s a cross to bear.”
Deshields was a soprano in the mold of Frankie Lymon, whose hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” with the Teenagers paved the way for later high-pitched male singers such as Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson. But Deshield’s ability to hit the high notes came with a much lower price; he was a castrato, neutered by his agent Sol Kantrowitz in order to compete in a crowded marketplace for androgynous vocalists.
“It wasn’t the physical agony, although that was bad enough,” says Deshields, who spent a weekend in a tub of crushed ice until the pain caused by his operation subsided. “It was knowing I no longer had any family jewels to hand down.”
As it turns out, Deshields was not alone. Ellis Herman, lead singer of The Hermanphrodites, says he underwent the surgical procedure because he had heard that his brothers planned to replace him when his voice changed. “They were on the verge of stardom,” he recalls. “I had to ask myself–do I want to have a lotta money in my pockets, or just a coupla nuts?”
Castration of male singers in order to preserve the vocal range of prepubescence dates from the mid-sixteenth century, when women were banned from singing in church. The Duke of Ferrarra was an early enthusiast and wrote the song “Duke of Earl,” a #1 hit for Gene Chandler in 1962. The practice subsequently fell out of favor, but was revived in the 1950′s with the advent of regular municipal trash collection for discarded body parts.
As other doo-wop castrati have come forward to tell their tales in recent years, record labels have established a trust fund to assist former singers who sacrified their most precious assets in pursuit of musical perfection, but some say it is too little, too late. “Other guys, you seem them alla time, playin’ pocket pool, adjustin’ themselves,” says Anthony Poindexter of The Obscurantists. “Me? I reach down there and I got nothin’.”