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An All-Puerto Rican Doo-Wop Band, The Eternals, Has a Place in Music History

Decades before Luis Fonsi, Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin made Puerto Rican music mainstream in American culture, there was an all-Puerto Rican doo-wop group that burst onto the top music charts. And few people today know their names.

“Sometimes when we were singing in theaters, they’d say, ‘The Eternals, the only all-Puerto Rican Hispanic band in doo-wop history.’ And that made us proud,” Charlie Girona said in an interview with NBC. News.

The Eternals gained national recognition in the late 1950s. Their biggest hits were released in 1959: “Rockin’ in the Jungle”, “Babalu’s Wedding Day”, and “My Girl”. Girona, one of the founding members and the lead singer, said he was proud to have written 39 songs, including “Rockin’ in the Jungle”, which managed to No. 78 on the national Billboard charts.

The singer-songwriter recalled that the band had done bus tours with doo-wop legends such as The Coasters (“Yakety Yak”), The Skyliners (“Since I Don’t Have You”), Frankie Avalon (“Venus”), The Impalas (“Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)”) and Neil Sedaka (“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”).

Ernie Sierra founded the group in New York’s South Bronx, coinciding with the first wave of Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood in the 1950s. Girona said the original members – who also included Alex Miranda, Anibal Torres, Fred Hodge and Girona – rehearsed in the evenings after school on Freeman Street.

The original members of The Eternals. Top row, left to right: Fred Hodge and Ernie Sierra. Bottom row, left to right: Alex Miranda, Anibal Torres and Charlie Girona.Courtesy of Charlie Girona

Girona said The Eternals booked popular TV shows from that era like “The Buddy Deane Show” in Baltimore and “The Clay Cole Show” in New York, as well as a radio show with Bruce Morrow. While their future looked bright, the band also faced racial discrimination, Girona said, particularly when it came to being able to play in the South.

“We had done shows in Maryland, New Jersey and all over the East. Then this company said they had 15 shows for us all the way to Florida. We were really excited,” Girona said. “But then they said only four of us could go. They didn’t want our bass [Alex Miranda] go because he was black.

Girona said he and Sierra, the only members of The Eternals present at the meeting with tour organizers, responded right away, “No Alex, no Eternals.”

According to the singer-songwriter, the group was called The Eternals because they thought they would always stick together.

“Nobody got rich singing,” Girona said. “They paid us each $22 when we recorded. Most shows of the time did not pay. And we did them for publicity, to push the songs.

The group broke up in 1960, Girona said, after a lawsuit temporarily prevented them from singing their hit songs; he then moved to California, in 1961. He eventually took a job in the aerospace industry and would never see some of the original members again – Miranda was stabbed to death in the early 1970s.

The surviving members would team up years later with a second generation of The Eternals for further performances.

Image: Charlie Girona
Charlie Girona at the East Coast Music Hall of Fame in Atlantic City, NJ in June.Courtesy of Charlie Girona

Bringing Bronx doo-wop to the world

They were on building steps, fire escapes and roofs. And during the long summer days, Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies at Fordham University and Bronx Specialist – said these spaces brought together diverse groups and transformed the Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point and Morrisania into major musical centers in the 1950s.

“It’s pretty clear that if you grew up in the South Bronx, no matter who you were, everyone was dancing to Latin music and everyone was singing doo-wop. Both of these have become part of the cultures of the community,” he said.

Doo-wop took off in the borough around the same time the Puerto Rican community was moving there in greater numbers, Naison said. The musical influences combined with the diverse cultures of the neighborhood have made the South Bronx the vanguard of this genre of rhythm and blues.

“Puerto Ricans brought with them Afro-Cuban music and mambo; the West Indians brought the calypso; and African Americans brought jazz, rhythm and blues, and that tradition of urban harmonic singing,” Naison said. “They moved to areas of the Bronx that also had their own musical traditions — Jewish and Italian. And what you had was five different cultures coexisting and sharing for a while.

The Bronx was home to many legendary doo-wop groups. The Chords attended Morris High School and sang the 1954 hit “Sh-Boom”. The Chantels went to school in nearby Saint-Antoine de Padoue and shot up the charts with the 1957 song “Peut-être”. And Dion and The Belmonts, named after Belmont Avenue in Little Italy (West Bronx), shot to international fame with the 1959 song “A Teenager in Love.”

In addition to The Eternals, Naison said Puerto Ricans played a significant role in two other doo-wop groups. Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, known for the 1956 song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, featured two Puerto Rican members, Herman Santiago and Joe Negroni. And The Crests, known for “16 Candles”, had a Puerto Rican, Harold Torres, in the band.

Preserving the legacy

Héctor García said he joined The Eternals after his friend Alex Miranda was killed in the early 1970s.

“I’m Alex’s successor. We mentored each other on vocals. And I started spending more time with the band after he died. God bless him,” he told NBC News.

Sierra, the founder of The Eternals who restarted the band a few years after the original group split, rotated new vocalists like García when the older members left.

García, who was born in Puerto Rico, said he started singing with The Eternals at local bars in the South Bronx. From there, they traveled to popular New York locations of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Studio 54 and the new Peppermint Lounge.

One of his fondest memories, García said, was performing at famed Orchard Beach in the Bronx in 1983. The concert featured Puerto Rican Latin jazz legends Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. García said he thought it was a milestone that reawakened his Boricua heritage – another word for Puerto Rican.

The Eternals still play occasionally and Girona has joined them in some gigs. In June, Girona and other members were part of a East Coast Music Hall of Fame Gala in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Today, García views doo-wop as a historic movement that connects mainstream America to his childhood and his own heritage. He wants fans to know that Puerto Ricans are part of this music.

“We are good kids from the South Bronx who have overcome a lot. We had some good shots. And we want to be remembered as the first all-Puerto Rican doo-wop band,” he said. “We are part of Nuyorican history.”

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