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 broke into the top music charts. And few people today know their names.
“Sometimes when we would sing in theaters they would say, ‘The Eternals, the only Hispanic, all-Puerto Rican group in the history of doo-wop.’ 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's proud of writing 39 songs, including “Rockin’ in the Jungle,” which made it to No. 78 on the national Billboard chart.
The singer-songwriter recalled that the group went on 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 the South Bronx, New York, coinciding with the early wave of Puerto Ricans to the neighborhood in the 1950s. Girona said the original members — which also included Alex Miranda, Anibal Torres, Fred Hodge and Girona — rehearsed evenings after school on Freeman Street.
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 promising, the group also faced racial discrimination, Girona said, especially 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 to go all the way down 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] to go because he was Black.”
Girona said both 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 called themselves The Eternals because they thought they would always stick together.
“No one got rich from singing,” Girona said. “They paid each of us $22 when we recorded. Most of the shows back in those days didn’t 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 later 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.
Surviving members would team up years later with a second generation of The Eternals for new performances.
Taking doo-wop from the Bronx to the world
They were on building stoops, fire escapes and rooftops. And during long summer days, Mark Naison — an African American studies professor at Fordham University and Bronx expert — said those spaces brought diverse groups together and transformed the Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point and Morrisania into major music hubs in the 1950s.
“It’s pretty clear that if you grew up in the South Bronx, no matter who you were, everybody danced to Latin music, and everybody sang doo-wop. Both of those became 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 bigger numbers, Naison said. The musical influences combined with the diverse cultures in the neighborhood turned the South Bronx into the vanguard for this rhythm and blues genre.
“The Puerto Ricans brought with them Afro Cuban music and mambo; the West Indians brought calypso; and the African Americans brought jazz, rhythm and blues, and this tradition of urban harmonic singing,” Naison said. “They moved into Bronx neighborhoods that also had their own musical traditions — Jewish and Italian. And what you had was five different cultures for a while coexisting and sharing.”
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 at nearby St. Anthony of Padua and climbed the charts with the 1957 song “Maybe.” And Dion and The Belmonts, named after Belmont Avenue in Little Italy (West Bronx), gained international fame with the 1959 song “A Teenager in Love.”
In addition to The Eternals, Naison said Puerto Ricans played an important 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 one Puerto Rican, Harold Torres, in the group.
Preserving the legacy
Héctor García said he joined The Eternals after his friend Alex Miranda was killed in the early 1970s.
“I am a successor to Alex. We mentored each other in singing. And I started spending more time with the group after he passed away. God bless him,” he told NBC News.
Sierra, the founder of The Eternals who restarted the group a few years after the original group broke up, rotated in new singers like García as older members left.
García, who was born in Puerto Rico, said he began singing with The Eternals at local bars in the South Bronx. From there, they moved on to popular New York venues during the 1970s and 1980s like Studio 54 and the new Peppermint Lounge.
One of his most cherished memories, García said, was performing at the famed Orchard Beach in the Bronx in 1983. The concert featured Puerto Rican Latin jazz legends Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri. García said he felt this was a milestone that awakened his Boricua — another word for Puerto Rican — heritage.
The Eternals still play occasionally, and Girona has joined them in some of the concerts. In June, Girona and other members were part of an East Coast Music Hall of Fame gala in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Today, García looks back at doo-wop as a historic movement that connects mainstream America with 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 overcame a lot of stuff. We had a few good hits. And we want to be remembered as the first all-Puerto Rican doo-wop group,” he said. “We are a part of Nuyorican history.”