THE CHILDREN ARE FIDGETING IN THEIR SEATS AS PRINCIPAL Clyde Gray introduces the five middle-aged men gathered on the stage of the Blow Elementary School in northeast Washington. But as the singers fill the auditorium with the velvety sounds of '50s doo-wop—their a cappella harmony anchored by a freight-train vocal bass, with a bell-like lead tenor floating overhead—the kids settle down. After the final note, with their audience rapt, the quintet step forward, changing their tune about young love to something more serious—saving young lives.

They call themselves D.C.'s Finest, but they are better known as the Doo Wop Cops, a group of retired and active Washington-area police officers who perform at nursing homes, hospitals and especially inner-city schools, where their mission is not just to entertain but also to promote responsibility—and survival. "The guns and the danger are out there every day," says baritone Deane Larkins, 48, an active-duty patrolman. "This is the worst I've ever seen, because of the drugs and the mentality of the kids, who have no respect for the law or for anything." In hopes of reversing that trend, they've come to Blow as part of A Time for Peace, a program at the school that tries to get kids to resolve differences nonviolently in a neighborhood where disputes often end in gunfire. "It sounds like a wonderful program," retired Det. Jimi Bethel, 48, the group's bass and manager, booms to the kids. "But who can tell me about it?"

A little girl in a pink sweat suit raises her hand, then gets too shy to say anything. Six-year-old Tyrina Lee takes a shot. "We don't talk to bullies, and we don't smoke," she says, to huge applause from the other children. "And we don't fight with people that can hurt us," adds 4-year-old Maurice Primrose. After another round of applause, the Doo Wop Cops step back into musical character, belting out the classic hit "Blue Moon."

Bethel and Larkins and their fellow Finests—retired Det. Ron Jones, 49, and Reamer "Junebug" Shedrick, 47, a member of Mayor Marion Barry's security detail—were old friends who began making music together 10 years ago. Retired dispatcher Rich Collins, 49, joined the group in 1990. "We'd run into each other, and sometimes we'd just step down the hall and get to singing," says Jones. "It was so much fun."

After performing at the wedding of a fellow police officer in 1985, they went on to win a local talent show, then took their act on the road—including to the Apollo Theater in New York City—and to the streets. Billing themselves as entertainers, role models and counselors, the Doo Wops perform mostly for free. (In September 1993 they sang at Gen. Colin Powell's retirement party, where guests included the Clintons and the Bushes.)

Part of their strategy is to show that police "can do something other than lock people up," says Jones, whose 22-year-old son, Ron Jr., was shot dead in a traffic dispute in 1990. When the Doo Wop Cops finish up with Hard to Say Goodbye, they always dedicate it to the memory of Roy Jr. To prevent such loss, "we need thousands of guys like us to talk to the kids," says Bethel. "Because you'd be surprised, so many of them do want to listen."

MICHAEL NEILL
KATE McKENNA in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Kate McKenna.