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Cleve Duncan, singer behind 1950s doo-wop ballad hit ‘Earth Angel’; at 78

NEW YORK — Cleve Duncan, whose soaring tenor voice as lead singer for the Penguins helped propel the 1954 doo-wop ballad ‘‘Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)’’ to rock ‘n’ roll immortality, died Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. Many sources have his age as 77, but according to voting records he was 78.

“Earth Angel,’’ which has sold more than 10 million copies, was the Penguins’ only hit. But its rhythmic, wailing plea to an idealized young woman captured the spirit of the just-emerging rock generation. ‘‘Earrrrth Aaaangel, Earrrrth Aaaangel, will you be mine?’’ Mr. Duncan crooned, backed by close harmony vocals.

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Rolling Stone placed it on its list of the 500 greatest songs ­ever, and films like ‘‘Back to the Future’’ have used it to conjure an era.

Cleveland Duncan was born July 23 of either 1934 or 1935 in Los Angeles.

In early 1955 ‘‘Earth Angel’’ reached number one on the rhythm-and-blues charts and number eight on the Billboard pop chart .

The Penguins broke up in 1958, but Mr. Duncan later reformed the group. With a succession of new members, he led the Penguins for more than 40 years.

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