Their songs of love and heartbreak shaped a generation

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Before The Shirelles soared to the top of the Billboard charts, The Chantels wowed music lovers with “Maybe.” They were a group of Catholic schoolgirls.

From their History of Rock and Roll biography

Arlene Smith (lead), Lois Harris (first tenor), Sonia Goring (second tenor), Jackie Landry (second alto), and Rene Minus began their musical journey in their preteens while attending choir practice at St. Anthony of Padua school in the Bronx. By 1957, they had been singing together for more than seven years. A staple of their diet was Gregorian chants taught to such perfection that changing notes and parts were second nature.

Unlike their male counterparts, girls weren’t able to “hangout” on street corners at all hours practicing. So in 1957 much of their practice took place in the girl’s locker room at St. Anthony’s. Arlene Smith was a member of the girl’s basketball team and, win or lose, the group would sing after every game. Smith who had been trained as a classical singer had performed solo at Carnegie Hall when she was twelve. All the girls had sung in the choir where classical music was interspersed with Latin hymns. Their ages ranged between thirteen and sixteen.

The Chantels began doing talent shows with the Sequins and the Crows at the P.S. 60Community Center and St. Augustine’s church.  That same year their school team played St. Francis de Chantelle. One of the girls suggested that they end their search for a group name by calling themselves the Chantelles. It soon became the Chantels.

A lot of girls went to sleep at night, crying into soggy pillows to the sound of their first record, released in August of 1957, “He’s Gone,” which was written by Arlene Smith.

Four months later, in December 1957, they had a major hit.

Nothing expresses teenage lost love angst more powerfully than lead singer Arlene Smith belting out these lyrics:

Maybe, if I pray every night
You’ll come back to me
And maybe, if I cry every day
You’ll come back to stay
Oh, maybe
Maybe, if I hold your hand
You will understand
And maybe, if I kissed your lips
I’ll be at your command
Oh, maybe
I’ve cried and prayed to the Lord
To send you back my love
But instead you came to me
But only in my dreams
Maybe if I pray every night
You’ll come back to me
And maybe if I cry every day
You’ll come back to stay
Oh, maybe
 

Music historian Frank Hoffman wrote in Survey of American Popular Music:

The Chantels were the first girl group to rise above the one-hit wonder status which limited the impact of acts such as the Paris Sisters (“I Love How You Love Me”; 1956), the Teen Queens (“Eddie My Love”; 1955), and the Poni-Tails (“Born Too Late”; 1957). The group–originally a quintet whose members were all classmates at Saint Anthony of Padua School in the Bronx–were discovered backstage at an Alan Freed rock ‘n’ roll revue by Rama/Gee/Gone record producer Richard Barrett while waiting to meet their idol, Frankie Lymon (of the Teenagers). The Chantels’ second release, “Maybe” (1958), proved to be a seminal event in the girl group genre. Its importance is noted by Alan Betrock, in his book, Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound:

Upon its release, the record literally exploded–its impact and appeal were simply undeniable. Barrett kicks off the record with a series of piano triplets, a wailing vocal chorus jumps in, and then [lead singer] Arlene [Smith] tears your heart out with one of the most searing and honest vocal performances ever. It all came together here; the churchy-gospel influences meshed with a commercial rhythm & blues sensibility. Utterly convincing and profoundly moving, “Maybe” packs even more of a wallop when one realizes that Arlene Smith was only sixteen at the time of the recording session, and the record still captivated both teenagers and adults. The Chantels records were not polished–their rough edges and even occasional wrong notes are there to hear if you search hard enough–but it was their utter intensity and atmospheric realism that carried them into a class all their own. “Maybe” entered the national charts at #55, and the next week had reached #32. Yet this incredible burst of popularity caused problems for…End Records, because they simply could not meet demand fast enough. In many cities bootleggers moved in, selling thousands of records before [End] could fill the orders….Because of these sales and order discrepancies, the record only reached #15 nationally, but it stayed on the charts for over a third of a year. Not only was “Maybe” one of the biggest selling records of its time, but its sound greatly influenced musicians and producers for years to come.

Seven weeks before the Chantels released “He’s Gone” another girl group from NYC, The Bobbettes, hit the charts with “Mr Lee,” though they wouldn’t be as successful with later releases. They were sassy, uptempo, and not suffering from unrequited love.

It all started as a pastime for eight girls ranging in age from nine to eleven in New York’s Harlem. Schoolmates that began singing in the glee club of P.S.109 in 1955. Calling themselves the Harlem Queens, they began by doing local amateur nights. Gradually over the next two years the octet shrunk to a quintet. After appearing at the Apollo Theater’s famed amateur night, they didn’t win, they broadened their already growing following. Soon thereafter, James Dailey took over the group’s management. Feeling that “The Harlem Queens” wasn’t an appropriate name for five girls in their early teens he changed the name to the Bobbettes.

Dailey got them a recording contract with Atlantic Records and had them in the recording studio by the end of February 1957. Their first four recordings were group compositions and it wasn’t a fluke. They would write ten of their first eighteen recorded songs.

The group had already written a few songs and one which was the legendary “Mr.Lee,” who was actually a teacher of some of the Bobbettes. The group’s first single was released in June 1957. Although the lyrics speak glowingly of “Mr. Lee,” the original lyrics were not the least bit flattering. The girls had an immense dislike for the teacher and the song was originally written as a put down. At the request of Atlantic’s A&R executives the group revised the lyrics to make it more commercial or possibly less controversial. “Mr. Lee” became the best known teacher in America as the record went Top Ten in July 1957. “Mr. Lee” also spent four weeks at the top of the R&B charts.

New York wasn’t the only place birthing girl groups. Jeffrey Taylor writes about how The Shirelles, from New Jersey, got their start in Musician Biographies:

When four high school friends from New Jersey began singing together informally in the mid-1950s, they had no idea that in a few years they would be making music history. But in 1960, Shirley Alston, Doris Kenner, Beverly Lee, and Addie “Micki” Harris became the first black all-female singing group to land a Number One hit on the pop charts. They would go on to become one of the most successful and influential of early rock’s “girl groups.” Even in the 1990s, their energetic and instantly recognizable vocals remained embedded in America’s musical consciousness, with their songs frequently heard on “oldies” radio stations and used in films and television to evoke the spirit of the 1960s.

The Shirelles were not the first girl group of the rock era, but they were the first to achieve international success. And they had a durable impact on other musicians. Ronnie Spector, singer with the Ronettes, once stated, according to a press release issued by the Shirelles’ 1990s management company, Beverly Productions, “The Shirelles were our idols.” Singer Dionne Warwick claimed, “The Shirelles taught me how to move on stage.” And said Mary Wilson of the Supremes, “[The Shirelles] definitely made a way for girl groups, because prior to that it was all guys. They showed that it could work.” As long after the group’s heyday as the early 1990s, modern “girl groups” like En Vogue, Jade, and SWV could be heard echoing the harmonies popularized by the Shirelles.

The four original Shirelles were from Passaic, New Jersey. They began singing together as the Poquellos, and their first live performances took place at high school talent shows. A fellow classmate, Mary Jane Greenberg, heard the group at one of these shows and convinced them to audition for her mother, Florence, who had recently launched a career in the music business. The quartet auditioned in Florence Greenberg’s living room, after which she signed them to a five-year contract with her fledgling Tiara label and took over as their manager.

In “A Magical Ten Seconds of the Shirelles,” Elon Green wrote for The New Yorker about the time when the group first heard “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”: 

“When we first heard the song, it was a demo that Carole King was singing. It was a real twangy, twangy sound, like a country-and-Western song. We didn’t like it, but Luther Dixon, who was our producer—thank God—he had a wonderful ear. He knew the right material to choose, and he knew how to get the best out of us in the studio. And Luther said, ‘You’re gonna record the song.’ And when we went into the studio there was this big orchestra with strings and cellos and you name it. And when we heard them start playing the song, oh, it was just awesome.”

“We were young. We weren’t really focussed on what we were saying or doing. We weren’t focussed on the lyrics or this, that, and the other. We weren’t saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to go and take the world by storm.’ This was God’s doing.”

“When we played down South, sometimes it would be a white audience on one side, blacks on the other. In 1963, we had these ‘freedom shows.’ The money was being used to send people from Alabama to the March on Washington with Dr. King. There was a picture of us onstage and performing, and Dr. King is sitting to my left.”

Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin went on to write a string of hits. Here’s her tweet from last year:

If you check out lists of wedding song favorites, you’ll find that “This Is Dedicated to the One I Love,” which they recorded in 1959, is still getting lots of play.

In 1962 they released “Soldier Boy.” I remember my friends who had boyfriends who joined the military playing this song over and over. Later, as the war in Vietnam escalated and more and more of the guys we knew were drafted, this song took on an almost unbearable poignancy.

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It took until 1996 for The Shirelles to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (too long, imho).

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They were inducted by Merry Clayton, Marianne Faithful ,and Darlene Love. 

Though their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a major moment for them and their devoted fans, I was elated to find this clip of their 2014 induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, where their award was presented by longtime friend and former Shirelles group member (for a hot minute) Dionne Warwick.

The list of the fabulous girl groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s is a long one … far too long for me to cover in this one story. We have lost, and are still losing so many of them—most recently Veronica Bennett Spector.

The last surviving member of the Ronettes celebrated her birthday on Jan. 27.

If you set aside a little time to watch you will find performances and interviews with many of the groups I haven’t covered in this story, in the 1983 documentary Girl Groups: The Story of A Sound that is based on the book with the same title by Alan Betrock. The documentary includes performances by The Angels, The Shangri-Las, The Exciters, The Ronettes, Mary Wells, The Supremes, The Blossoms, Martha & The Vandellas, The Dixie Cups, The Shirelles, The Marvelettes, Dee Dee Sharp, Little Eva, and more.

I hope you will join me in the comments section below for more fabulous girl groups, and please share your favorite groups and tunes.



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