Shooby doobie wop wa naaa…street corner harmonies, black and puerto rican guys in do-rags and conks or italian boys with pompadours. Those who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s know the sound of this music, and oldies shows are still packing 'em in though the audience is now graying. Many of us can sing all the words and even know the instrumental breaks.
In a music world and Hall of Fame History dominated by guys and heart-throbs often overlooked are the stellar “girl groups” as they were dubbed at the time.
I loved them. They sang my life – the things I wrote in my diary about. My latest crush, my heartbreak, my feelings and those of my girlfriends. And they paved the way for other sisters in later years who made it to the top of the charts.
So “let’s go strollin’” down memory lane.
Number one in my book will always be the incomparable Arlene Smith and the Chantels
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 lockeroom 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. 60 Community 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 seach for a group name by calling themselves the Chantelles. It soon became the Chantels.
The Chantels performed on Alan Freed's rock and roll shows at the Paramount, on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, and Arlene names some of the groups they played with..."Jackie Wilson, The Teenagers, LaVern Baker, JoAnne Campell, The Coasters, The Drifters, Huey Smith. This was maybe a Southern tour line-up too. Ike and Tina Turner and the Ikettes. Maxine Brown, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Screamin' Jay Hawkins. We toured with those folks. And then when we got up in Brooklyn, it would be pretty much the same situation"
Q - Since you were a part of rock's earliest days, did you ever envision that rock 'n roll would become so universally accepted?
A - I never understood what the controversy was about, because it was music that I lived with. Understandably, the racial aspect; the fact that it was a race music, black music at first, and then between the racist attitude towards the blacks, and then the music was very simplistic. You could understand why the majority of folks would think it was just a fad or a phase. It's not credible as music. But, the thing they forgot to deal with was the music was very real. And that's what I tend to go along with. The music was pure and honest. The harmonies were pretty. It was a romantic music. So that usually wins out over a lot of things. Before I discovered rhythm and blues stations, I listened to all white stations. I had real favorite singers. I know there was always a difference in the music. What becomes open for everybody and everybody has the option of accepting or rejecting it. Then, it's looked at through a microscope and picked apart. And there's always the speculation of whether it's going to last or not. As far as the music lasting, it never occurred to me that it wouldn't. I thought eventually, all the furor would die down, and the music would persist, just like it always has, because there was a lot going on that nobody really tapped into. But a lot of folks who tapped into it, found they liked what they heard.
Though she is now a school teacher in the Bronx - other members of the Chantels are still performing. Still going strong, the Chantels (minus Arlene)
He's Gone – 1957
I love You So
The Chantels' first single "He's Gone," was released in August 1957. From the four part a capella chime harmony intro topped by Arlene's floating falsetto to its duplicate ending, "He's Gone" instantly set a new standard of quality for female group recording. By September 30, the record was on the Billboard national Top 100 charts but inexplicably stopped at number 71. This record charted only seven weeks after Bobbettes hit the top 100 with their first release "Mr. Lee." Ironically, these two trend setting groups of the 50s only lived a few mile apart.
The Chantels first live performance was at a Jocko show at the Apollo Theatre (Jocko was a legendary New York disc jockey at the time) in which the group was not even on the bill. Richard Barrett brought them on stage and waited for Jocko to present them. The Chantels wowed the audience with "He's Gone."
The next recording session, on October 16, 1957 was scheduled not at a regular recording studio, but a refurbished church in midtown Manhattan, apparently for its acoustics. Barrett played the piano along with the supportive bass and drums for the Chantels recording of Arlene Smith's "Maybe." Released in December; by January 20, 1958, it was climbing the pop charts and a week later the rhythm and blues charts. "Maybe" reached number 15 Pop and number two R&B by late winter.
The song writing duo of Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote the first hit for the next girl group at the top of my list. It was also the first tune by a girl-group to top the charts:
The Shirelle’s: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
Years later, songwriter King would perform her tune on her groundbreaking album "Tapestry"
Brenda Lee, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Dusty Springfield, Elton John. Roberta Flack and Amy Winehouse (among others) have covered this song.
Dedicated to the One I Love
Every generation seems to have a song dedicated to those who are left behind when someone goes off to war, and the Shirelles had a huge hit in 1962 with Soldier Boy:
The group hit No. 1 in the United States with their first single, "He's So Fine", written by Ronnie Mack, produced by the Tokens of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" fame and released on Laurie. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. George Harrison's 1970 song "My Sweet Lord" was musically similar, prompting a copyright infringement claim. The Chiffons went on to record "My Sweet Lord" in 1975. A judge later found that Harrison had unintentionally plagiarized the earlier song.
He’s so Fine
One Fine Day
The Crystals topped the charts in 1962 with a Phil Spector arrangement. An anthem to the bad boys we girls used to love.
He’s a Rebel
Kids from my neighborhood in Queens were proud of a group of "homegirls". The first group girl with a hit who were not from the Bronx or Brooklyn.
And then there were the Ronettes from Washington Heights. Beehive hairdos, thick black eyeliner and all. Ronnie, her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra were black, with Native American, white and Latino admixtures, but their music was pure new york gang girl.
Be My Baby
Originally written for the Ronettes, Chapel of Love became a hit for The Dixie Cups, who did not come from New York. They hailed from theCalliope housing project in New Orleans, and like the Ronettes, the group consisted of two sisters, Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins, and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson.
Chapel of Love was standard doo-wop, but the Dixie Cups cut loose with real NOLA roots with "Iko Iko"
In 1961 Tamla/Motown got into the act. Please Mr. Postman, by The Marvelettes became the first record on that label to top the charts.
The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game
The Marvelettes opened the doors to Motown's most danceable girl-group,
Martha and the Vandellas
Dancing in the Streets
Years later Laura Nyro and Labelle did a version of their hit Jimmy Mack
Okay – I guess I have to segue to Motown’s most famous girl group, The Supremes who were never my favorite group but who became famous world-wide.
In the spring of 1964, The Supremes recorded the single "Where Did Our Love Go". The song was originally intended by Holland-Dozier-Holland for The Marvelettes, who rejected it. Although The Supremes disliked the song, the producers coerced them into recording it. In August 1964, while The Supremes toured as part of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, "Where Did Our Love Go" reached number one on the US pop charts, much to the surprise and delight of the group. It was also their first song to appear on the UK pop charts, where it reached number three.
"Where Did Our Love Go" was followed by four consecutive US number-one hits: "Baby Love" (which was also a number-one hit in the UK), "Come See About Me", "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again". "Baby Love" was nominated for the 1965 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording.
Where Did Our Love Go
Though not a "girl group" I would be remiss if I failed to mention Mary Wells. She is often classed with the genre. Wells, who became "The First Lady of Motown" was also the female vehicle for the songs written, and produced by Smokey Robinson.
Wells' teaming with Robinson led to a succession of hit singles over the following two years. Their first collaboration, 1962's "The One Who Really Loves You", was Wells' first smash hit, peaking at No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 8 on the Hot 100. The song featured a calypso-styled soul production that defined Wells' early hits. Known for releasing songs with a repetitive sound, Motown released the similar-sounding "You Beat Me to the Punch" a few months later. The song became her first R&B No. 1 single and peaked at No. 9 on the pop chart. The success of "You Beat Me to the Punch" helped to make Wells the first Motown star to be nominated for a Grammy Award when the song received a nod in the Best Rhythm & Blues Recording category. In late 1962, "Two Lovers" became Wells' third consecutive single to hit the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100, peaking at No. 7 and becoming her second No. 1 hit on the R&B charts. This helped to make Wells the first female solo artist to have three consecutive Top 10 singles on the pop chart. The track sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Wells' second album, also titled The One Who Really Loves You, was released in 1962 and peaked at No. 8 on the pop albums chart, making the teenage singer a breakthrough star and giving her clout at Motown. Wells' success at the label was recognized when she became a headliner during the first string of Motortown Revue concerts, starting in the fall of 1962. The singer showcased a rawer stage presence that contrasted with her softer R&B recordings.
Wells' success continued in 1963 when she hit the Top 20 with the doo-wop ballad "Laughing Boy" and scored three additional Top 40 singles, "Your Old Standby", "You Lost the Sweetest Boy", and its B-side, "What's So Easy for Two Is So Hard for One". "You Lost the Sweetest Boy" was one of the first hit singles composed by the successful Motown songwriting and producing trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, though Robinson remained Wells' primary producer. Also in 1963, Wells recorded a session of successful B-sides that arguably became as well-known as her hits, including "Operator", "What Love Has Joined Together", "Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right" and "Old Love (Let's Try It Again)". Wells and Robinson also recorded a duet titled "I Want You 'Round", which would be re-recorded by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston.
In 1964, Wells recorded and released "My Guy". The Smokey Robinson song became her trademark single, reaching No. 1 on the Cashbox R&B chart for seven weeks and becoming the No. 1 R&B single of the year. The song successfully crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100, where it eventually replaced Louis Armstrong's "Hello, Dolly!" at No. 1, where it remained for two weeks. The song became Wells' second million-selling single.
I will never forget sitting in the audience at the Apollo Theatre and hearing Patti Labelle and the Bluebells, who hailed from Philly, for the first time. When Patti hit her highest notes, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
Down The Aisle
You’ll Never Walk Alone
A lesser known group who had one big hit - stands out in my memory cause one of them chased me in front of a bus out side of a Queens High School - over a boy. I always thought it ironic that they sang such a feminine song and they were a really tough group of girls.
The Toys: Lover’s Concerto
The success of girl groups pushed another female voice out front – but with male back-ups
Ruby and the Romantics
Our Day will come
By the time the 60's had ended many of the girl groups had faded away into "oldies but goodies" land. But one group reinvented themselves and Patti and the Bluebells became simply "Labelle", known for outrageous costumes and disco-funk rhythms.
Plenty young folks who didn't know a word of French learned "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?" from Lady Marmelade
LaBelle was not the only group of Philly songstresses. Sister Sledge, who formed their group in 1972, got everyone up onto the dance floor with "We are Family".
And finally the west coast gets into the act with another sister act. The Pointer sisters, who hailed from Oakland took the dance floors by storm.
I’m so excited
By the 80's it was all about the club scene and Two Tons of Fun morphed into The Weather Girls.
It’s Raining Men
So with all that history we see what the visual references are in more contemporary tunes like "Hold on to your Love", by En Vogue in the 1990's.
But now we move into a territory that is not mine to write about.
I’ll leave that to you in the younger generation.