What A Sweet Thing That WasIn a forgotten Shirelles single released as the girl group sound was taking a slow dive into public disfavor, Shirley Alston sings, "Surely the end will come, I thought it would be an atomic bomb, but if you should take your love away. Doomsday." Surely she must be kidding. The overstatement of a lyric comparing nuclear holocaust to a broken heart is almost too much to take. But alas, this is no joke, and as I listen more and more to her voice, so devoid of irony and smothered in desire, I can't help but be coaxed into her heightened teenage heartbreak as well.
by Calpin Hoffman-Williamson
In their most exceptional moments, the girl groups of the 1960's made words of young love feel like pure transcendent joy and adolescent boy troubles into, well, "Doomsday." Though not always so morbid as that Shirelles single, similarly boy obsessed songs sung by young, females both black and white but seldom integrated, stormed the airwaves from 1958 to 1964. Ellie Greenwich suggests that such popularity was cultivated because "more than anything, they were FUN!" (Clemente 6) This is certainly part of it, but Greenwich glosses over the intricacies of the genre's construction. In the tradition of Brill Building pop, the wild success of the Girl Groups relied on a symbiotic relationship between a "unique combination of performers, songwriter, producers, musicians, and businessmen,"(Betrock 1) many of whom were women. This cooperative and often times assembly line approach resulted in a complete aesthetic which Alan Betrock, author of Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound, later argues was, save for the teen idols, the only "truly distinctive genre to blossom fully in the early sixties."(Betrock 7) This blossoming was almost instant. By the time the Chantels' "Maybe" and the Shirelles' "I Met Him on a Sunday" hit the airwaves, the girl group style was nearly set in stone. Matching dresses, stylized hairdos, and teenage romance was the name of the game; and arguably no one did it more convincingly than Shirley Owens, Mickey Harris, Doris Coley, and Beverly Lee, otherwise known as the Shirelles. The Shirelles are the quintessential girl group; less over-the-top than the Shangri-Las and more down to earth than Phil Spector's Ronnettes and Crystals, they provided the world with emotionally unveiled pop music while influencing not only their own era but also generations to come. They nestled deep inside the Scepter label for a good deal of their career with producer Luther Dixon invariably attached at the hip for their period of greatest success. Although not the official originators of the "girl group," they surely helped lay "the blueprint." (O'Brien 69)
The legacy of the Shirelles begins in Passaic, New Jersey in 1957. High school students, Beverly Lee and Shirley Owens began singing doo-wop songs together while they were babysitting. Imitating artists like the Flamingos, the two eventually recruited fellow classmates Doris Coley and Addie "Micki" Harris to form a group called the "Poquellos." Even more so than the male doo-wop they admired, the four modeled their a cappella jams after the Chantels, who Alan Betrock considers to be the first true girl group.
After getting caught singing in the school gym, the four were forced to perform at their school's talent show. Deciding "to be different"(Dopson 1) by writing a song of their own, the girls got together and penned "I Met Him on a Sunday." Their talent show performance went triumphantly, receiving a "standing ovation,"(Dopson 1) and even more important, it got the attention of Mary Jane Greenberg, daughter of Florence Greenberg who owned Tiara, a pea-sized local record company. Greenberg, knew the song was a hit, and although the girls were hesitant at first she eventually got them into the studio to record under the production supervision of her son, Stan Green. The single immediately began to pick up steam in New York, and as airplay began to increase, Greenberg sold the record to Decca for $4000. With this transaction came a name change. Greenberg did not like the Poquellos, so names like the Honeytones and the Chanels were proposed until they eventually combined Shirley's name with the Chantels coming up with the Shirelles (history-of-rock.com).
"I Met Him on a Sunday" is a landmark single in the girl group genre. Its doo-wop derived "doo-ronde-ronde" chorus is relentlessly catchy, and the lyrics solidified the "boy" as the "mythic"(Marcus 190) figure of the newly forming girl group genre. The song feels naïve, simple, but at times incredibly emotive, a combination that would last the extent of their career.
Following the success of their debut, which included a spot on Dick Clark's Saturday morning television show, Decca had released two more Shirelles singles which being overly derivative of "Sunday" quickly failed. They were soon dropped from the label, and although it "might have ended there... Florence Greenberg had other ideas."(Betrock 13) With the left over money from Decca, Greenberg started Scepter Records, opening a small office in New York City. The first Scepter single was "Dedicated to the One I Love," a cover of a Five Royales song that the girls had heard on tour. Once again, Doris took the lead, and though the Florence and Stan Greenberg co-produced recording was solid enough to hit #83 on the Billboard charts, the future of the Shirelles and the girl group sound was not yet clear.
The man who showed the Shirelles and Scepter the path ahead was Luther Dixon. Dixon was a professional songwriter and producer who had worked with artists such as Pat Boone, the Platters, and Perry Como, impressive accomplishments for a gospel rooted black man in 1960. Although it was tough to get Dixon to commit to an un-established girl group such as the Shirelles, he eventually signed on, producing "Tonight's the Night," a song written by Shirley the night before the session. As Roger Dobson explains, "Dixon took a leaf out of Veejay producer Calvin Carter's book, retaining the beat and the vocals (of R+B), commercializing his production with the additions of strings and Latin rhythms." (Dopson 1) "Tonight's the Night" epitomized this technique, and with sloppy "west Indian rhythm" and "catchy melodies" (Betrock 14) all subsumed in strings, Dixon made the Shirelles sound more seductive than they had ever been before. More than just molding the production aesthetic, Dixon also heard something in Shirley Owens and swiftly put her out front for the session. This move was momentous for the Shirelles. With the unguardedly soulful presence of Shirley's voice becoming the focal point, the sweetened desire hinted at in earlier singles became even more urgent and convincing. The public couldn't help but react. With the release, the Shirelles succeeded in further conquering their idols the Chantels and such peers as the Chiffons who had simultaneously released an inferior cover of "Tonight's the Night." The Shirelles had established themselves as the premier girl group.
Their newly claimed status ushered them into an era of success none of the now 19-year-old group would have ever expected. The next single, which Roger Dopson identifies as "the song they will always be remembered for," (Dopson 1) "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," opened the floodgates for the "onslaught of girl group frenzy" (O'Brien 69) and marked the beginning of the Shirelles' artistic peak. The story of the song begun when: Dixon heard an abbreviated version of a four and half minute country ballad "Tomorrow" that Carole King had written to sell to Johnny Mathis, and decided the song, with the right production and the right voice, would be a hit. The Shirelles were hesitant at first, thinking it "extremely corny," (Beeson 1) but eventually Dixon, in true form as the patriarchal girl group producer, got them to record it, making history. (Heatley 1)
"Will You Love Me Tomorrow" released with the B-side "Boys" (later to be covered by the Beatles), is one of Dixon's finest productions. Its distilled bossa nova and rhythm fusion create a soft boogie in which Carole King's string arrangement and the pleading voices of the Shirelles lay crystal clear ready to sweep the listener into romantic fantasy. Unlike his peer, the auteur of auteur producers Phil Spector, Dixon's recordings never placed studio wizardry over the magic of the vocal performances. As Betrock puts it, "[Shirley] sung so honestly; here was a record you felt- that carried you on effortlessly to warm and secure terrain."(Betrock 14) Like many great vocal performances, the true source of appeal in Shirley's performance lies in the imperfections. The way she bends in and out of "the magic of your sigh" or strains to hit "pleasure" reveals an unpolished voice which feels both vulnerable and honest in its direct but understated emotion. Shirley does not have much range, but on "Will You Love Me Tommorow" and the next few Shirelles singles, her technical " failure[s] enhanced her plaintive appeal" (Heatley 1) allowing her to out shine singers with access to three times the notes.
After the international success of "...Tomorrow" (#1 in US, #4 in UK), the public was fiending for girl groups. Florence Greenberg, shrewd businesswoman that she was, re-released "Dedicated to the One I Love" and quickly put out the "raucous" (Dopson 1) "Mama Said." By this time, Dixon, Shirley, and the Shirelles seemed unstoppable. For instance, they exercise a masterful sense of tension and release in "What a Sweet Thing That Was" over rolling drums and a soaring string section, and in "A Thing Of The Past," Robert Christgau argues that "Shirley's failure to hit a high note realizes the rock and roll essence John Lennon only thought he heard in ‘Angel Baby.'" (Christgau 1) With this long string of successful singles, which also included the swinging "Big John," the "dramatic" and "atmospheric" (Dopson 1) Burt Bacharach penned "Baby It's You," and Florence Greenberg's "tame" (Betrock 17) "Soldier Boy," the girls had accomplished a lot for any group of 20-year-olds, much less 20-year-old black females. As Ronnie Spector puts it, "The Shirelles were our idols. Those girls just had hit after hit after hit." (Girl Groups VHS) By this time they had consistently topped both R&B and pop charts, played venues like Madison Square Garden, and moved into the LP format with the Dixon-produced Baby It's You and although they were at the brink of a fall, they weren't done just yet.
After the #1 charting "Soldier Boy," the pressure was undeniably on, and it was pretty evident that Luther Dixon was not up to holding the success of Scepter on his shoulders. When his contract expired in 1963, he left the label and the Shirelles behind with the 3/4-time ballad "Welcome Home Baby." With Dixon starting his own Ludix record company, Greenberg took the reigns hiring producers like Van McCoy and Leiber and Stoller to follow up on the popularity they had with the "white-pop"(Betrock 17) sound hinted at in "Soldier Boy." The initial collaborations featured on their next LP Foolish Little Girl lacked Dixon's sophisticated flair yet yielded good results such as the "lollipopish"(Dopson 1) "Foolish Little Girl," in which Beverly Lee has her finest moment delicately singing "but I love him," and "Not for All the Money in the World," where at the end of the third verse, Shirley virtually writes out the notes to Cyndi Lauper's belted vocal improvisations on "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Although Foolish Little Girl is full of great moments for the Shirelles, at points the trademark "woah woah" and vocal strains of Shirley can't rise above the lyrical misfires of a song like "Abra Kadabra" or the lethargic energy of "Talk Is Cheap," which sounds bored with itself. Album filler is nothing new for The Shirelles - Baby It's You had its fair share with tracks like "Twisting in the USA." But sadly, the marginally unbearable moments of Foolish Little Girl would become the new direction for the group.
Their immediate decline in popularity came around 1964. While grooming Dionne Warwick for greater success, Scepter "began to cut corners." (Betrock 20) On their creative work, Greenberg and the girls were getting sloppy, most blatantly when they rerecorded the Chuck Jackson tune "I Don't Want To Cry" with the voices of the Shirelles. Having absent-mindedly passed on "The Shoop Shoop Song" (later recorded by Betty Everett and Cher), it seemed as though "Scepter was trying to avoid having a hit with the Shirelles." (Clemente 203) This theme extended into the Shirelles contributions to the It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World soundtrack and also their asinine albeit catchy Coke commercial. At the same time, as the girls (two of whom were now married) were transitioning into adulthood, they also came upon the unfortunate discovery that the trust fund promised to them by Scepter when they turned twenty-one was virtually empty. Shirley recalls what she felt at the moment: "We took our manager, Florence Greenberg, like a mother... we fell for it completely." (Betrock 20) Feeling deceived and lost, the Shirelles sued Scepter but the proceedings went nowhere and the girls returned to the label.
By 1967, in the wake of financial problems, the Shirelles had developed an identity crisis. Releases were re-mastered from old Dixon sessions ("Doomsday"), rehashed old lyrics like "Mama My Soldier Boy Is Coming Home," or remixed old hits like "I Met Him on a Sunday '66." In desperation they also got a bit adventurous with the sunshine pop of "Don't Go Home," the awkwardly hokey skit song "Ssh, I'm Watching The Movie," and "The Hippie Walk (Part 1+2)," a born-to-fail, funk-infused dance craze record. The reception was less than stellar.
Of course, by this time, the music scene had changed dramatically, "Motown was in full swing and the British Invasion had taken hold of American radio." (Clemente 203) As girl groups became less dependable commodities, the writers, producers, and businesspeople panicked, "voluntarily" dropping out "fearing that they could not compete with the new sound." (Betrock 172) Phil Spector believes, "that everyone got frightened, got guitar groups together and killed off the Negro Sound"(Betrock 172). Evidenced by their later singles, the Shirelles too found themselves unable to adapt to the changing sound of Pop music.
Over the next few years, failing to evolve, the Shirelles entered the oldies touring circuit, relying on their nostalgic appeal rather than relevancy. Eventually, the group disbanded altogether. Shirley attempted a solo career, making two albums on the Strawberry label but the records quickly fell into obscurity. In 1982, Micki passed away, and Doris and Beverly each formed separate touring versions of the group. In 1996, ten years after becoming eligible, the Shirelles finally received their public due by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The induction, in a way, stands as a universally official validation to the group's importance. It is a testament to the timeless appeal of Shirley's singular voice coalescing with Luther Dixon's nuanced productions and the backing vocals of Doris, Micki, and Beverly and what a sweet thing it all was. It also recognizes how those initial hits influenced a movement of girl groups, many of which quickly became their peers. As Mary Wilson of Supreme says, "They definitely made a way for girl groups, because prior to that it was all guys. They showed that it could work." (Press Kit)
While it is common to think of the Shirelles and their peers as naïve young women trapped within a patriarchal "producers music" (Marcus 189), just the fact that four young black women repeatedly charted at #1 and had remarkable acclaim in Europe is a profound accomplishment. More so than the profundity of success is the extent of their influence. The Shirelles especially along with Ronnie Spector, The Marvelettes and The Shangri-Las laid the groundwork for bubbly females who simultaneously have their hearts on their sleeves without surrendering their basic womanly strength. One can hear this idea at work in modern artists such as The Go-Gos, Madonna, and Rilo Kiley.
In light of how quickly American culture turns songs of the past into nostalgic oldies it is important to give the Shirelles their due not as caricatured images of past, but as actual women who thrived under some of the "crassest conditions the recording industry has been able to contrive" (Marcus 189) and rose from within it to help create what Greil Marcus calls, and I think I agree with him, "likely the warmest and the most affecting" (Marcus 190) genre of Rock and Roll.
- Beeson, Ed. "Golden voices, golden age; The Shirelles set the standard for female pop singers." Knowledgeplex.org. April 27, 2005 (ED NOTE: the article is no longer available at the site)
- Betrock, Alan. Girl Groups: The Story Of A Sound. New York: Delilah, 1982.
- Clemente, John. Girl Groups: Fabulous Females That Rocked The World. Iola: Krause, 2000.
- Dopson, Roger. Linear Notes. The Shirelles. The Definitive Collection Volume 1 and 2. 1998. Charly.
- Heatly, Micheal and Spencer Leigh. "Behind the Song: "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" The Independent. March 2, 1998, Features: 6.
- Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound. Videocassete. MGM, 1983.
- Marcus, Greil. "The Girl Groups." The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. Ed. Jim Miller. New York: Random House, 1976.
- O’Brien, Lucy. She Bop II. New York: Continuum, 2002.
- Phil Spector. Back To Mono. 1991. ABKCO.
- "Press Kit: The Shirelles" ArthurShafman.com April 27, 2005 http://arthurshafman.com/artists/shirelles/press.html
- The Shangri-Las. Best of The Shangri-Las. 1999. Karussell.
- The Shirelles. Baby It's You. 1963. Sundazed.
- The Shirelles. Foolish Little Girl. 1963. Sundazed.
- "The Shirelles" History-of-Rock.com April 27, 2005 http://www.history-of-rock.com/shirelles.htm
- The Shirelles. The Definitive Collection Volume 1 and 2. 1998. Charly.
- Various Artists. The Best of the Girl Groups: Volume 1. 1990. Rhino.
- Various Artists. The Best of the Girl Groups: Volume 2. 1990. Rhino.
Special thanks to Robert Christgau for helping to arrange for this article to be included in PSF.
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