Early in 1961, Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Beverly Lee and Micki Harris were topping the US chart with ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’. Here was an extraordinary development; four young black girls had over-ridden all the obstacles of money, influence and power that the music industry and media had erected against them and forced their way into the big time through sheer talent and the popularity of their sound. Some three decades later I met Shirley Alston-Reeves (nee Owens) in a New York recording studio (she’d earlier recorded a new version of the Shirelles’ old hit ‘Mama Said’ for a TV ad, using Valerie Simpson and Patti Austin as back-up girls), where she told me her story:
“All the guys around were singing in groups, doo wopping in the basements to get that echo-chamber effect. Beverly and I were good friends – we used to babysit a lot together – and decided to do the same thing. We started singing together just for fun, but our two voices just weren’t making it, so we asked Micki to join us. We heard Doris singing in the school choir. She had a powerful voice, so we asked her to join the group too. That’s how the Shirelles were formed, although we called ourselves the Poquellos at the time. Beverly gave us that name – we were all studying Spanish at school.
“One day we were fooling around singing in the school gym and the teacher caught us. She said that we could either enter the upcoming school talent show or we could stay after school. Of course we chose the talent contest.
“We got all excited about that and went out and bought matching outfits: little black taffeta skirts and long-sleeved nylon blouses. We decided to be different and not sing someone else’s song, so we wrote a song of our own. A few nights before the show we all got together and wrote ‘I Met Him On A Sunday (Ronde Ronde)’. It was about the days of the week. We just picked a day and sang something. Simple as that.
“We sang the song on the talent show, a cappella of course, and received a standing ovation. Everybody loved it. A classmate of ours, Mary Jane Greenberg, asked us to sing it for her mom, who had her own company, Tiara Records. We weren’t really interested in recording, but this girl kept asking us. She was becoming a pest and we ended up changing our route home from school so that we wouldn’t keep bumping into her.
“Eventually Mary Jane persuaded us to go to her house and sing the song for her mother, Florence Greenberg. She loved the song and wanted to sign us straight away.
“Our parents thought that we were too young to start travelling around the country and wanted us to finish school, of course. But we got all that sorted out and the rest is history, as they say. Our favourite female group was Arlene Smith and the Chantels and we tried to find a name as close as we possibly could to theirs because it was so pretty. We came up with Shanels, but were told it was too close. Florence wanted to call us the Honeytones. We had to decide real quickly because they needed it for label copy, so we decided on Shirelles, which we spelled from my name.
“Florence released ‘I Met him On A Sunday’ in 1958; it did quite well. As a result we worked quite a lot: parties mainly and private functions. It was at a show at the Howard Theater in Washington DC that we first heard ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’. We were on a bill with a group called the Five Royales; two or three of the guys in the group wrote it. Every time they sang it we would run down the stairs so that we could listen, because we liked it so much. Doris was really in love with the tune, so we told her that if she learned the lead, we would do the background.
“It was about this time that we first met Luther Dixon. Florence Greenberg introduced him to us. She said that she had a new producer for us and that he’d had some success with ‘Sixteen Candles’ that he’d written. We were so excited to meet him. He really was very good and went on to become a big part of our lives. He created our sound.
“The first track we worked on together was ‘Tonight’s The Night’, which he and I co-wrote, although I had been writing songs for a couple of years. Not just ‘I Met Him On A Sunday’ but some B-sides too – ‘Look A Here Baby’, ‘Slop Time’, ‘Mama Here Comes The Bride’. ‘The Dance Is Over’ is one of Luther’s songs that we used to perform a lot at the Apollo. We had a little skit that we loved to do. We dressed Doris up as a little old lady with a beat-up fur coat; it was real cute. Other times we’d each wear one black and one white shoe. We always tried to come up with something simple but different.
“As our records started becoming successful we began to work more and more – Dick Clark tours, 30 one-nighters, every night you’re in a different town. Dick Clark was wonderful. He rode on the buses with all the musicians. In the beginning we did one of the first integrated shows to play Alabama. We had to play out in an open field where everyone had to bring their own chairs, because there was no seating. They really didn’t want the show to go on. There was Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone, the Shirelles and Joey Bishop. The stage actually collapsed when Johnny Mathis was on; it was sabotaged or something. I remember everybody crying and screaming and running across the fields. Everybody was so afraid.
“I remember another time Dick Clark trying to persuade a Holiday Inn to let us stay there, but no matter what he said they wouldn’t let any of the black groups book in. There weren’t any black hotels down south, so we had to stay in little rooming houses. I remember being so afraid that the four of us Shirelles took one room and all slept sideways in the same bed. They were gambling and drinking in the halls, so we made Ronnie, our MC, sleep in a chair all night, jammed up against the door.
“When Luther first brought us ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, I didn't like it. It was a nice lyric, but I didn’t think it was my style. He played me the demo disc with Carole King singing, just her and the piano. It was very laidback with no strings or anything. To me it sounded like a country and western song. I told Luther that I really did not want to sing it, it was too country. I was so nervous that he would make us change our style. But he persuaded me to do him a favour and record the song on the understanding that if it didn’t turn out well they wouldn’t release it or put it on an album. The song came to life at the session and, of course, went on to become our first #1. I laugh about that a lot now. After that, if there was ever a song I didn’t care for, they’d put it out on a single.
“Nothing much really changed after we reached #1. We worked more and made more money – not too much, just a little more. We weren’t too interested in the business side of things. We were happy going along, going to work and looking forward to our next show. As a matter of fact, sometimes we didn’t even know when we had a new record out. We used to take the bus from Passaicin to New York and walk up Broadway to the Scepter offices. There was a big restaurant called The Turf where all the writers and musicians used to hang out. As we walked by they’d come out and show us our new record in the chart in Cash Box. We hadn’t even bothered to find out how our new record was going.
“Royalties! What royalties?! Well, we did get some, but I can tell you that we didn’t get what we should have got. We didn’t get a fraction. We were told that money was being put in a trust for us, but when we turned 21 we found out that there was no money. I don’t know what happened to all the money, but everyone at the company seemed to be living really well. Florence has told us that she never did anything wrong and persuaded us to drop our law suits. She told us that it was the people around her that wasted all the money and that she didn’t have much money herself. It never spoilt our relationship with her, we still loved her.
“In 1975 I left the Shirelles to have my daughter Amber. Doris had left the group in ’68 to have her twins. I called Doris and asked her if she would take my place for a little while because I was having a baby. But when I returned they were settled and happy working as a trio and, truthfully, they froze me out. No-one would talk with me, which is pretty uncomfortable when you’re all in a car together travelling to jobs. Well, obviously, I was very hurt. Had we stayed together we wouldn’t have the problems these days with so many different Shirelles groups going around. Most of them are fake groups. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that we split up because we hated each other. The fact of the matter is I loved these girls, probably too much. We wouldn’t have stayed together all those years if we hadn’t loved each other.”
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