Bobbettes singer Reather Dixon Turner dies at 69


The Bobbettes in 2013. Left to right: Cassandra Hawkins, Emma Patron, Pamela Tate McMullen and Reather Dixon Turner. (Courtesy of Emma Patron)
January 27

Reather Dixon Turner, a singer in the female doo-wop group the Bobbettes, whose 1957 hit “Mr. Lee” anticipated the popular girl-group sound of the 1960s, died Jan. 8 at her mother’s home in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York. She was 69.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said her daughter Crystal Whitley-Leach.

The Bobbettes were, along with the Chantels and the Hearts, among the few successful doo-wop groups with an all-female lineup in the 1950s. At that time, most female singers in rhythm and blues either were soloists or sang with an all male group, such as Zola Taylor of the Platters.

The five Bobbettes — Emma Pought, Jannie Pought, Laura Webb, Helen Gathers and Reather Dixon (as she was then known) — stood out not only for their gender but their youth. At their peak popularity, all were younger than 16.

They began singing together while attending elementary school in Spanish Harlem. Ms. Turner sang parts typically in a male range, including scat bass parts. Of the original group, Emma Pought (now Emma Patron) is the lone surviving member.

Known initially as the Harlem Queens, they had performed at amateur-night contests at the Apollo Theater and other venues. They were managed by James Dailey, who liked their sound but hated their name, which reminded him of a street gang.

Rechristened the Bobbettes, after the niece of one of the singers, they had a hit with their first recording, the sprightly “Mr. Lee,” on Atlantic Records. The song giddily recounts a school girl’s crush on her teacher and begins with a jump rope rhyme:

One, two, three — hey!

Look at Mr. Lee

Three, four, five — hey!

Look at him jive

The doo-wop historian Jay Warner once wrote that “ ‘Mr. Lee’ became the best-known public school teacher in America when the song went Top 10 in July 1957.”

The infectious but repetitive tune — the phrase “Mr. Lee” is sung 69 times in the song — reached No. 6 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts in Billboard, making the Bobbettes the first female rhythm-and-blues group to place on both charts.

According to Warner, the girls originally wrote the song as a put-down of a much-hated teacher but then rewrote it because Atlantic executives thought it was too negative.

The Bobbettes later had the last laugh on the dreaded Mr. Lee when they killed him off in a follow-up song, “I Shot Mr. Lee” (1960).

The group toured with several rock-and-roll package shows, often traveling by bus with 10 or more acts. The Bobbettes’ last chart entry, “I Don’t Like It Like That” (1961), was an answer to Chris Kenner’s hit record “I Like It Like That.”

Reather Elizabeth Dixon was born May 1, 1944, in Bamberg, S.C. Besides her mother, survivors include her husband of 49 years, John Turner of Queens, N.Y.; two daughters; a brother; a sister; and five grandchildren.

Ms. Turner continued to perform with the Bobbettes on the oldies circuit well into the past decade and liked to reminisce about the bus tours of her youth.

“Sometimes, when we were late, we’d have to dress for the show on the bus, since we didn’t have time to get a hotel and wash up,” she told Yesterday’s Memories magazine in 1976. “Was that a crazy scene! Everyone trying to dress and put on makeup on the bus and the Bobbettes, being young and new in the business, trying to hide each other with our coats.”

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