Theirs were the songs that went with the first kiss, the first woolly track sweater around the shoulder, the first excited, giggling girl-session among the bunk beds and romance comic books. And, 20 years later, the Shirelles instantly bring back memories of first blushes and bruises.
The Shirelles were the first of the girl groups that exploded on the rhythm 'n' blues scene in the late 1950s to become internationally successful, and are the only group still intact. For the last 10 years they haven't made a record - but they haven't missed a week of work.
They stepped on stage at Wheaton High School for a '50s revival show, perfectly coordinated, from the soft curls and green-shadowed eyes to the silver stiletto heels. They acted like they have never sung, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," freshly humming its lullaby.
The sound of the Shirelles has faded from the adolescent shrill into pleasant cabaret, but their motions are time-locked. They dipped from side to side, the folds of their lime-green gowns swaying. When they reached the line of "Dedicated To the One I Love" that goes, "Each night before I go to bed, my baby. I whisper a little prayer for you, my baby," they folded their hands over the microphones. No one does that anymore. They received the loudest applause of the show.
Twenty years, Northern New Jersey had not yet been etched upon the television memory as a site of burning urban disorders. It ranked with New York City and Philadelphia as a creative zone, where the streets and walked onstage at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater, as churches produced singers. A group from Passaic, N.J., naive and finger-popping as the audience, dropped a few "Ronde, ronde, poppa doo ronds," and the place went wild.
"Those weren't only good times for the audience. We were having fun, too. That - the fun - is still here," said Doris Jackson, smiling excitedly in an almost bare dressing room. The Shirelles of the 1970s are three - Jackson 36, Beverly Lee, 36, and Micki Harris, 37 - instead of the original four. The fourth member of the group dropped out two years ago and started a career of her own.
Backstage, as they reminisced, the Shirelles giggled, teased one another about their hairstyles, their hips, their bad habits. "Tonight's the Night" has worn from shiny coal to pale chalk.
From the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, when Diana Ross spun off from the Supremes, girl groups and their songs were an invincible force in pop music. Only the now-splintered La Belle upheld the reputation recently.
With a chauvinistic nod to some male groups, like the Miracles, the female groups smoothed out some rough edges of early rock 'n' roll, influenced the Beatles and other British rockers, foreshadowed late '60s rhythm 'n' blues social commentary, and paved the way for the individuality of today's pop groups, such as Parliament Funkadelic.
In this golden day, there were the Chantels, the Crystals, the Ronettes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, the Velvetettes, and the trio with the apt christening, the Supremes. "Uptown," "I sold My Heart to the Junkman," "Heat Wave," "Uptown." They were the after-school companions of thousands of admiring, jitterbugging teen-agers. They shaped attitudes that momma didn't know about, teaching that puppy love was both fun and a hint of romantic adventures, and instructing on the mechanics of heart-break.For example, the Chantels built up a resistance with the words from "Prayee" - "He doesn't love me, not at all, he builds my hopes, just to let them fall."
With their suitcases full of wigs and their balloon-skirt dresses, most groups were innocents looking for self-expression, steady employment and fame When the Shirelles were discovered, in the 10th grade, they had no idea of the rough side of show business. Like many black groups at the time, they were swept into an industry that offered a decent living and some visibility, respectability and glamor. However, many of them remained as poor as the church choirs they sprang from.
John Hammond, the veteran star discoverer, once recalled the days before good management and said, "Artists were usually paid with a jug of gin instead of cash." Patti LaBelle, talking about the sales of her early hits with the BlueBelles, recently said, "We didn't know any better, as far as money was concerned. But, after I had been taken so much, I took an interest. But mismanagement was happening to a lot of groups out there."
Even though they had a band in high school, the Shirelles thought they would spend the rest of their lives as beauticians in white orthopedic shoes and uniforms. The attrition of girl groups today could be related to the expanding career opportunities for woman. Girl groups have been the casualty of both the public's and the music business's trends and society's definition of women's roles. Family responsibility finally pulled many of the pioneering girl groups apart.
Some of the stories aren't so pleasant. The back-breaking routine, the naivete and the jealousies can lead to a downfall like the one that befell Florence Ballard, an original Supreme. After Ballard left the group in 1967, she became a woman broken in spirit and income, lived on welfare, and died of a heart attack at 32.
Sixth grade, spring of 1958, Jersey City. The first mixed party, boys and girls. The record player played girl group songs all afternoon: "Down the Aisle," by the Quintones, who were actually four girls and a guy, and "Mr. Lee," by the Bobettes.
Surely a few songs from Frankie Lyman and the Teen-agers, the Coasters, the Moonglows or Little Anthony crept in, but the sixth-grade memories are most strongly marked by girl groups. It was they, probably, that a whole generation of colored girls from Jersey City started thinking of toughening up perpetually preparing for the big hurt, as the Chantels moaned through "He's Gone."
The Shirelles recall that period. "We wrote a song for the school assembly, and a classmate of ours heard us sing and told her mother," explained Micki Harris.
That Passaic, N.J., parent owned Scepter Records. But the girls, then acting gun-shy of show business and bowing to their parents' initial disapproval, balked at singing professionally. Within a few months, however, they were on a chartered bus with Etta James, Ruth Brown and The Dritters, headed toward Richmond.
"We didn't have a model. The Andrews Sisters and Patti Page had opened some doors. But the veterans on that first tour really took us under their wing," said Beverly Lee. "Yeah," added Harris, "Ruth Brown said, "Go out and buy a pair of slacks - you can't ride the bus in those crino-lines and party dresses."
For five years in the late '50s and early '60s, after the success of "Dedicated," their first gold record, and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," a 3-million seller written by Carole King, the Shirelles were voted the No. 1 Female Vocal Group by all the music trades. At the time, Lee remembered, they were pioneers - the first black group to play segregated campuses and do a radio commercial for Coca-Cola.
The honors of gold records, film premieres and racial breakthroughs are one memory. "We sang to the civil-rights workers the night before the March to Selma. The Klan had marched the night before. And everyone - Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis - had guards," said Lee. "When we got on stage, the light bulbs started popping and if you weren't in front, you would have thought it was a gun. That was real unity."
That same year the Shirelles faded away. "I think we were caught in the tide of Beatlemania. (The Beatles recorded a Shirelles song, "Boys.") They [the Beatles] brought a lot of black acts along, but we slowed down," said Doris Jackson.
Since their heyday, the Shirelles have performed regularly at hotel supper clubs, including the Newport in Miami Beach and the Flamboyant in San Juan.
Just as they started describing the recent one-month tour of Australia, their manager came in. Ten minutes until their 10-minute portion of the revival show, he said. "Hey, this is like old times," said Harris. "Every night when I get on stage, I am glad those songs mean something. People tell us they listen because most of our songs told a story. It reminds them of a good time."
The summer of 1964. Fast, frenzied weekends, where the action moved from Jersey City's blue-light basements to the rocky sands of Chicken Bone Beach in Atlantic City. The Ques threw a party and for six hours only one song played, "Where Did Our Love Go?," a sweet but street-tough tune by a new group, the Supremes.
In the early 1960s, the high-school talent shows, as well as secretarial pools at record companies, became the springboard for girl groups. Motown, the Detroit label that packaged the street corner "do-wah" into slick soul, monopolized the market. The Primettes became the Supremes: the Delphis became the Vandellas. The Marvelettes, whose anthology album includes 28 still-recognizable titles - "Locking Up My Heart," "Too Many Fish in the Sea," and "Please Mr. Postman" - completed admirably with the Supremes. But Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard became the No. 1 female vocal group in the world, selling 25 million records.Ross, a solo artist since 1970, is now also a movie star and one of the highest paid entertainers in the world.
The pratice of rewarding the easily identifiable lead of the group by attaching her name to the group's name started in early 1967 with the Vandellas. Martha Reeves, the lead, is now 36, a single parent, a born-again Christian and a struggling solo artist. "I don't think I was born a leader. I was the loudest person," said Reeves from her home in California.
Together for nine years, her girl group disbanded in 1971. Since then her career has been erratic. As part of the Vandellas and the Motown sound - she first worked as a secretary at Motown Records - Reeves added an energetic distinction to a string of Vandellas hits like "Dancing in the Streets," and "Jimmy Mac." "If I could have sat down and dreamt it, I wouldn't have imagined a life that good," said Reeves, still the girl group singer at heart. She even recalled fondly the Motown gromming school and the long rides along the "chitlin circuit." "It was a lot of hard work but I gained a lot of friends. Now I have friends everywhere and that helps with the absence of hit records."
After brief alliances with MCA Records and the Arista label, Reeves signed with Fantasy earlier this year. "I like to perform and I believe I make people feel good. Right now I have two girls singing behind me and I counsel them," said Reeves. The name of her new album is "We Meet Again."
Nothing - not even 10 days of downpour - kept the fans from the Christmas and Easter extravaganzas at the Brooklyn Fox, the Brooklyn Paramount and Harlem's Apollo.
They called the shows the battle of the groups. And the long lines and itchy seats didn't matter when Smokey Robinson unbuttoned his navy-blue silk skirt to his navel.Or when Patti LaBelle hit her high notes of "You'll Never Walk Alone."
"The Apollo," she repeated, chatting during her recent three-night, sold-out stand at the Carter Barron. "Those six shows a day. I remember putting the food, the cans of sardines, on the lamp to heat. Those were hard times and I could have called home, but we had to pretend everything was fine."
For 16 years her girl group struggled without any financial success, but worked to keep up with the music trends. That's where the Shirelles in the mid-60s, and the Supremes in the mid'70s missed. After setting the style, they failed to enlarge it. When it seemed that straight soul and interchangeable female groups had become too tame for the astrological audience of the 1970s. Patti Labelle and the BlueBelles condensed their name to LaBelle. What they created was outrageous, a unisex edition of rhythm 'n' blues.
"When we changed from the soul group to the glitter act, I was afraid we wouldn't be accepted. I believe you didn't take chances," said Labelle. But a song about a Creole prostitute, "Lady Marmalade," endeared them to white, black, gay and straight audiences and gave the success they had had only briefly before. LaBelle became the first black pop group to play the Metropolitan Opera House.
Soon, however, LaBelle of its silver breastplates and wings and opted for hand-painted chiffon. She wanted to act like the 33-year-old mother of three she was. "We all had to go into different directions. We all wanted different things and if we had stayed together there would have been friction," said LeBelle.
In late 1976, at their peak, LaBelle, Nona Hendryz and Sara Dash spilt up. "Running and bumping into one another on the stage, I don't know how long that would have been cute. I didn't want to get stale."
That break-up left the girl-group field to The Silver Connection, High Inergy, the Emotions, the Three Degrees, Three Ounces of Love, Touch of Class, Taste of Honey, First Choice and Formerly of the Harlettes.
They are all just whispers of the former powerhouse girl groups: today's preference for the disco beat over the perfumed word has dehumanized them. Tast of Honey, for example, doesn't inspire any great philosophy with their hit, "Boogie, Oogie, Oogie."
Nor do they inspire teen-age fun. When the Supremes were racking up hit after hit, three fans could stand in front of any stoop and practice every gesture and every pause of "Stop in the Name of Love" until their arms ached.
Or, just as the Shirelles did the other night, the young fans could lift up one finger as they sang "Soldier Boy . . . you were my first love," and cross their arms over their hearts as they continued, "and you'll be my first love."