Old "girl groups" don't necessarily fade away. Some, like D.C.'s own Four Jewels, grow up to be "women groups." Although the Four Jewels -- Sandra Bears, Margie Clark, Grace Ruffin and Carrie Mingo -- are all mothers, with 10 children and two grandchildren between them, they will be celebrating their 25th anniversary as a performing vocal group on Saturday at the Panorama Room, 1600 Marish Rd. SE.
This performance will be an important one for the group, not only because it's their silver anniversary, but because it will celebrate the release of "Loaded With Goodies," a new Four Jewels album in which they faithfully recreate their '60s singles. It is also the first time all four of the original Jewels have sung together since the early '60s.
With Mingo, who has sung with the Velons for the last 10 years, rejoining the group, the Jewels are once again the same quartet that formed at Roosevelt High School in 1959 as the Impalas. "We started singing in the choir at school," explains Bears. "We were really just a female version of a male vocal group. Grace and I both had brothers in groups. We were singing at church, at school, on the corner, anywhere we could."
The girls' practice paid off when they got an opportunity to record at Bo Diddley's home during the early '60s when the famous guitarist lived in the District. "Grace's brother's group, Masked Man and the Agents, used to rehearse at Bo's home studio on Rhode Island Avenue," Bears recalls. "We started going over there and rehearsing with Bo's keyboard player, James Hopps, and he helped train us. We backed up Bo on 'Bo Diddley's a Lover' before we recorded our first single, 'For the Love of Mike.' "
"For the Love of Mike," which was recorded with Diddley on guitar, was released by his label, Checker, in 1961. When the single failed to sell, the Impalas found a new manager, Bobby Lee, who changed their name to the more feminine Four Jewels. The group released three singles on Lee's Start label and two more on Checker. When none of them hit big, Mingo left the group and Martha Harvin was added as her replacement.
Although the Four Jewels' early singles featured four dynamic lead vocalists as well as smooth harmony singing, these records really reflected the doo-wop sound of the '50s rather than the new teen-age pop styles emerging in the early '60s. It wasn't until Smokey McAllister spotted the Jewels at the Howard Theater and invited them to New York City to record in 1964 that the group landed a hit. The song was "Opportunity," an uptempo girl-group song recorded for Dimension records.
"McAllister asked us to meet him at a New York studio and we did," Bears remembers. "We must have listened to 200 demos before we decided on 'Opportunity.' It was definitely a change for us because we were mostly known for our ballads."
The success of "Opportunity" put the Jewels on R&B shows all over the East Coast. "We did the circuit," says Bears. "There was the Howard, the Regal in Chicago, the Uptown in Philly, the Royal in Baltimore and the Apollo in New York."
It was at the legendary Apollo that the Jewels got a major career break. "You hear these stories about the Apollo," Bears chuckles. "If you don't make the first show, you don't finish the week. Fortunately, the audience loved us and we got a standing ovation. Anyway, James Brown was in the audience and sent one of his people back to say he loved the show and that he was interested in us joining his revue."
For contractual reasons, the Jewels couldn't join Brown then. Later, though, he came to the Howard Theater and the Jewels were free to go out on a few dates with him. They stayed for over a year, backing Brown on stage as well as doing their own spot. The Jewels also sang backup on one of Brown's biggest hits, "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud."
"It was exciting to work with James Brown," Bears admits. "He's a hard worker and we rehearsed every day. He demands hard work but he gives hard work. I remember one time James was so sick the Flames had to hold him up on stage. He's dedicated."
Some of that dedication obviously rubbed off on the group because the trio of original Jewels has kept working in the Washington-Baltimore area since the '60s, singing R&B, soul and girl-group material. The new album has brought the fourth Jewel, Mingo, back to record and perform again. So, after 25 years, the girls are women, but the songs remain the same.