The oddest thing about The Shirelles, despite their groundbreaking foray into the Pop Music landscape as the Fabulous Fifties became the Camelot era 1960s is, in residual… there’s not much left to visually grab a hold of their accomplishments.
Not too many publicity stills if you Google for their images, nor too many clips of them performing on Television mystically saved from oblivion and posted on Youtube.
But they distilled the haunted need for recognition of The Chantels, The exuberance of youthful life of The Bobettes and the smoothness of The Original Cookies, the founders of the modern R&B Girl Group phenom that would overwhelm pop music for a brief brilliant moment between 1962 and Mid 1964.
They formed in Passaic, New Jersey in 1958 as The Poquellos. They were Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris , and Beverly Lee. They sang their original composition, the delightful round robin styled “I Met Him On A Sunday” at their High School talent show, and friend recommended them to record label owner/bored Jewish Housewife Florence Greenberg, that ran Tiara Records. She quickly recorded and licensed the song to Decca Records, where without much help, peaked at #49 pop by the summer of 1958.
When following singles (Including “Dedicated To The One I Love”) failed to match or exceed expectations, the licensing agreement with Decca was dropped, and Florence Greenberg started Scepter records and enlisted Luther Dixon, who took a cue from Leiber & Stoller, surrounded The Shirelles in strings and a Baion Beat and took them instantly into the Top 40 with the suggestive “Tonight’s The Night”
The storyline continued, posing a question quite radical, but foreshadowing the sexual revolution underway during 1960 (The same year the birth control pill hit the market) with “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”: A poignant question from the female perspective of, if I have premarital sex… is it just sex? Must have been a very resounding question for heterosexual women (and probably a lot of gay men) because the song shot to #1 as President Kennedy took office and peaked at #3 in the UK in early 1961.
The flush of success was continued with a re-release of “Dedicated to The One I Love” which shot to #3
And shortly thereafter “Mama Said” climbed to #4
(I’ve always loved this short film that embodies the tumultuous era The Shirelles music was a soundtrack and a reflection of. It’s not the actual Shirelles but gets the point across so lovely).
Then the influence started kicking off. Girl Groups like The Marvelettes followed in their footsteps and onto the charts and onto the road, And other girl groups moved from rec rooms and school glee clubs to their local record labels believing as Ronnie Spector said: “If The Shirelles could, we could too”
And as The Shirelles charted 4 more songs before 1961 was over (“Big John” went #21pop, “A Thing of The Past” fought with “What A Sweet Thing That Was” for topside status and “Baby, It’s You” Started it’s trek into the top 10), Why not think “why not us”
And definitely the influence was staggering, The Cookies became the pet darling of Goffin & King, the songwriting duo that produced The Shirelles big breakthrough, and the number of idolizers/competitors grew tenfold in 1962. But The Shirelles still managed to score their biggest hit “Soldier Boy”, “Stop The Music” and a cover of Doris Day’s “Everybody Loves a Lover” before the year was out.
But by 1963, the vanguard of Girl Group records had moved away from the string saturated paeans to romance to rougher, rawer expressions of female desire. The School of thought championed by Gladys Horton (The Marvelettes) Darlene Love and LaLa Brooks (The Crystals) Martha Reeves (and The Vandellas) and Peggy Santiglia (The Angels) got in your face, and proclaimed their feelings directly.
The prim and proper routine of The Shirelles started to fail in a one-two punch. 1) Luther Dixon left as A&R director of Scepter records and started his own production company and 2) The overtly moral “Foolish Little Girl” would be the last time The Shirelles would go Top 5
By mid 1963, they were recording the soundtrack to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad (I forget how many Mads) World and singles started to become an afterthought as Florence Greenberg switched attention and promotion funds to a former substitute Shirelle named Dionne Warwick.
“Don’t Say Goodnight and Mean Goodbye” was their last time in the Top 40, peaking at #26, and a succession of singles (including the highly appropriate “What Does A Girl Do?”) struggled to make it out of the middle of the charts.
Insult to injury, the trust that was set up by Greenberg proved to be empty by the time all of the singers turned 21 in early 1964, and the lawsuits flew… giving Scepter records little incentive to promote even worthwhile new material,
like “Sha-La-La” that made it to #69pop before a Manfred Mann cover version outcharted it. The lawsuit dragged on til.. I dunno, yesterday? Actually into the middle of 1965. But by that point so much had changed since 1960: The Supremes, Shangri-Las, The Toys and to a lesser extent Martha & The Vandellas were the vanguard in Girl Groups, but more popular was the female soloist, more marketable, more malleable, less likely to get married and/or pregnant.
So a lot of cast offs were given to the Shirelles that sounded like facsimiles of hit records of the day, like “You Could Be My Remedy”
Until they wished on a Miracle. Literally. Their last charted single was called “Last Minute Miracle”… sadly it peaked at a lowly #99pop in 1967
They finally left Scepter records midway through 1968, and did a lot of Northern Soul inspired items through the early 1970s, with Shirley finally going solo around 1975, only for the group to reform to tour the oldies circuit in the early 1980s.
Micki Harris sadly died of a heart attack in 1982 after leaving the stage with a smile on her face, and secondary lead singer Doris Jackson died in 2000 from breast cancer.
Today Beverly Lee (the sweet coy Soprano) and Shirley (now) Reeves tour as two separate entities, Beverly as the “official” Shirelles and Shirley solo.
Catch them if you can, to witness a 6 decade old legacy of popular music, and true legends still going strong.
There’s never too much of a good thing like The Shirelles.