were an American girl group that achieved popularity in the early 1960s. They consisted of schoolmates Shirley Owens (later Shirley Alston-Reeves), Doris Coley (later Doris Kenner-Jackson), Addie "Micki" Harris (later Addie Harris McPherson), and Beverly Lee. They have been described as either the first African-American girl group to top the Billboard Hot 100, or the first girl group overall, with the song "Will You Love Me Tomorrow".Founded in 1957 for a talent show at their high school, they were signed by Florence Greenberg of Tiara Records. Their first single, "I Met Him on a Sunday", was released by Tiara and licensed by Decca Records in 1958. After a brief and unsuccessful period with Decca, they went with Greenberg to her newly formed company, Scepter Records. Working with Luther Dixon, the group rose to fame with "Tonight's the Night". After a successful period of collaboration with Dixon and promotion by Scepter, with seven top 20 hits, The Shirelles left Scepter in 1966. Afterwards, they were unable to maintain their previous popularity.The Shirelles have been described as having a "naive schoolgirl sound" that contrasted with the sexual themes of many of their songs. Several of their hits used strings and baião-style music. They have been credited with launching the girl group genre, with much of their music reflecting the genre's essence. Their acceptance by both white and black audiences, predating that of the Motown acts, has been noted as reflecting the early success of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. They have received numerous honors, including the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, as well as being accepted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and named one of the 100 best acts of all time by Rolling Stone
in 2004. Two of their songs, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Tonight's the Night", were selected by Rolling Stone
on its list of the greatest songs of all time.
Initial career and success
The group that later became The Shirelles was formed in 1957 by four teenage friends from Passaic, New Jersey, under the name The Poquellos (or The Pequellos). The founding members, Shirley Owens (born June 10, 1941), Doris Coley (August 2, 1941 – February 4, 2000), Addie "Micki" Harris (January 22, 1940 – June 10, 1982), and Beverly Lee (born August 3, 1941), entered a talent show at Passaic High School at the suggestion of a teacher. After hearing them sing "I Met Him on a Sunday", a song they had written for the show, their classmate Mary Jane Greenberg convinced the reluctant Poquellos to meet with her mother, Florence, the owner of Tiara Records. After several months of avoiding Greenberg and telling her that they were not interested in singing professionally, they were booked to Tiara. By the end of the year they had changed their name to The Shirelles, a combination of the first syllable of Owens' given name and -el, reminiscent of then-popular group The Chantels, after briefly using the name The Honeytunes. That year, they released their first song, "I Met Him on a Sunday"; after local success, it was licensed to Decca Records for national broadcast and charted at #50. The song was influenced by doo-wop, but infused with pop melodies.Tiara Records, along with The Shirelles' contract, was sold to Decca Records in 1959 for $4,000; Greenberg stayed as the manager, securing performances for the group, including one at the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. After two singles did poorly, including their first release — with Coley as lead vocalist — of "Dedicated to the One I Love", a cover of The "5" Royales song of the same name, Decca returned them to Greenberg and gave up on them, considering them a one-hit act; On Greenberg's new label, Scepter Records, they re-released "Dedicated to the One I Love" as a single, which peaked at #89; Wayne Wadhams, David Nathan, and Susan Lindsay in Inside the Hits
attribute the low rating to poor distribution. In order to better promote the group, Greenberg asked songwriter Luther Dixon, who had previously worked with Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and Pat Boone and co-written the 1959 hit "16 Candles", to write for and produce songs for them. Dixon accepted.Their first single produced with Dixon, "Tonight's the Night", was released in 1960 and peaked at #39. The success of "Tonight's the Night" led to the girls being booked to perform with several major artists, such as Etta James and Little Richard, and facilitated Scepter's move to a larger office. It was followed by "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", written by husband-wife songwriting team Gerry Goffin and Carole King; the song went on to become either the first Billboard number-one hit by an African-American girl group or the first Number One Hit by any girl group. "Tonight's the Night" was later used as the title song for the 1961 album Tonight's the Night
, which also included "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Dedicated to the One I Love".After the success of their singles, The Shirelles became frequent guests of Murray the K, who hosted them on his "All Star Rock Shows" on the New York radio station WINS. During this same period they reissued "Dedicated to the One I Love", which peaked at #3, followed by "Mama Said", then "Baby It's You", written by Burt Bacharach, Luther Dixon, and Mack David, "Soldier Boy", and "Boys", with saxophonist King Curtis.In 1963 Dixon left Scepter, which presaged a tailing-off of the number of The Shirelles' singles to chart. However, they carried on performing and recording. Dionne Warwick replaced Owens and Coley, who took leave to marry their fiancés, in concerts and the group continued to record material. That year, their song "Foolish Little Girl" reached the pop/R&B Top 10, and they had a cameo in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
. However, later in 1963 they learned that the trust — holding their royalties — that they were supposed to receive from Scepter on their 21st birthday did not exist. In response, they left the label, and later filed a breach of contract suit against the company. Scepter met this with a countersuit for quitting; both suits were withdrawn in 1965, after an agreement was reached. Knowing that Scepter had lied about the trust disappointed The Shirelles, who felt deceived. In a 1981 interview with Bruce Pollock, Owens said that Greenberg had put on a "mother routine", which the girls had "fall[en\] for ... completely".
In later years, The Shirelles declined in popularity due to pressure from the British Invasion and the heavy competition from other girl groups, including The Chiffons, The Dixie Cups, The Ronettes, The Supremes, and The Crystals. During this period, Warwick often replaced Coley due to the latter's family commitments. The Shirelles were still bound to Scepter and thus unable to record for another company until the end of their contract in 1966. Their last single to chart was 1967's "Last Minute Miracle", which peaked at #99.After the commercial failure of their most recent releases, in 1968 Coley left the group to attend to her family. The remaining three Shirelles recorded songs for several labels, including Bell Records, RCA, and United Artists until 1971. Afterwards, they toured singing their older songs, and participated in the filming of the 1973 documentary Let the Good Times Roll
, recording two songs for it. Coley returned as lead singer in 1975, replacing Owens, who left that year to pursue a solo career. In 1982 Harris died of a heart attack in the Hyatt Regency after two performances in Atlanta, Georgia with the group. The following year, the remaining three original members performed "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" with Warwick on her album How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye
.Afterwards, the original members toured in different, separate, groups, although the trademark to The Shirelles name was eventually acquired by Lee. Lee currently tours with new members as "The Shirelles". Coley died in Sacramento, California on February 4, 2000, of breast cancer.
Wadhams, Nathan, and Lindsay describe the style of The Shirelles early work as "tight, almost doo-wop harmony". Owens' vocals, described by rock n' roll writer Alwyn W. Turner as being "wonderfully expressive", were capable of sounding "almost, but not quite" out of tune, which in his opinion led to Owens' sounding innocent in her songs; music critic Albin Zak describes her vocals as being able to intone desire and vulnerability. The other members, singing backup, also convey what Michael Campbell, a professor of music at Western Illinois University, calls a "naive schoolgirl sound". The lyrics sung by The Shirelles tended to be fairly simple and "barely" concealed the subtexts of the songs. The songs were implicitly directed at female listeners, with the male subjects of songs being referred to as "he" instead of "you"; this was a change from previous female-written songs, which tended to be more gender neutral, and helped pave the way for the "confessional" songs of 70s singers like Joni Mitchell and Carole King.Musically, their works with Dixon were influenced by Brazilian baião and featured numerous instances of syncopation.
Steve Huey of Allmusic notes that The Shirelles defined "the so-called girl group sound with their soft, sweet harmonies and yearning innocence", with their songs predating Motown in their widespread crossing of racial demographics, both in the US and in Britain. He also notes that they spawned "legions of imitators", and laid a blueprint for future female pop stars to follow. Turner writes that The Shirelles "launched [the girl group\] genre", noting that their early work already included "the essence" of the genre; Alwyn Zak expands on the statement, noting that the influx of female groups started after the success of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow".Michael Campbell notes that The Shirelles' success reflected the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He indicates that works such as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", written by a white couple, produced by an African-American man, with vocals by young African-American women and strings sounding like they were targeted at a white audience, conveyed a "color-blind" message on top of its more obvious sexual one.
In 1994, The Shirelles were honored by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation with the Pioneer Award for their contributions to music. The award was accepted by Owens, Lee, and Kenner. As Coley was accepting her award, she said "This is dedicated to the one I love", and sang an impromptu rendition of "Soldier Boy" together with Owens and Lee. Two years later they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, together with Gladys Knight and The Pips. At the ceremony in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the three surviving members sang a medley of songs after being presented the awards by Merry Clayton, Marianne Faithfull, and Darlene Love. In 2002, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Lee and Owens accepted the award.In 2004, Rolling Stone
ranked them #76 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Paul Shaffer, who did the write-up, wrote that the girl-group sound, originated by them, was "everything to [him\]"; he also described their impromptu performance of "Soldier Boy" as inspiring. They also included two of The Shirelles' songs, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Tonight's the Night", on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In the 2010 edition, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" was ranked 126th, while "Tonight's the Night" was ranked 409th.In September 2008, the Shirelles' hometown of Passaic honored the group by renaming a section of Paulison Avenue between Passaic and Pennington Avenues (the section where Passaic High School is located) "Shirelles Boulevard". The dedication ceremony was attended by both surviving Shirelles. Owens said that it was different than when they were inducted into the Hall of Fame, as it was their home town. She noted that "the people who loves [sic
\] us and we loved are right here."
The Shirelles' story was shown in Baby It's You!
, a musical revue written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, which follows the story of Greenberg and Scepter Records. The show opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre and was directed by Sheldon Epps and starring Beth Leavel as Florence. Christina Sajous played Owens, Erica Ash played Harris, Kyra DaCosta played Lee, and Crystal Starr Knighton played Coley. The use of their likenesses without permission led to Lee, as well as the estates of Coley and Harris, to sue Warner Bros. The revue had a run of 148 performances, opening at the Broadhurst Theatre on April 27, 2011 and closing on September 4 of the same year.The show received mixed to negative reviews. Entertainment Weekly
's Clark Collis gave the musical a "B-" rating. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times
called it "dismal" and Steven Suskin of Variety
wrote that it had "a tunestack only one quarter as imperishable" as Jersey Boys
. The musical received some positive recognition; Leavel was nominated for both a Tony and Drama Desk Award for best leading actress.