There was a standing joke at Scepter Records. Label head Florence Greenberg told the Shirelles that for their next single she would release whichever song group leader Shirley Alston Reeves thought wasn’t going to make it.
Shirley – one of headliners on Saturday’s Golden Oldies Spectacular at Proctors in Schenecatdy – remembers when noted songwriter Carole King pitched “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” to the group in 1960. “(Carol) did it slower and played it on piano. I thought it was a country and western song. I said, ‘This is not my song. I don’t think it’s going to be a Shirelles song.’”
It became the Shirelles’ first number one million seller. “So after that Florence would ask me which song I didn’t like, that I didn’t think would make it, and that’s the one she said she was going to put out.”
It’s been more than a half century since the four young African American teenagers released their first single “Tonight’s The Night.” At age 17 in 1958, they all were still students at Passaic High School, but they soon would become the first of the “girl groups” that included the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Chiffons and the Crystals.
They were among the first African American acts to cross over from R&B to the larger pop music arena – ahead of Motown acts like the Temptations and the Miracles. They were among the few who wrote many of their own songs, and they were an anomaly in that they were discovered by the first female label head who went on to break such hit makers as Dionne Warwick, the Isley Brothers, the Kingsmen and B.J. Thomas. In fact, the late Florence Greenberg once described herself as “a white woman who was in a black business and who couldn’t carry a tune.”
But the Shirelles’ circuitous climb up the charts was a study in blind luck, literally. Florence first signed the Shirelles to her fledgling Tiara Records label as a project for her blind son, Stanley. “He was a music major,” says Shirley, “and that’s what they were interested in. It was easy. We were right there to sing, and we sang for him, and he was excited. He was very excited ’cause we couldn’t write music. He just picked it out on the piano. He was very good. He had a great ear, and he was all excited to record us, and that’s how we started.”
The young girls stumbled into that audition after being discovered by Florence’s daughter Mary Jane at a school talent contest. An impromptu harmonizing session in school prompted the four young ladies’ teacher to reprimand them for disrupting her class. The teacher gave them the choice of staying after school for a week as punishment or entering the school talent contest. Choosing the lesser of two evils, they won standing ovations at the contest, and Mary Jane asked them to audition for her mother. The Shirelles had never heard of Tiara Records and at first declined until Mary Jane’s constant badgering got them to go.
Shirley was the last of the four to get her aunt to sign off on her underage contract. Auntie wanted her to go to college. The group’s first hit was “Met Him on A Sunday,” a song they all co-wrote for the talent contest. When the song started to take off, Florence Greenberg sold them to the much larger Decca label which soon dropped them as “one-hit wonders.” Florence picked them back up, now on her renamed Scepter Records label, and soon recorded their second hit, “Dedicated to The One I Love.” But there were strings attached to that song.
“The Five Royales wrote it, and they were preforming it,” Shirley recalls. “We were on the show with them. That was the first time we heard it. We fell in love with that song because it’s the greatest tune. Every time they’d go on, we’d run back by the curtain and listen to them singing it. We came back and told Florence Greenberg that we had written it.
“‘You girls sure you wrote that?’
“‘Yup. We wrote that song.’
“We did. We wrote it down on a piece of paper, but we didn’t write the song. So, all the way up until the time for them to do the copy label we were sticking to that story, and she said, ‘Listen, you girls, tell me the truth now ’cause you can get into a whole lot of trouble if you didn’t write that song.’ So we had to tell her the truth. They investigated and found out which people to give credit so they could get paid, but we were thinking this is our song. We’re going to keep this song, but we learned that was definitely the wrong thing to do.”
The Shirelles’ life was being lived in a bubble of recording and touring. They had no concept of what they were doing. Shirley remembers playing Paris. “I thought they hated us. This was back in ’61 I think it was, and they waited until we finished performing all the songs, and they all jumped up clapping their hands. I asked one, and they told me they were being polite. I sang (a few songs) in French. I wanted to make it a nice surprise, and do you know what they were yelling out to me? ‘English!’ They wanted to hear it the way they were sued to hearing it.”
“Soldier Boy,” The Shirelle’s second number one pop single and their biggest seller of all time, was recorded in one take at the end of a day long recording session. “We had finished doing the recording we were supposed to that day, and there was time left over. Florence said, ‘Listen, time is money. Why don’t we just run this song down, put “Soldier Boy” in now.’ Then they brought up the music to it and gave it to the group. They ran it down. [Giggle] And they recorded it, boom!”
When The Shirelles crossed over into the pop market from R&B, the girls had to ask Florence what that meant, but when their producer Luther Dixon – a man Shirley says was to them what Burt Bacharach was to Dionne Warwick – told them he was quitting, she knew it was the end of an era.
“I looked into his face, and he was serious, and I knew that he had given it a lot of thought, and he hated to tell us that. He said, ‘I have given you all I have. I have no more to give you. I’m out! I have nothing else. I don’t know what else to do for you girls.’ And that was the end. That was the end of it. He didn’t record us anymore.”
The final blow to their blind-leading-the-blind odyssey came when Florence reneged on a trust she’d promised them when they turned 21. “I just know that they bought a couple more buildings,” says a resigned Shirley. “We never got anything. She (Florence) said she never said it.”
The hits stopped coming, the group eventually split up with each member touring with a different set of backup singers, but it was Shirley Alston Reeves who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and it was Shirley who performed this year on several after-show gigs for the Broadway musical “Baby It’s You.” And it’s Shirley who performs Saturday night at Proctors along with Bobby Rydell, Jay & the Americans, the Legendary Teenagers and the Fleetwoods.
Shirley’s promotional material positions her this way, “The Shirelles, you remember! Legendary lady Shirley Alston Reeves, you will never forget!”
“I never sing a song the same way twice,” she says. “I sing it close enough that you know it’s the song, but I can’t sing it note for note because I never feel it note for note. I go according to my audience.”
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Shirley Alston Reeves is featured in the Golden Oldies Spectacular at Proctors in Schenectady at 7:30pm on Friday (October 21) along with Bobby Rydell, Jay & the Americans, the Legendary Teenagers and the Fleetwoods. Tix are $35.75, $43.75 & $50.75.