The Shirelles were one of the earliest and certainly among the very best girl groups from the late Fifties and early Sixties. No less a rock and roll expert than John Lennon proclaimed the Shirelles his favorite group in the early days of Beatlemania. They were themselves fans of the Chantels (of “Maybe” fame), the Flamingos, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. The Shirelles have also been called the female counterparts of the Drifters. Both were vocal groups from the New York metropolitan area who had an R&B grounding and a fondness for Latin rhythms and string arrangements. The Shirelles recorded for the New York-based Scepter label from 1959 to 1968 and enjoyed sustained success from 1960-63, during which they charted a dozen Top Forty singles. With their innocent, unblemished vocal style, the Shirelles projected a “girl next door” image, and their songs about young love and its travails appealed to youthful pop fans. Moreover, the Shirelles’ material and production was almost uniformly excellent, particularly during the glory years of the early Sixties.
Formed in 1957, members Shirley Alston Reeves, Addie “Micki” Harris, Doris Kenner Jackson and Beverly Lee were high-school students in Passaic, New Jersey. A fellow student heard the Pequellos, as they called themselves, perform at a school talent show. She brought them to the attention of her mother, Florence Greenberg, who owned a small label. Renaming themselves the Shirelles, they released their first hit, “I Met Him on a Sunday,” on Greenberg’s Tiara Records. It was picked up for national distribution from Decca and narrowly missed the Top Forty in 1958. The single established the Shirelles and helped Greenberg launch the legendary Scepter label.
In 1959 they first released the classic “Dedicated to the One I Love,” originally recorded by the “5” Royales. Though it barely dented the Top 100, it soared to #3 upon re-release in 1961. Six years after that, the Mamas and the Papas, who recorded the song in a near-identical arrangement, carried the song to #2. Of the more than two dozen Shirelles singles released on Scepter, their biggest hits were “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” – the first #1 hit for songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King – and the sentimental, unison-sung “Soldier Boy.” During their heyday at Scepter, the Shirelles worked closely with producer and songwriter Luther Dixon. Another frequent contributor to Shirelles sessions was saxophone titan King Curtis, who can be heard soloing on such favorites as “Boys.” One of the Shirelles’ biggest hits, “Baby It’s You,” represented one of the earliest collaborations between songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The group numbered among its boosters the influential promoters Dick Clark and Murray Kaufman (a.k.a. “Murray the K”).
The only thing that could stop the Shirelles, ironically, was the Beatles – or, more precisely, the British Invasion, which basically brought about a major shift in popular music. The Shirelles were among its casualties; they would, in fact, never crack the Top Forty after mid-1963. The group did continue recording for Scepter until 1968 and for other labels after that. The oldies revival of the Seventies kept them busy on the concert circuit, and they sang two songs in the 1973 film documentary Let the Good Times Roll. To this day, a version of the Shirelles led by original member Beverly Lee remains active.