Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and Mary Weiss – and even Joan Jett, Victoria Beckham and Nicole Scherzinger – all owe a debt to Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris and Beverly Lee. That quartet doesn’t have the name recognition of those that followed them, but those four young women from Passaic, New Jersey ignited the girl group phenomenon when they joined forces as The Poquellos, soon to be renamed The Shirelles. Were The Shirelles the first girl group? Probably not. Were they the first to gain national prominence? Unquestionably.
The first major female group of the rock and roll era, The Shirelles claimed the first girl group No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Discovered in New Jersey by Florence Greenberg’s daughter Mary Jane, the group laid the cornerstone for Greenberg’s Scepter Records empire – later home to Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, Ronnie Milsap and The Kingsmen – and paved the way for the Motown revolution with their blend of uptown soul, pop, and street corner harmonies. This potent combination, of course, found them “crossing over” to the predominantly white audience and quietly breaking down barriers of gender and race with an intoxicating series of pop songs from some of the greatest songwriters of all time. Yet The Shirelles have unaccountably been overlooked as the years have passed despite induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The songs written for them by Luther Dixon, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David and others have endured, but the voices behind the songs have receded into the background.
The new Broadway musical Baby, It’s You!, named after the 1962 hit penned by Bacharach, Mack David and Barney Williams (actually Dixon, writing under his brother-in-law’s name), redresses this, giving The Shirelles some overdue attention. The Floyd Mutrux/Colin Escott musical (readers here may recognize Escott’s name from the innumerable CD liner notes he has penned) utilizes the Shirelles’ deep back catalogue and that of other period artists to illustrate the dramatic dual stories of Greenberg’s founding of Scepter Records and The Shirelles’ rise and fall. It may have taken fifty-odd years, but The Shirelles are back on Broadway, where their career began at Greenberg’s 1650 Broadway offices just seven blocks away from the musical’s home at the Broadhurst Theatre. Only Shirley Owens (now Shirley Alston-Reeves) and Beverly Lee are still alive to enjoy the accolades, but in celebration of the remarkable body of work recorded by The Shirelles, we offer today’s Back Tracks.
The Shirelles’ catalogue hasn’t been particularly well-served on CD, other than by numerous compilations. Sundazed reissued a small handful of the original albums almost twenty years ago as straight reissues with no bonus tracks; Ace has improved on these editions with a copiously-annotated series of two-on-one CDs containing bonuses where possible, and utilizing stereo mixes where they exist. Ace’s four-volume series now has collected the entire eight-album Scepter output of The Shirelles.
Whether you’ve seen the musical and are looking to find your favorite songs on CD, or you’re a longtime fan of the group hoping to fill some gaps in your collection, have we got a musical tour for you! Hit the jump to begin with 1960’s Tonight’s The Night. We’ll go through 1967’s Spontaneous Combustion and then take a detour to all of the key anthologies and rarities discs!
Tonight’s The Night (Scepter LP 501, 1960 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1196, 2008)
The Shirelles’ very first long-player boasts three songs still well-known today: “Tonight’s the Night,” “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” “Dedicated” was the first single out of the gate in 1959, a cover of a song introduced by The 5 Royales, but it only hit the lower reaches of the Hot 100 for four weeks. (Still, it brought the group back to the charts after a fifteen month absence, during which time Florence Greenberg attempted to secure the group further fame via a Decca label contract. This has been dramatized in Baby, It’s You! When the Decca deal didn’t work out, Greenberg reclaimed the girls and the contract, and launched Scepter.) The next two Scepter singles failed to chart, but their fourth single both established their sound and went Top 40. This was producer and arranger Luther Dixon’s “Tonight’s the Night,” a track which Greenberg initially thought a bit too explicit for single release! When they were soon dispatched to write a song for The Shirelles, Carole King and Gerry Goffin – also of 1650 Broadway – took the concept of “Tonight’s” a step further. The result was “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” a home run. Released in November 1960 with the future Beatles favorite “Boys” on the flip, “Tomorrow” – conducted by Dixon from King’s original demo arrangement – climbed up to pole position, the first chart-topper for Scepter, The Shirelles and the Goffin/King team. (Unfortunately, rights issues preclude the inclusion of this pivotal song in Baby, It’s You!) On the strength of “Tomorrow,” Greenberg re-released “Dedicated,” arranged and conducted by her son Stan Green (nee Greenberg) and her belief in that track paid off when it went all the way to No. 3. Tonight’s the Night is a successful debut LP with other stand-out tracks including “Doin’ the Ronde” (a “sequel” to the girls’ first song, “Met Him on a Sunday (Ronde-Ronde)”) and “Boys.” It’s early girl group pop at its best. Ace reissued Tonight’s the Night, mainly in stereo, with The Shirelles’ next LP in 2008. In 2011, U.K. public domain label Jasmine released The Shirelles and The Evolution of the Girl Group Sound containing the entirety of Tonight’s the Night; this two-disc set has not been remastered from original sources.
Sing to Trumpets and Strings (Scepter LP 502, 1961- reissued Ace CDCHD 1196, 2008)
The Shirelles’ follow-up contained largely unheard material excepting the early single “I Saw a Tear” and both sides of Scepter 1217: topper “Mama Said” (a No. 4 pop hit) and its B-side, “Blue Holiday.” Luther Dixon’s “Mama Said” was a signature song for the group and it still rings true: “Mama said there’d be days like this…” Almost as delicious was Goffin and King’s ready-made follow-up to “Tomorrow.” “What a Sweet Thing That Was” was definitely sweet, but it stalled at No. 51 pop. Stan Green contributed “I Saw a Tear” and Dixon penned six of the album’s 12 tracks, one under the Barney Williams pseudonym. The Shirelles branched out on one song in particular, “Without a Word of Complaint.” Tunesmith George Weiss reworked Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges for this sophisticated workout, and Shirley Owens gave her all on lead vocals. Despite Dixon’s smart originals, a jazzy experiment and a hit in the form of “Mama Said,” Sing to Trumpets and Strings didn’t register on the album charts. Ace reissued the first two Shirelles albums on a two-fer (CDCHD 1196) with 27 tracks, including three early singles. All but 10 of the two-fer’s 27 tracks are in stereo. This is the disc to seek out for the most complete Shirelles in stereo; Sundazed’s 1993 reissue of Trumpets and Strings was entirely in mono whereas Ace presents four of its tracks in stereo.
Baby, It’s You (Scepter LP SPS-504, 1962 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1199, 2008)
“Baby It’s You” began its life as “I’ll Cherish You.” Burt Bacharach and Mack David recorded a demo with a male singer (likely intended for Chuck Jackson or Tommy Hunt) and it found its way to Luther Dixon at Scepter. Dixon punched the song up – likely adding the “Cheat, cheat” in the second verse – and retitled it, retaining Bacharach’s original backing track with the composer at the piano and singing “Sha-la-la-la-la.” Dixon recorded Shirley Owens on the lead vocal, and a hit was born. “Baby It’s You” restored the Shirelles’ commercial fortunes, going Top 10 pop. A Liverpudlian quartet named The Beatles also took a liking to the song, which they recorded (along with “Boys” from the first Shirelles LP!) on their 1963 debut, Please Please Me. As Baby It’s You, the musical, depicts, Florence Greenberg herself co-wrote the next big hit off this LP, “Soldier Boy,” with Dixon. Both tracks help anchor what was the Shirelles’ most consistent album yet. Bob Brass and Irwin Levine’s “A Thing of the Past” recurred from the same single (Scepter 1220) as “What a Sweet Thing That Was.” That pair would go on to write “This Diamond Ring” with Al Kooper! Goffin and King returned for a third Shirelles song, the pleading “Make the Night a Little Longer.” Chuck Berry’s “Twistin’ USA” was one of the final tracks on Baby, It’s You, but the twist craze would come to the forefront on The Shirelles’ next and fourth LP. Ace’s 2008 reissue includes three bonus tracks including the single version of “Baby It’s You.” The single and album versions have distinctly different lead vocals. On the LP version with the alternate vocal, the instrumental backing was in the right channel and the vocal in the left; Ace has mixed this version into mono for the CD reissue, though the rest of the album is in stereo. Sundazed’s 1993 CD reissue is also in stereo.
The Shirelles and King Curtis Give a Twist Party (Scepter LP SPS-505, 1962 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1199, 2008)
When The Shirelles were recording Twist Party in May 1962, King Curtis was charting in the Hot 100 himself with his own “Soul Twist.” But the great saxophonist had played on many Shirelles sessions in the past and so a collaborative album with the girls was a plausible idea. Far more unusual was the fact that Twist Party was the first Shirelles LP not assembled from multiple sources; it was conceived as a “concept album” and recorded as such. While the material may indeed be appropriate for twisting (please let me know if you try…), this was no mere collection of twists. Instead there were covers of Ray Charles (“I Got a Woman” performed by Curtis) and Jessie Hill (“Ooh Poo Pah Doo”), plus the only Otis Blackwell song to be recorded by The Shirelles, “Mister Twister.” Twist Party featured five Luther Dixon copyrights; this would be the final album on which Dixon played a significant role. In an emotional story that provides much of the heart of Baby, It’s You on Broadway, Dixon had become entangled with Florence Greenberg as not only her business partner but her romantic partner, as well. While some still assert that Greenberg was the love of Dixon’s life, the stress of conducting an interracial romance, not to mention Greenberg’s marriage, affected the couple adversely. Twist Party was released to little fanfare in the summer of 1962, and some months later, Dixon departed Scepter for Capitol. The Shirelles were now without a consistent producer and chief songwriter. Ace’s 2008 reissue with Baby, It’s You (CDCHD 1199) presents Twist Party in stereo. Sundazed previously released the album on CD in 1993.
Foolish Little Girl (Scepter LP SPS-511, 1963 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1227, 2009)
The Shirelles followed the hit singles of “Baby It’s You” and “Soldier Boy” with a cover of Doris Day’s “Everybody Loves a Lover” as 1962 ended. “Lover” indicated Florence Greenberg’s willingness to experiment with new styles and writers for the group even as her attention was increasingly being devoted to a new discovery of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a remarkable session vocalist named Dionne Warwick. The Shirelles’ follow-up to “Lover” was a quintessential Brill Building song. Neil Sedaka’s songwriting other half, Howard Greenfield, moonlighted with composer Helen Miller (Inner City) for “Foolish Little Girl,” a sweet, melancholy and irresistible tune which went all the way to No. 4 on the pop chart. “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” was oddly recycled from the last LP, but the rest of the material was new fresh. Van McCoy, then just making a name for himself, contributed two songs to the LP also named Foolish Little Girl, “I Don’t Think So” and “What’s the Matter Baby,” actually co-written with Dixon. It wasn’t Jeff Barry but rather Tony Powers who teamed with Ellie Greenwich for “I Didn’t Mean to Hurt You,” which sounds a little too close for comfort to “Soldier Boy.” Most intriguingly, Sam Cooke produced two tracks for The Shirelles with his manager J.W. Alexander. Of their efforts, the sardonic “Hard Times” is the stronger track, an honest-to-goodness protest song, albeit one laced with humor. Also atypical was their “Only Time Will Tell,” which worked into the offbeat lyric the titles of many past Shirelles hits. Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio’s “Talk is Cheap” also featured on the album, the only song by The Four Seasons’ hitmakers recorded by The Shirelles. Despite the departure of Dixon from Scepter, The Shirelles were still flourishing with New York’s A-list songwriters! Ace reissued Foolish Little Girl in 2009 in mono and stereo (seven tracks mono, five stereo); Sundazed’s 1993 reissue was all-mono. The Shirelles’ next project, though, would find them in Hollywood, and it was paired with Foolish Little Girl for the Ace reissue.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World (Scepter LP SPS-514, 1963 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1227, 2009)
Stanley Kramer’s 1963 Cinemascope extravaganza It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World could hardly be contained even by the widescreen standard of Cinemascope! Florence Greenberg managed to get The Shirelles involved with Kramer’s epic, singing the title song as well as “31 Flavors” and “You Satisfy My Soul,” all three of which reunited the group with Mack David. (Ernest Gold supplied the melodies as composer of the film’s instrumental score.) Very little of The Shirelles’ tracks actually can be heard in the film (“31 Flavors” plays in one sequence as Dick Shawn does a groovy frug) but all three songs showed up on the original soundtrack album as well as this Scepter release of the same name. There was another recycled track on Scepter’s LP (Dixon’s “Boys,” way back from the first album) but otherwise, the contents were largely new – and unrelated to the film. Ed Townsend, one of the producer/writers brought in by Greenberg to replace Dixon, contributed new material and co-produced the film songs. Stan Green, son of Florence, picked up much of the production slack, and even Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were brought in to produce some tracks on the girls. Two of the tracks from the Leiber/Stoller sessions, “The Music Goes Round and Round” and the 1956 Academy Award-winning song “Around the World,” were included. While the film was a hit, the Shirelles’ songs didn’t bask in its success. The album also leaned much more heavily on the pop side of pop/soul than previous efforts, and there was staunch competition from emerging girl groups, not to mention Scepter’s new queen, Dionne Warwick. The Shirelles’ story wasn’t over yet, though. Ace’s 2009 reissue of Mad, Mad World features all of the album’s new tracks in stereo.
Sing the Golden Oldies (Scepter LP SPS-516, 1964 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1262, 2010)
Sing the Golden Oldies was the final studio Shirelles album to be released on the Scepter label proper rather than its budget subsidiary, Pricewise. Like the two Pricewise releases (see below), Golden Oldies was a collection of outtakes from past sessions. It did have a concept or theme, though, with the Shirelles covering songs made famous by their contemporaries. Hence, Doris takes the lead on a terrific “Tears on My Pillow” (Little Anthony and the Imperials) and “Please Be My Boyfriend” (The Cadillacs). Shirley is passionate on “Lonely Teardrops” (Jackie Wilson) and Luther Dixon’s “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” which he’d written for Gene McDaniels. Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him” (The Teddy Bears) also gets a more soulful treatment from Shirley while Doris delivered maybe her best vocal ever on “My Prayer” (The Platters). The most bizarre cover is Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” not ideally suited to the girl group sound! The girls also revisited their self-written, very first song with “Met Him on a Sunday ’64.” Ace’s 2010 reissue (paired with 1967’s live set Spontaneous Combustion) adds “Twist and Shout” (recorded over the original Isley Brothers track, natch) and “Met Him on a Sunday ’66,” another later update. The ’66 version sounds much more “modern” than the ’64 remake, which hewed closely to the original.
Swing the Most (Pricewise LP 4001, 1964 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1239, 2009)
1964 wasn’t a banner year for The Shirelles. With all of the group members now 21, they approached Scepter Records founder Florence Greenberg for royalties and found that there was very little money in the till. Lawsuits began to fly, and as The Shirelles stayed away from the recording studio, Scepter reached into its vaults to issue “new” material during the standstill. The first such “new” LP was Swing the Most, issued on Scepter’s budget subsidiary Pricewise and consisting of vault tracks and old hits. “Foolish Little Girl” and “What a Sweet Thing That Was” were the oldies but goodies, and the other 10 tracks were a treasure trove from some of the biggest and brightest names in songwriting. How these tracks escaped release the first time around remains a mystery! Greenfield and Miller of “Foolish Little Girl” provided “Get Rid of Him” and “His Lips Get in the Way,” both produced by Stan Green. When it looked like The Shirelles’ versions would stay in the can, Miller re-recorded the songs at Colpix with singer Bernadette Castro. “Get Rid of Him” was also recut by Dionne Warwick over the same backing track. This recycling wasn’t uncommon at Scepter, nor elsewhere. Future Motown superstar producer Norman Whitfield’s “Lonesome Native Girl” was first recorded by Detroit’s Sonnettes, but Scepter got a hold of the track and the recorded The Shirelles over the track. The most coveted track on this set is the original “Oh No, Not My Baby.” The backing track was passed on to Maxine Brown, who recorded the definitive version at Scepter. Ace’s 2009 reissue restores Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “That Boy is Messin’ Up My Mind” to the track line-up. Despite being printed on the original album sleeves, the track was lost until 2005, and finally took its place as originally intended on the Ace edition.
Hear & Now (Pricewise LP 4002, 1964 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1239, 2009)
Another budget collection quickly followed Swing the Most. Three tracks reappeared from the previous year’s Foolish Little Girl, and even the cover photo was from the session for that album. Still, Hear & Now offered plenty bang for your buck. It kicks off with Toni Wine and Artie Kornfeld’s “Tonight You’re Gonna Fall in Love with Me,” an up-tempo gem that deserved a better fate. (Wine would go on to write such classics as “A Groovy Kind of Love” and had two songs featured on Swing the Most, too, one of which was co-written with Gerry Goffin!) Van McCoy’s “Maybe Tonight” features the same thumping beat as The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” but the singles actually appeared the same week! “Doomsday” has a Don Covay/Luther Dixon credit, originating from Dixon’s Scepter tenure. The most enduring track on this album is Goffin and King’s “Make the Night A Little Longer,” which first appeared on Baby It’s You. Scepter passed this backing track around its performers, too, with Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson also taking shots at it. Hear & Now was paired with Swing the Most for Ace’s 2009 reissue, and it was also the final Scepter album of studio material from the Shirelles. By the time of its release, The Supremes’ star was in the ascendant and Warwick, with a succession of hit singles from the Bacharach/David team, was the paramount artist on Greenberg’s mind. The Shirelles’ story wasn’t quite over yet, though.
Spontaneous Combustion (Scepter LP SPS-562, 1967 – reissued Ace CDCHD 1262, 2010)
By late 1967, The Shirelles’ era had passed. Scepter did its best to keep the flame alive with the release of this live album, and in contrast to many other “live” recordings of the time, its tracks weren’t sweetened with studio overdubs. Stan Green produced the tracks from a show at New York’s Columbia University, and it featured a nice mix of hit oldies (“Baby, It’s You,” “Mama Said,” “Boys,” “Tonight’s the Night”) with current covers (“Knock on Wood,” “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and even “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction!”) “Satisfaction” is particularly thrilling for Micki’s lead, as she never got the chance to take a lead vocal on a studio album. Beverly doesn’t take any solos on Combustion, and Doris takes a back seat to Shirley, too. The album also preserves the contribution of Ronnie Evans, The Shirelles’ emcee, percussionist, bodyguard and all-around protector. The album is only marred by the inclusion of studio versions of “A Last Minute Miracle” (the group’s first charting single in three years, even if it didn’t restore their fortunes as hoped) and Luther Dixon’s “No Doubt About It” with applause added. Still, 10 of its 12 tracks feature The Shirelles at their onstage best. It’s not hard to see why the group remained such a viable, exciting live act over the years, even after radio success proved elusive; a pivotal scene in Baby, It’s You!, the musical, dramatizes a late-era Shirelles performance attended by Florence Greenberg. Ace’s 2010 reissue combined Spontaneous Combustion with Sing the Golden Oldies.
Anthology 1959-1964 (Rhino RNCD 75897, 1986)
Rhino’s 1986 Anthology was the first major collection of Shirelles material in the CD era. Gary Stewart and Bill Inglot hit all of the major high points over the album’s 16 tracks. Other than “Dedicated to the One I Love” which was presented in mono, all of Anthology’s tracks were remixed from the original session multi-tracks direct to digital with the goal of preserving the sound of the original stereo mixes. Mitchell Cohen’s liner notes tell The Shirelles’ story even beyond their 1968 departure from Scepter, including later, brief stints at Blue Rock, Bell, United Artists and RCA.
The Best of The Shirelles (Ace CDCHD 356, 1992)
Long before launching their comprehensive series of original album reissues, Ace releases this 32-track whopper of an anthology, which is still the best place for any Shirelles fan to start a collection. In addition to all of the major hits (every one of Anthology’s 16 tracks was repeated here), The Best of The Shirelles features many overlooked gems. Best of them is “It’s Love That Really Counts,” a Bacharach and David song produced by Leiber and Stoller in 1962, which didn’t appear on any of the studio albums. There are some exciting later songs, too: 1966’s “Shades of Blue,” 1967’s “Don’t Go Home” produced by Paul Vance and arranged by Hutch Davie, and 1968’s “Wait Till I Give the Signal,” a Bill Sheppard production. All five Top 10 entries and five further Top 40 successes are included here, and The Best of The Shirelles remains the single most essential disc on the group.
Lost and Found (Ace CDCHD 521, 1994)
Ace followed The Best of the Shirelles with this 29-track program, devoted largely to masters never issued by Scepter but rounding out the disc with rare B-sides, album tracks and unissued singles. “Hands Off, He’s Mine” is Maxine Brown’s “Little Girl Lost” with a different set of lyrics, while “Long Day, Short Night” is a Bacharach/David song also tackled by Dionne Warwick. Rudy Clark’s “Good, Good Time” is a winner from the pen of the “Shoop Shoop” man, while future Bread founder David Gates impresses with his beautiful “For My Sake.” While not wholly successful, The Shirelles’ flower-power “Hippie Walk” and “One of the Flower People” are fascinating for their attempts to update the girls’ sound. A few tracks from Swing the Most made their first CD appearance here, but the majority of the tracks on Lost and Found are still only available on this disc, making it the perfect companion to The Best of the Shirelles.
The Very Best of the Shirelles (Rhino R2 71807, 1994)
If 32 tracks on Ace’s best-of seem too much Shirelles for you, Rhino’s 1994 update of Anthology is the next best thing. 14 of the 16 tracks on each release are duplicated. The Very Best includes The Shirelles’ debut single “I Met Him on a Sunday” and Luther Dixon’s 1962 “Welcome Home, Baby” instead of “Sha La La” (later a hit for Manfred Mann) and Van McCoy’s “Maybe Tonight.” Alex Henderson supplies the liner notes here, and Bill Inglot once again remastered the tracks, this time with Ken Perry. While not comprehensive, this collection hits all of the high points in The Shirelles’ impressive, if all too short, studio career. With The Shirelles’ Scepter oeuvre controlled by King Records, the tracks have been licensed to many labels, and there are too many anthologies to mention them all. Two “Honorable Mentions” go to a pair of 25-track sets which fall in between the 32-track Ace set and the 16-track Rhinos. These are Varese Sarabande’s 1999 25 All-Time Greatest Hits and Collectables’ 2008 The Best of The Shirelles.
The Definitive Collection (Charly CPCD 8190-2, 1999)
Charly’s 2-disc The Definitive Collection spans two CDs and 55 tracks, beginning with “Dedicated to the One I Love” and ending with “Hippie Walk,” hitting the chart hits plus key album tracks and other cuts and some otherwise-unavailable rarities such as a “Things Go Better with Coke” commercial spot. Only “I Met Him on a Sunday” is missing due to licensing restrictions. While this set is now out-of-print, it’s the only two-disc Shirelles anthology to date. As such, it has much to offer.
Thanks to efforts like Ace’s definitive reissue series and the Broadway Baby, It’s You! (produced, in part, by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures and Universal Music Group), the golden voices of Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris and Beverly Lee won’t soon be forgotten again. When it comes to The Shirelles, we’ll still love them today, tomorrow and always.