It’s an early “Happy New Year” from Real Gone Music, as the label has just announced its January 6 slate! Look for a full rundown soon on a super slate featuring two classic RCA albums from The Main Ingredient, the complete Atlantic recordings of Jackie Moore (Sweet Charlie Babe), a hilarious (and need we say profane?) comedy classic from Redd Foxx, a vintage 1981 Grateful Dead concert, and two soundtracks from the films of auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky! Full details are coming up, but we’re first taking a look at a recent release from The Shirelles!
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 family of labels – 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 the quartet – Shirley Alston, Beverly Lee, Doris Coley (Kenner) and Addie (Micki) Harris – “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. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Baby It’s You,” “Soldier Boy” and “Foolish Little Girl” were just a few of the triumphs of The Shirelles. But the times they were a-changin’, and the group’s lawsuit against Greenberg over allegedly unpaid royalties led them to be considered persona non grata around Scepter. With Doris Kenner’s departure in 1966, The Shirelles were a trio, and in 1968, the label dropped them altogether. Further singles followed for Blue Rock, Bell and United Artists before their signing to the venerable RCA label in 1971 for a pair of albums which have just received their first-ever reissues from Real Gone Music and SoulMusic Records on one CD: Happy and in Love and Shirelles.
Happy and in Love aimed for a modern R&B sound and appropriately upped the funk quotient from the girls’ earlier singles. Perhaps it wasn’t a radical enough reinvention to have succeeded in a major way, but Happy, like its follow-up Shirelles, makes for a completely enjoyable listen in this sterling two-for-one package. Producer Randy Irwin assembled the album with tracks culled from Bell and United Artists as well as new recordings. The album’s sole single was “No Sugar Tonight,” a loose and brassy reworking of The Guess Who’s hit single (likely not coincidentally also on RCA). It was backed by a song from The Ice Man, Jerry Butler, written and recorded during his Philadelphia days. “Strange, I Still Love You,” co-written by MFSB member and ace producer-arranger Norman Harris, was swathed in luxuriant strings by arranger George Andrews for The Shirelles; it’s one of the strongest cuts on the LP.
There are other Philly connections on Happy and in Love. A second Jerry Butler song was tackled via the dramatic “Go Away and Find Yourself,” a former Bell Records release co-written with the legendary Kenny Gamble. “Boy You’re Too Young” was written by Gamble with Thom Bell and Archie Bell (no relation to each other or the label!) and has that familiar Philly-soul swing. More urgent is “There’s Nothing in This World,” with strings vying for supremacy with drums, and the Motown/Stax meld of Jr. Walker’s “Gotta Hold On to This Feeling” with Eddie Floyd’s “I’ve Never Found a Boy” (or a “Girl,” in Floyd’s original.)
After the jump: more on Happy and in Love, plus Shirelles!
The Shirelles also revived “Dedicated to the One I Love,” a No. 3 hit for the group – then a foursome – in 1961. (The first version was recorded in 1957 by The 5 Royales, of which co-writer Lowman Pauling was a member.) By 1971, the song may have been more closely associated with The Mamas and the Papas, and both their recording and The Shirelles’ original feel more effortlessly dynamic than this breathy remake arranged by Joe Scott. Another girl group classic was revisited, too, this time with arranger George Andrews: The Royalettes’ shimmering 1965 “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.” “Miracle” is more effective than “Dedicated,” with The Shirelles’ interpretation somewhere in between the thunderous drama of the Royalettes’ original and the lighter-than-air, velvety version that was a hit in 1982 for Deniece Williams and co-producer/arranger Thom Bell. Both “Dedicated” and “Miracle” previously appeared on United Artists singles. Lou Stallman, co-writer of “Miracle” with Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein, also contributed the catchy “We Got a Lot o’ Lovin’ to Do” to Happy and In Love.
A year later, in 1972, RCA issued the simply-titled Shirelles, perhaps signaling yet another new beginning for the group. Randy Irwin once again produced the LP, but this time the arrangements were the work of Wade Marcus (Bobbi Humphrey, Grant Green) and David Van De Pitte (Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On). The songs were more familiar this time out, too, with three songs from Carole King, and covers of other contemporary popular hits by Gaye, Bill Withers, Al Green, Joe Simon and the Bee Gees. Notably, Shirley Alston received a “Lead Vocals” credit.
The album’s pop-soul sound is introduced right away with Van De Pitte’s driving chart for Carole King’s “Brother, Brother,” also recorded by The Isley Brothers in 1972. Though King didn’t participate in Shirelles, it was a reunion of sorts, as The Shirelles had given the Tapestry artist her very first No. 1 with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1961; it was also The Shirelles’ first chart-topper. The Shirelles had the misfortune of covering King’s “It’s Going to Take Some Time” (like “Brother, Brother” from King’s Music LP) in the same year as The Carpenters. If it’s hard to erase the memory of Karen Carpenter’s touching vocal on the song, Alston and Van De Pitte do right by the supremely wistful melody. Carole wrote “Walk on In,” but the funky song was introduced by her friend Merry Clayton in 1971 and later recorded by Lou Rawls.
The sensual “Deep in the Night” originated not on a record but in the Broadway musical Inner City which had a 97-performance run between late 1971 and early 1972 and was recorded by RCA. The smoldering ballad, delivered beautifully here, was written by poet-lyricist Eve Merriam and composer Helen Miller; Brill Building stalwart Miller had penned “Foolish Little Girl” with Howard Greenfield for The Shirelles back in 1963, which notched a Top 5 hit for the girls.
Van De Pitte layered horns, strings and funky guitar on an “Ain’t No Sunshine” that’s less lean than in Bill Withers’ original rendition; Alston, always a soulful singer, does well with the tune without ever resorting to histrionics or heavy drama. Ditto on the low-key “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” introduced by the Bee Gees in 1971. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” takes on a coquettish air in The Shirelles’ recording, with a strong, seductive arrangement from Marcus. A return to the Gamble and Huff songbook yielded a solid version of “Drowning in the Sea of Love,” a No. 3 R&B hit which barely averted the Pop Top 10 at No. 11 in 1972. Perhaps the most daring cut on Shirelles is the closing medley for which Van De Pitte returned to “Mercy, Mercy Me,” “Inner City Blues” and “What’s Going On.” Shirley, Beverly and Micki sound completely invested in Marvin Gaye’s socially-conscious trio, with Alston handling the impassioned leads and Beverly and Micki adding ethereal harmonies.
Two more 45s followed for “The Shirelles Featuring Shirley Alston,” the first pairing the album cut “Deep in the Night” with “Let’s Give Each Other Love,” co-written by producer Irwin. Its jazz-inflected saxophone and breezily irresistible feel should have scored a hit, but it continued The Shirelles’ lack of success at RCA. So did their final 1973 release, “Do What You’ve a Mind To” b/w “Touch the Wind (Eres Tu).” These three sides make fine additions to this complete collection of The Shirelles’ RCA recordings. Alas, these were the final two albums from The Shirelles, although Shirley Alston Reeves “graduated” to a solo career and Doris Kenner and Beverly Lee both performed in iterations of the group. A happy reunion occurred in 1983 when the group, sans Micki Harris who had died in 1982, joined Dionne Warwick for a nostalgic reprise of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” on Warwick’s How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye album.
David Cole provides the fine and detailed liner notes for this exemplary package, superbly remastered by Maria Triana at Sony’s Battery Studios. The booklet features the front and back cover artwork for both titles plus images of their labels, although the CD itself doesn’t replicate the orange RCA artwork that originally graced the LPs. With Happy and in Love/Shirelles, SoulMusic Records and Real Gone Music have raised the curtain on two of the least-known recordings by one of the most famous, and beloved, girl groups of all time. You’ll be Happy should you check these rare gems by the Shirelles out!