In the early ’50s, Arlene Smith was attending St. Anthony of Padua School in the Bronx, along with Sonia Goring, Rene Minus, Jackie Landry, and Lois Harris. The five girls banded together and called themselves the Chantels, a name they got from a rival school called St. Frances de Chantal.
I’ve written a lot in this column about artists who began their careers singing gospel music in church. That wasn’t the case with the Chantels. In fact, they were more influenced by classical music and the Latin hymns they sang in school. In 1957 the group was discovered by Richard Barrett who sang in a group called the Valentines, and soon after that they signed with George Goldner’s End Records.
The group’s first release for End was “He’s Gone.” The single, written by Smith, was released in August 1957, and did respectable business, reaching #71 on the Pop chart. It was the next Chantels single, “Maybe,” that made them stars. The record was released in December, 1957, and by the beginning of 1958 it was #15 on the Pop chart, #2 on the R&B chart, and had sold a million copies.
“Every Night (I Pray)” was the follow-up single, and it managed to scrape into the Top 40, a target that the next Chantels single, “I Love You So,” barely missed. “Summer’s Love,” released in 1959 didn’t do nearly as well, just managing to get into the Top 100. The failure to repeat the kind of success the group had with “Maybe” led to them being dropped by End Records at the end of 1959.
Smith left to begin a solo career. Harris went off to college. In 1960 Annette Smith, no relation to Arlene, joined the group, and they signed with Carlton Records. Their first single for the label was “Look in My Eyes,” and it was another smash for the group, reaching #14 on the Pop chart and #6 on the R&B chart in 1961. The follow-up single was called “Well I Told You,” and was a response to the Ray Charles song “Hit the Road Jack.”
The Chantels soldiered on through the ’60s with changes of personnel, and record labels. The group’s constants were Landry, Goring, and Minus, and in 1970, Arlene Smith returned to record a one-off single with them, and then formed her own version of the Chantels with Carol Douglas and Louise Bethune. Smith also continued her solo career. In 1995, the original Chantels, minus Smith, got back together with Amy Ortiz as their lead singer. On the PBS show Doo Wop 50, the original group reunited again, this time without Jackie Landry, who had died in 1997.
The Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Chantels in 2002. A year earlier their name began appearing on the ballots for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They failed to make the final cut until 2010, when they were finally inducted.