There’s a lot of talk about girl groups, and rightfully so. Girl groups made some great music in the ’60s. But if you ever try to journey back to where it all started it’s inevitable that you will run into the Shirelles as you’re passing through Passaic, New Jersey. They were still at Passaic High School when they got together in 1957 in order to perform at the school talent show. The original lineup was Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Micki Harris, and Beverly Lee. They called themselves the Poquellos and performed a song that they had written called “I Met Him on a Sunday.” One school friend was so impressed that she introduced the group to her mother Florence Greenberg who had a small record label called Tiara.
Greenberg was impressed too, so impressed that she not only signed the group to her label, she became their manager, and changed their name to the Shirelles, which was a play on Shirley Owens’ first name combined with the name of the doo wop group the Chantels. Greenberg then released a single of “I Met Him on a Sunday,” which she licensed to Decca Records. The Shirelles had a Top 50 hit with their first record in 1958.
The future looked bright indeed for the Shirelles, but then their next two singles flopped. Decca bailed out on the deal and Greenberg started a new label called Scepter. She then brought in Luther Dixon, who had worked with Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, and Perry Como, to produce the Shirelles. The last piece of the hit-making puzzle was in place.
In 1960, just before Dixon came on board, the Shirelles released “Dedicated to the One I Love,” which was another flop at the time. They followed that with Dixon’s first production for the Shirelles, “Tonight’s the Night,” which wasn’t exactly a smash but did manage to creep into the Top 20 on the R&B chart. The song was written by Dixon and Owens and addressed a young woman’s fear of losing her virginity, a theme that would continue to run through the group’s next record. As you might imagine, the subject matter was shocking for the time.
“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, plowed similar lyrical ground and served as the follow-up to “Tonight’s the Night.” It was a smash, reaching #1 on the pop chart, and #2 on the R&B chart. The popularity of that record convinced Greenberg to reissue “Dedicated to the One I Love” and the second time was the charm as that single rose to #3 on the pop chart.
The hit train kept rolling with the Shirelles next single “Mama Said” which made it to #4. A couple of subsequent singles didn’t do as well, but later in 1961 along came “Baby It’s You” at #8, and “Soldier Boy,” another #1 smash.
The Shirelles legacy was assured at that point, and they weren’t done yet, but there was beginning to be competition from other girl groups, and it wouldn’t be long before the British Invasion changed everything, and not for the better for many American artists. In 1962 the Shirelles released “Everybody Loves a Lover,” which was a Top 20 record, and “Foolish Little Girl” which was a #4 hit. It was the last big record they would ever have.
The Shirelles continued to release singles into 1967. They all managed to make the Top 100, but none of them had anything like the success that the group had previously. In addition to the other pressures, the Shirelles had to deal with Dixon leaving Scepter in 1963. Dixon’s departure was certainly a key factor in the Shirelles’ change of fortune.
Keep in mind that the Shirelles were still kids through all of their success. Greenberg had promised to hold all of their money in trust until they turned 21. When they reached that age, guess what, there was no trust fund. There were suits and counter-suits, and in the end, a settlement, but trust had been deeply shaken.
As groups like the Chiffons, the Ronettes, the Supremes, and the Crystals rose to prominence, the Shirelles became something of an afterthought. One interesting note is that at one point Owens and Coley left the group to get married and they were replaced by fellow New Jerseyan Dionne Warwick, who is featured on “Foolish Little Girl.” Coley and Owens would return, but Warwick continued to fill in from time to time.
In 1968, the well having dried up, Coley left the Shirelles again. The remaining trio continued touring their hits, and recording for several labels. Coley came back in 1975 to replace Owens, who left to try for a solo career. In 1982 the Shirelles were performing in Atlanta when Harris died from a heart attack. There have been different groups of Shirelles over the years, but Lee eventually won the ownership of the name and she continues to tour with the modern day Shirelles. Coley died of breast cancer in 2000.
In 1996 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came calling and the Shirelles were inducted that year along with Gladys Knight & the Pips. The Shirelles have also been honored by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone ranked them #76 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Perhaps the most meaningful honor came in 2008 when the City of Passaic renamed the street where Passaic High School is located Shirelles Boulevard. Sadly, only Owens (now Shirley Alston-Reeves) and Lee remained to accept the honor.