The Shirelles

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The Shirelles
The Shirelles 1962.jpg
The Shirelles in 1962. Clockwise from top: Addie "Micki" Harris, Shirley Owens, Beverly Lee, and Doris Coley.
Background information
Also known as The Poquellos, Shirley & the Shirelles
Origin Passaic, New Jersey, USA
Genres R&B, rock and roll, doo-wop, pop, soul
Years active 1957–82
Labels Tiara, Decca, Scepter, Bell, RCA; UK: Top Rank, Stateside, Pye International
Members Beverly Lee
Past members Shirley Owens
Doris Coley
Addie Harris McPherson

The Shirelles were an American girl group that achieved popularity in the early 1960s. They consisted of schoolmates Shirley Owens (later Shirley Alston-Reeves), Doris Coley (later Doris Kenner-Jackson), Addie "Micki" Harris (later Addie Harris McPherson), and Beverly Lee. They have been described as either the first African-American girl group to top the Billboard Hot 100, or the first girl group overall, with the song "Will You Love Me Tomorrow".

Founded in 1957 for a talent show at their high school, they were signed by Florence Greenberg of Tiara Records. Their first single, "I Met Him on a Sunday", was released by Tiara and licensed by Decca Records in 1958. After a brief and unsuccessful period with Decca, they went with Greenberg to her newly formed company, Scepter Records. Working with Luther Dixon, the group rose to fame with "Tonight's the Night". After a successful period of collaboration with Dixon and promotion by Scepter, with seven top 20 hits, the Shirelles left Scepter in 1966. Afterwards, they were unable to maintain their previous popularity.

The Shirelles have been described as having a "naive schoolgirl sound" that contrasted with the sexual themes of many of their songs. Several of their hits used strings and baião-style music. They have been credited with launching the girl group genre, with much of their music reflecting the genre's essence. Their acceptance by both white and black audiences, predating that of the Motown acts, has been noted as reflecting the early success of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. They have received numerous honors, including the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, as well as being accepted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and named one of the 100 best acts of all time by Rolling Stone in 2004. Two of their songs, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Tonight's the Night", were selected by Rolling Stone on its list of the greatest songs of all time.

Initial career and success[edit]

A reissue of the Shirelles' first song, "I Met Him on a Sunday"

The group that later became the Shirelles was formed in 1957 by four teenage friends from Passaic, New Jersey,[1] under the name the Poquellos[2] (or Pequellos[3]). The founding members, Shirley Owens (born June 10, 1941), Doris Coley (August 2, 1941 – February 4, 2000), Addie "Micki" Harris (January 22, 1940 – June 10, 1982), and Beverly Lee (born August 3, 1941), entered a talent show at Passaic High School at the suggestion of a teacher. After hearing them sing "I Met Him on a Sunday", a song they had written for the show, their classmate Mary Jane Greenberg convinced the reluctant Poquellos to meet with her mother, Florence, the owner of Tiara Records.[2][4] After several months of avoiding Greenberg and telling her that they were not interested in singing professionally, they were booked to Tiara. By the end of the year they had changed their name to the Shirelles,[1] a combination of the first syllable of Owens' given name and -el, reminiscent of then-popular group the Chantels,[5] after briefly using the name the Honeytunes. That year, they released their first song, "I Met Him on a Sunday"; after local success, it was licensed to Decca Records for national broadcast and charted at #50. The song was influenced by doo-wop, but infused with pop melodies.[6]

Tiara Records, along with the Shirelles' contract, was sold to Decca Records in 1959 for $4,000; Greenberg stayed as the manager, securing performances for the group, including one at the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C.[7] After two singles did poorly, including their first release—with Coley as lead vocalist—of "Dedicated to the One I Love", a cover of the "5" Royales song of the same name,[8] Decca returned them to Greenberg and gave up on them, considering them a one-hit act.[7] On Greenberg's new label, Scepter Records,[1] they re-released "Dedicated to the One I Love" as a single, which peaked at #89; Wayne Wadhams, David Nathan, and Susan Lindsay in Inside the Hits attribute the low rating to poor distribution.[9] In order to better promote the group, Greenberg asked songwriter Luther Dixon, who had previously worked with Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and Pat Boone and co-written the 1959 hit "16 Candles", to write for and produce songs for them. Dixon accepted.[10]

Their first single produced with Dixon, "Tonight's the Night", was released in 1960 and peaked at #39. The success of "Tonight's the Night" led to the girls being booked to perform with several major artists,[9] such as Etta James and Little Richard,[11] and facilitated Scepter's move to a larger office. It was followed by "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", written by husband-wife songwriting team Gerry Goffin and Carole King;[10] the song went on to become the first Billboard number-one hit by an African-American girl group,[12] possibly the first by any girl group.[2] "Tonight's the Night" was later used as the title song for the 1961 album Tonight's the Night, which also included "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Dedicated to the One I Love".[13]

After the success of their singles, the Shirelles became frequent guests of Murray the K, who hosted them on his "All Star Rock Shows" on the New York radio station WINS.[3] During this same period they reissued "Dedicated to the One I Love", which peaked at #3, followed by "Mama Said", then "Baby It's You", written by Burt Bacharach, Luther Dixon, and Mack David, "Soldier Boy",[14] and "Boys", with saxophonist King Curtis.[3]

In 1963 Dixon left Scepter, which presaged a tailing-off of the number of the Shirelles' singles to chart. However, they carried on performing and recording. Dionne Warwick replaced Owens and Coley, who took leave to marry their fiancés, in concerts and the group continued to record material. That year, their song "Foolish Little Girl" reached the pop/R&B Top 10, and they had a cameo in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.[5] However, later in 1963 they learned that the trust, holding their royalties, that they were supposed to receive from Scepter on their 21st birthdays, did not exist.[14] In response, they left the label,[8] and later filed a breach of contract suit against the company. Scepter met this with a countersuit for quitting; both suits were withdrawn in 1965, after an agreement was reached.[15] Knowing that Scepter had lied about the trust disappointed the Shirelles, who felt deceived. In a 1981 interview with Bruce Pollock, Owens said that Greenberg had put on a "mother routine", which the girls had "fall[en] for ... completely".[16]

Later career[edit]

Owens left the group in 1975.

In later years, the Shirelles declined in popularity due to pressure from the British Invasion[5] and the heavy competition from other girl groups, including the Chiffons, the Dixie Cups, the Ronettes, the Supremes, and the Crystals.[14] During this period, Warwick often replaced Coley due to the latter's family commitments. The Shirelles were still bound to Scepter and thus unable to record for another company until the end of their contract[8] in 1966.[15] Their last single to chart was 1967's "Last Minute Miracle",[5] which peaked at #99.[17]

After the commercial failure of their most recent releases, in 1968 Coley left the group to attend to her family. The remaining three Shirelles recorded songs for several labels, including Bell Records, RCA, and United Artists until 1971. Afterwards, they toured singing their older songs, and participated in the filming of the 1973 documentary Let the Good Times Roll,[5] recording two songs for it.[3] Coley returned as lead singer in 1975,[8] replacing Owens, who left that year to pursue a solo career.[18] In 1982 Harris died of a heart attack in the Hyatt Regency after two performances in Atlanta, Georgia, with the group.[5][6][19] The following year, the remaining three original members performed "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" with Warwick on her album How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye.[5]

Afterwards, the original members toured in different, separate, groups,[5] although the trademark to the Shirelles name was eventually acquired by Lee.[20] Lee currently tours with new members as "The Shirelles". Coley died in Sacramento, California on February 4, 2000, of breast cancer.[8][12]

Style[edit]

Wadhams, Nathan, and Lindsay describe the style of the Shirelles early work as "tight, almost doo-wop harmony".[21] Owens' vocals, described by rock n' roll writer Alwyn W. Turner as being "wonderfully expressive", were capable of sounding "almost, but not quite" out of tune, which in his opinion led to Owens' sounding innocent in her songs;[22] music critic Albin Zak describes her vocals as being able to intone desire and vulnerability.[10] The other members, singing backup, also convey what Michael Campbell, a professor of music at Western Illinois University, calls a "naive schoolgirl sound".[4] The lyrics sung by the Shirelles tended to be fairly simple and "barely" concealed the subtexts of the songs. The songs were implicitly directed at female listeners, with the male subjects of songs being referred to as "he" instead of "you";[22] this was a change from previous female-written songs, which tended to be more gender neutral, and helped pave the way for the "confessional" songs of 70s singers like Joni Mitchell and Carole King.[4][23]

Musically, their works with Dixon were influenced by Brazilian baião and featured numerous instances of syncopation.[10]

Influences[edit]

Steve Huey of Allmusic notes that the Shirelles defined "the so-called girl group sound with their soft, sweet harmonies and yearning innocence", with their songs predating Motown in their widespread crossing of racial demographics, both in the US and in Britain. He also notes that they spawned "legions of imitators", and laid a blueprint for future female pop stars to follow.[5] Turner writes that the Shirelles "launched [the girl group] genre", noting that their early work already included "the essence" of the genre;[22] Alwyn Zak expands on the statement, noting that the influx of female groups started after the success of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow".[24]

Michael Campbell notes that the Shirelles' success reflected the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He indicates that works such as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", written by a white couple, produced by an African-American man, with vocals by young African-American women and strings sounding like they were targeted at a white audience, conveyed a "color-blind" message on top of its more obvious sexual one.[4]

Accolades[edit]

In 1994, the Shirelles were honored by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation with the Pioneer Award for their contributions to music.[25] The award was accepted by Owens, Lee, and Kenner. As Coley was accepting her award, she said "This is dedicated to the one I love", and sang an impromptu rendition of "Soldier Boy" together with Owens and Lee.[6] Two years later they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, together with Gladys Knight and the Pips. At the ceremony in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the three surviving members sang a medley of songs after being presented the awards by Merry Clayton, Marianne Faithfull, and Darlene Love.[26] In 2002, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Lee and Owens accepted the award.[27]

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked them #76 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Paul Shaffer, who did the write-up, wrote that the girl-group sound, originated by them, was "everything to [him]"; he also described their impromptu performance of "Soldier Boy" as inspiring.[6] They also included two of the Shirelles' songs, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Tonight's the Night", on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In the 2010 edition, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" was ranked 126th, while "Tonight's the Night" was ranked 409th.[28]

In September 2008, the Shirelles' hometown of Passaic honored the group by renaming a section of Paulison Avenue between Passaic and Pennington Avenues (the section where Passaic High School is located) "Shirelles Boulevard". The dedication ceremony was attended by both surviving Shirelles. Owens said that it was different than when they were inducted into the Hall of Fame, as it was their home town. She noted that "the people who loves [sic] us and we loved are right here."[29]

Stage musical[edit]

Main article: Baby It's You!

The Shirelles' story was shown in Baby It's You!, a musical revue written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, which follows the story of Greenberg and Scepter Records.[30] The show opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre and was directed by Sheldon Epps and starring Beth Leavel as Florence.[31] Christina Sajous played Owens, Erica Ash played Harris, Kyra DaCosta played Lee, and Crystal Starr Knighton played Coley.[32] The use of their likenesses without permission led to Lee, as well as the estates of Coley and Harris, to sue Warner Bros.[20] The revue had a run of 148 performances, opening at the Broadhurst Theatre on April 27, 2011 and closing on September 4 of the same year.[32]

The show received mixed to negative reviews. Entertainment Weekly's Clark Collis gave the musical a "B-" rating.[33] Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called it "dismal"[34] and Steven Suskin of Variety wrote that it had "a tunestack only one quarter as imperishable" as Jersey Boys.[35] The musical received some positive recognition; Leavel was nominated for both a Tony[36] and Drama Desk Award for best leading actress.[37]

Discography[edit]

Albums[edit]

Year Album Billboard 200 Record Label
1961 The Shirelles Sing to Trumpets and Strings Scepter Records
Tonight's the Night
1962 The Shirelles and King Curtis Give a Twist Party
Baby It's You 59
1963 Foolish Little Girl 68
1965 Hear and Now Pricewise Records
Swing the Most
1967 Spontaneous Combustion Scepter Records
1971 Happy and in Love RCA Records
1972 The Shirelles
1973 Eternally, Soul Scepter Records

Compilation Albums[edit]

Year Album Billboard 200 Record Label
1963 The Shirelles' Greatest Hits 19 Scepter Records
1964 The Shirelles Sing the Golden Oldies
1967 The Shirelles's Greatest Hits Vol. II
1972 Remember When Volume 1 Wand Records
Remember When Volume 2
1975 The Very Best of The Shirelles United Artists Records
1984 Anthology 1959-1964 Rhino Records

Singles[edit]

"Tonight's The Night" was their first song to break the Top 40
"Will You Love Me Tomorrow" was the Shirelles' first Number 1 hit
"Last Minute Miracle", the last single by the Shirelles to chart
Year Single Chart positions[17]
US US
R&B
UK
1958 "I Met Him On a Sunday (Ronde-Ronde)" 49
1959 "Dedicated to the One I Love" 83
1960 "Tonight's the Night" 39 14
"Will You Love Me Tomorrow" 1 2 4
1961 "Dedicated to the One I Love" (reissue) 3 2
"Mama Said" 4 2
"A Thing of the Past" / 41 26
"What a Sweet Thing That Was" (B-side) 54
"Big John (Ain't You Gonna Marry Me)" 21 2
"Baby It's You" / 8 3
"The Things I Want To Hear (Pretty Words)" (B-side) 107
1962 "Soldier Boy" / 1 3 23
"Love Is a Swingin' Thing" (B-side) 109
"Welcome Home, Baby" / 22 20
"Mama, Here Comes the Bride" (B-side) 104
"Stop the Music" / 36
"It's Love That Really Counts (In the Long Run)" (B-side) 102
"Everybody Loves a Lover" 19 15
1963 "Foolish Little Girl" / 4 9 38
"Not For All the Money In the World" (B-side) 100
"Don't Say Goodnight and Mean Goodbye" 26
"What Does a Girl Do?" 53 *
"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" / 92 *
"31 Flavors" (B-side) 97 *
1964 "Tonight You're Gonna Fall In Love With Me" 57 *
"Sha-la-la" 69 *
"Thank You Baby" 63 *
"Maybe Tonight" / 88 *
"Lost Love" (B-side) 125 *
"Are You Still My Baby" 91 *
1965 "March (You'll Be Sorry)" 108
"My Heart Belongs To You" 125
1966 "Shades of Blue" 122
1967 "Don't Go Home (My Little Darlin')" 110
"Last Minute Miracle" 99 41

| * no RnB Charts printed by Billboard during these chart runs

References[edit]

Footnotes
Bibliography

External links[edit]