The Shirelles

  • Biography:

    One of the first of the late-50s and early-1960s girl groups and among the few to write their own hits, the Shirelles were also one of the most enduring. The four girls began singing together at school shows and parties. A classmate, Mary Jane Greenberg, heard them singing one of their compositions, "I Met Him on a Sunday." Mary Jane convinced them to bring the song to her mother, Florence, who was in the music business. The Shirelles auditioned in Florence Greenberg's living room and were signed to Greenberg's Tiara label. In early 1958 "I Met Him on a Sunday" had garnered so much airplay that Decca Records bought it; it was on the pop chart for over two months, reaching #49. Greenberg formed her own independent Scepter Records and in 1959 she released the Shirelles' cover of the Five Royales' "Dedicated to the One I Love." Without a national distributor, the disc only reached #83 on the pop chart. In 1960 the Shirelles scored with "Tonight's the Night" (#39 pop, #14 R&B), a song cowritten by lead vocalist Shirley Owens and produced by her cowriter, Luther Dixon, formerly of the Four Buddies.

    Within a year, the Shirelles had their first #1 pop hit (#2 R&B) with the Carole King–Gerry Goffin composition "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" Scepter rereleased "Dedicated to the One I Love," and it joined "Will You" in the Top 10 for a while early in 1961.

    The Shirelles became regulars on disc jockey Murray the K's Brooklyn all-star rock shows. In mid-1961 "Mama Said" (by Dixon and W. Denson) reached #4 pop, #2 R&B, and early in 1962 "Baby It's You" (by Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Barney Williams) went to #8 pop, #3 R&B. A few months later, "Soldier Boy," a first take recorded initially as album filler, became their second #1 pop single (#3 R&B) and their biggest seller. Then Dixon (who had cowritten "Soldier Boy") left Scepter, precipitating the Shirelles' decline, although their first post-Dixon single, "Foolish Little Girl," went to #4 pop, #9 R&B in 1963.

    In 1963 the Beatles covered the Shirelles' "Baby It's You" and "Boys" on their first U.K. LP. The Shirelles continued to perform and record, finally breaking up in the late '60s, then re-forming, sometimes with different members, in the early '70s to play revival concerts. Their later career was no doubt stymied by a contractual provision that prohibited any member who left the group from ever using the Shirelles name.

    In 1994, at a Rhythm & Blues Foundation awards ceremony, the three surviving members sang together for the first time in 19 years. Addie Harris had died in 1982 of a heart attack. Shortly thereafter, the remaining original members reunited, sang on a Dionne Warwick album, and began performing again in various reunited permutations. In 1996 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Doris Coley (by then, Doris Kenner-Jackson) died of breast cancer in 2000.

    This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).