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Shirley Reeves Talks the Early Days of The Shirelles, Breaking Racial Barriers, and What She Wants Fans to Remember

Photo by Robin DiLeo

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Shirley Reeves Talks the Early Days of The Shirelles, Breaking Racial Barriers, and What She Wants Fans to Remember

When the Shirelles released “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1960, they accomplished what no other girl group in the US had done. Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” took the number 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 and signaled in a different kind of era; an era where women had a voice and girl groups would alter the course of history.

The Shirelles quickly became one of the most successful all-female groups with classics like “Tonight’s the Night,” “Soldier Boy,” “Baby, It’s You,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and “Foolish Little Girl.” They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, a long over-do honor for the group whose voice helped shape the 60’s. Their music provided the soundtrack to many lives, mine included.

At 76, original lead singer of the Shirelles, Shirley Alston Reeves, still performs the classics that decades later continue to resonate with millions of fans around the world. Yet despite all the accolades and all the praise, she is unwaveringly humble and genuine. I had the great fortune of interviewing Shirley, and getting the chance to relive history with the person who helped shape it is an honor I’ll forever be grateful for.

Photo by Robin DiLeo

Was music something you always felt you were meant to do?

Music was not in my plans. I was gonna be a beautician. But you know all the kids, the guys, were singing actively on the street corners, and in the basements of the apartment building in the area of our home. And so we decided that we would try it.

Now it was just the two of us though at the time. It was Beverly Lee and myself. And we were babysitting, and we decided that we were gonna get a group together. Because we wanted the pretty harmony like the guys had, but they had groups. So you get that extra voice in there for the harmony. So we knew we needed someone else. We asked our friend, and schoolmate, to join us who was Addie “Micki” Harris. She lived a couple blocks from me, and she did. And we knew that we needed something else. We wanted a good, strong, powerful R&B voice. Now that took us right to the Church, of course. So we asked Doris. And her father was a minister, and at first, he was not too happy about us being in rock and roll music or anything. But anyway, we were doing it for fun; we never dreamt that we would ever be discovered and that things would progress to us having a number one record.

How were you discovered?

They had a talent show going on at school and we volunteered to go ahead and sing on it. At the time, we should’ve been paying attention in school, and we were like doing a little fooling around, singing a little bit. We went out and bought ourselves little skirts alike and blouses alike. I can remember perfectly. The skirts were taffeta and the blouses were nylon. White nylon and black skirts. The blouses were just like the tuxedo shirts the guys had. They were pretty.

We decided then too that we weren’t gonna sing anybody else’s songs, that we were gonna make our own song up. So we did. I remember babysitting, and we were trying to decide how to start to write a song. We walked around, we talked, and then when we didn’t come up with anything special. So you know, I just said, “Well, how about everybody takes a day of the week and just sing a line.” Someone said, “Like what?” I said well like, “Well, I met him on a Sunday,” and then Micki comes in, “And I missed him on a Monday.” The other one came in with, “Saw him on a Tuesday.” And then we put hand claps to it, and we did a little background thing like, “Doo rah, doo rah, doo rah, doo rah, doo rah.” And it came out to be kinda cute! So we sang it at the talent show and definitely not thinking that it was gonna go the way it did. We received a standing ovation. We could not believe it.

Mary Jane Greenberg, a classmate, came flying and running to us, and asked us if we would sing for her mom. Her mom owned a record company, which we never knew.  And it was not a popular company. But in any case, what we did was we would go a different direction home from school to avoid this girl cause she was always running behind me, “Shirley, Shirley, Shirley! Gotta sing for my mother!”

We finally agreed to go and sing for her mom, long story short. And the record company was Tiara then but Florence Greenberg, the president, later on, changed the name to Scepter Records. She liked us and she signed us to a management contract. And then she had us record that song. That’s the real reason she wanted us because her son was a music major. And so she wanted us as a project for Stanley. We did our first record, “I Met Him on a Sunday” on Tiara, and that was in early ’58. But the company was tiny, didn’t really have all the funds to push the record like they needed to. So he [Stan Greenberg] gave us to Decca Records. They re-released it in ’59. It reached the top 50 nationally on Decca.

And that was the beginning for the Shirelles. That’s how it started.

And the rest is history.

It’s been a journey. But we’ve had some of the most beautiful times.

The Shirelles

One of the things I appreciate the most about the Shirelles is that you really broke racial barriers through your music.

I remember when we came into the office one day, me and the girls, the Shirelles, and they were all jumping around, clapping their hands. And we were trying to figure out, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” And they said, “You girls have crossed over.” And we didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. We said, “Crossed over where? To what? What are you talking about?” They said that we crossed over to the pop market. And I said, “Well, what does that mean?” So they were like, “That means you’ll sell a lot of records.”

What did it feel like to pursue a music career in the 60’s?

Things were going so fast. Have you ever mimicked a girl group or somebody and use your hairbrush and sing in the mirror?

I definitely did that. I still do that.

That’s the way that we were feeling. It was like make-believe, like, “Pinch me, I can’t believe this is all happening.” That type of feeling, you know. But enjoying it because meeting with different artists, traveling with them on the bus. Like 30 one-nighters we would do on a bus. If I had to do that now, I guess my back would go out! But we did it many times. We come in town, we’d be home for a couple weeks, and then we’re out on another tour for 30 days. We really combed this country, boy.

And everywhere, some of the kids would try and ask us for strings, they wanna pull your hem. They want a button. I mean, it was almost like that Beatlemania thing. Everybody was going wild. So we’d have to run and get on the bus. On the Dick Clark tour and the other tours we were doing, they’re out there and they’re screaming and they want a souvenir. They want a piece of hair or anything they can get their hands on. But it was funny to us. We were like amazed because we never thought anybody would do all that stuff for us.

November 22, 1963, is a day that lives on in infamy. JFK was assassinated and you had to do a show in London.

I’m telling you, we couldn’t stop crying. We tried to perform. We’re singing, we’re crying. I said, “I wanna go home. I wanna go home.” That’s all I kept saying. “I wanna go home. I wanna go home.” And the audience too, some of them were crying too. It was awful. It was a terrible thing. It was a tragedy and then to have to try to work…Oh, my nerves were just gone. I’m telling you, our nerves were really shot. I said, “I’m through. I’m finished.” You have to focus on your duties. It was an awful time in history, an awful time in my life to experience his death…

What were some of the moments that meant the most to you throughout your career?

Well, we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally in 1996. And we were also inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, and the Doo Wop Hall of Fame up in Boston. And I had the real privilege of being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, along with Sigourney Weaver and the likes of her. I was speechless when they inducted me.

There are many moments though. Our first appearance at the Apollo Theater. We were scared to death cause we didn’t know if they were gonna like us. And we didn’t wanna get booed!

No one wants to get booed at the Apollo!

And we did the first integrated show in Alabama. And the stage collapsed by the way, and people scattered. They had an open field, because nobody really wanted to do it, you know, I suppose. But people brought their chairs and they sat out there in the field. Johnny Mathis was on it. Joey Bishop was there, you know back in the day. And something happened that let the stage break. We ran and got into the car. I think it was Johnny, they grabbed him off the stage, I think, and they got in the car and sped away because nobody knew what was happening. We don’t know if it was sabotage. Nobody knew.

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” went number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100- first time ever by a girl group. It was also ranked as number 126 of Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time. What is it about that song that has resonated so much with the world?

I think because it’s such a story of young love. I’m telling you, everywhere I go and every time that song comes up, the crowd is ready for it. And they’re asking me for it sometimes when I first start. I say, “Ok, I’m gonna get to it!” You know how many times people tell me they had babies to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”? Sometimes they come up to me and say, “I was born because of your song!” I say, “Oh boy! TMI! Too much information, kid!”

And then there’s “Soldier Boy.”

It’s a true tear-jerker. It’s a tear jerker because there are so many lives…I have the people in the audience tell me what branch of the service they’re in. I’ll let them yell it out. And you should hear it from all over the place. Some say the Army. Some say the Air Force. And I thank them all. They sing the song with me. They know it. And I get a chance to talk to them when I come off sometimes. They’ll have a meet and greet, and you can sit and talk with the people. I have heard some of the most fabulous stories and some sad ones and some beautiful ones.

“Soldier Boy” kept them going. Just like you say music builds you up when you’re down? So they were saying that they hang on to that song while their loved one was overseas or in the service and away from home. And that was their song.

And of course, there’s “Dedicated to the One I Love.”

Doris Jackson sang the lead. And actually, she would’ve probably been the lead singer for all of them except for the fact that she did have that gospel sound. If you listen to it, it’s a different kind of sound. It’s more R&B, and they didn’t wanna go that way in the company. But it’s not because she didn’t have the voice, because she had some powerful, beautiful voice.

You have so many great songs; I could probably sing all the words to most of them. What’s your favorite?

Well, I loved “Baby, It’s You.” That’s a Burt Bacharach, Mack David song; they wrote it. I remember when they brought that to me and to the company. I just fell in love with the song right away.

What does it feel like to see and hear people still singing along to your music?

I remember being in England and singing (not with the Shirelles), and I was not prepared for what they wanted. I was singing my songs. I did the main songs and everything that I had recorded. Do you know that these people started demanding songs from albums I hadn’t sung in years! I never used to perform them on stage. But they liked some of the B sides, as it’s called. They said, “We give you the words, you sing!” And I did! I said, “Well, the girls don’t know this, and the band.” They said, “You sing!” I said, “Oh boy! Here we go!” But we had a ball. And that really was an experience for me. They were clapping hands and keeping the beat for me and everything cause the band didn’t have a clue. So much fun. Oh, I get goose pimples, believe me. It makes goose pimples pop up on ya.

Photo by AP

Born in the 40’s and a product of the 50’s and 60’s, you were among some of the most iconic talents in the world. Who were some of the artists you were the fondest of?

Ronnie Spector, I knew her right from the beginning. And Ronnie’s got a terrific sound, unmistakable sound. People say I do too, but I know for sure that she does have it because I love to hear her sing.

I loved my friend, Dionne Warwick. Ruth Brown was very nice and dear to us.

Etta James, when we first started touring, she showed us how to take care of our money and how to spend our money. And she showed us never to go out to any of these parties or anywhere by ourselves. Always stick together and go together. Don’t go anyplace because they knew that we were innocent and didn’t have a clue about the road, what’s going on out there.

After such a successful career that has spanned decades, what keeps you going?

The audiences. Someone said, “Doesn’t it get tiring singing those songs?” I say, “No!” And the response keeps me going. I tell them, when they stand up when I finish singing these songs, I tell them that this is what makes it all worthwhile.

What do you want people to remember about you and the Shirelles centuries from now when they’re still singing your music?

Really that we put our hearts into everything that we did. As a group, I can say that we worked closely together to always make our shows so that they would be fulfilling to the audience. I put my heart into what I’m doing in my work. We loved our work. When you love your work, it shows on stage. Believe me, it shows.

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Keldine Hull is a Los Angeles based entertainment writer, author, and (self proclaimed) poet. The common thread in all her written work is her love of music, television, and film. Her sense of direction is literally non- existent, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a clear goal in life, which is to share the stories that need to be told and (hopefully) brighten up someone's day. She's also a pool shark; she will literally annihilate you in pool and not think twice about it.

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