I thought that the Shirelles were dead, which would explain why it took nine days to get in touch with them. But I'm happy to report, they're not. In fact, they're alive--in two incarnations--and some of them will be bringing back the good old days when their endless glad-to-be-working tour creaks to a temporary halt at the Ventura County Fair on Sunday night.
The Shirelles, who had heaps of hits in the early '60s and helped define the girl-group sound, broke up a few years ago. (Micki Harris, one of the original members of the New Jersey-based quartet, died during a 1982 performance.)
The other members scattered. Shirley Allston decided to continue as a solo artist. Beverly Lee became the leader of an East Coast version of the Shirelles. The final original member, Doris Jackson, became leader of her version of the Shirelles. She will be performing at the Ventura County Fair for the first time in three years. This hopes to be a musical reminder of days as innocent as that blank look on Beaver Cleaver's face.
"I moved to California 10 1/2 years ago," Jackson said in a recent phone interview. "After New Jersey, I was looking for anywhere to go. I don't like Southern California at all, but I like Sacramento a lot. I even fish now."
The original Shirelles weren't fishing for hits when they had their five-year roll beginning in 1958. They had six Top 10 hits, including a pair of No. 1s--"Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" and "Soldier Boy."
And those were much simpler times. The only things worth worrying about were what Jackie Kennedy would wear to dinner, who Troy Donahue was dating, ring around the collar and, of course, whether the bomb shelter was deep enough. And the songs were simple too, mostly boy-meets-girl stuff. And brevity was king--the songs were over before you could get tired of them.
"I think our music is still contemporary," Jackson said. "It's not locked in to any particular time period. And you know, during the recent Persian Gulf crisis, they started playing 'Soldier Boy' all the time.
"People still like our songs because of the lyrics. The songs tell a story and people like the melodies. As long as people want to hear '60s music, we'll be around."
The group, at least this version, works a lot. There's always a fair somewhere and there's always somebody asking, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"
"Last week, we did a show in Reno, then we flew to Canada for a couple of shows, then I flew back to Reno to pick up my birthday flowers. Then I rented a car and drove back to Sacramento and tonight I'm catching a red-eye flight to Hopkinsville, Ky. We may have been there before--I don't know; I'll know when I get there."
The Shirelles have, over the years, played with almost everyone everywhere--a full list would be longer than the stream of excuses from a Friday night barroom full of late husbands. And the group is still booked by the Dick Clark Agency, owned by the man who looks younger than rock 'n' roll is.
"Well, you know, we went on a lot of Dick Clark tours, so we've played with just about everybody. Little Richard, Dion, Rick Nelson, all the girl groups--we've performed with them all.
"One time, on the road, we gave the first party for the Supremes when their first song, "Baby Love," became a hit. We were always real tight with all the Motown people even though we ourselves weren't on Motown. We met a lot of the English groups on tour as well such as Peter and Gordon, and we met the Beatles too."
And the Shirelles have survived longer than nearly everyone in the rock 'n' roll biz. They started 33 years ago. By 1967, the group had 22 records that had made the charts.
"We all met in junior high school in Passaic, N. J.," Jackson said. "We all went to high school together, too, where we began singing. A friend of ours, Mary Jane Greenberg, introduced us to her mother, Flo, who owned a record company--get this--for a hobby. We signed with her label, Tiara Records, which later became Scepter and, for a brief moment, we were on Decca. Dionne Warwick sang with us for a while while Shirley was pregnant.
"When we had all those hits, we never really thought about it, we just did it. We lived it, but there was nothing special about all of it. We were more like a family. We went to a lot of places, but our feet never left the ground."
"Tonight's the Night" for the Shirelles and their fans. The shows will be Sunday at 7 and 9 p.m. at the county fair, and the price is right. It is free with fair admission. The Shirelles' current lineup consists of Jackson on lead vocals with Gloria Jones and Fanita James (an original member of the Blossoms) singing harmonies. Since the Shirelles are singers, the ubiquitous Monte Carlos will be the backup band.
"I try to stay out of nightclubs," Jackson said. "I've done enough of that before. I prefer family audiences--that's why we do so many fair gigs and corporation gigs. You'd think that we'd attract a lot of older people, but we get a lot of young and old fans, plus a lot of young kids that know all the words to our songs.
"I enjoy being on stage and giving and receiving the love of the people I'm singing for. Someday, I'd like to get the original members together again. I'd like to do it just for us."