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The Crystals

If Detroit’s Berry Gordy Jr and his Tamla/Motown/Gordy team had usurped the early-60s girl group market with The MARVELETTES, The SUPREMES and MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS, then it was producer Phil Spector, his “wall of sound” (mainly his Philles acts The CRYSTALS and The RONETTES) that took the fad to a whole new level. Of course, The SHIRELLES had paved the way for the lot of them – and more besides – when they pulled off the genre’s first chart-topper, `Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’.
Formed 1961, in Brooklyn, New York, The CRYSTALS were a choreographed quintet when they took to the stage. All in their mid-teens and not quite so sparkling from the onset, Barbara Alston, Dee Dee Kenniebrew (born Dolores Henry), Mary Thomas, Patricia Wright and Myrna Giraud were taken under the wing of Alston’s uncle Benny Wells, who swapped their high school/church group look for a professional (Brill Building) glean. One almost instant change was the addition of Dolores “LaLa” Brooks (in for Myrna), and the promotion to reluctant front girl of Alston. A meeting with songwriter Leroy R. Bates (whose daughter Crystal inspired the group’s name), their rise to fame of course came via Phil Spector.
A legend in the making, the young producer/would-be mogul had just formed his own label, Philles, together with Lester Sill. Phil relocated to New York shortly after, signing The CRYSTALS before taking up a lucrative A&R position at Liberty Records. In the meantime, the girls dented the Top 20 in autumn ’61 with their debut single, `There’s No Other (Like My Baby)’. The girl group secured a similar sized hit early the following year with the Mann/Weil-penned `Uptown’, a platter that added castanets, strings and guitars.
A controversial third single, `He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’ was released summer ’62, although an airplay ban – due to the well-dodgy abuse-centred subject matter scribed by GOFFIN & KING – kept it off the chart. There was no such problem with the GENE PITNEY-penned `He’s A Rebel’, a massive No.1 that stands as Spector’s first fully realised take on his revolutionary “wall of sound”. Released to pull together their earliest hits, their B-sides and other offerings from Spector and his Brill Building buddies, TWIST UPTOWN (1962) {*6}, sold relatively poorly. Fast-forward several months, HE’S A REBEL (1963) {*7} faired better, but on close inspection it only substituted the duds with the hits.
With Mary out of the picture on marital duties, Spector had controversially assembled an alternative CRYSTALS line-up, comprising lead singer Darlene Love and a couple of fellow ex-Blossoms: Fanita James and Gracia Nitzsche. Almost as controversial, the boss ignored the conventions of record production by packing the sessions with as much crack musicians, instruments and distortion as possible; the result was a thrillingly visceral racket that took teen-dream pop music to a higher plane, and made Spector a millionaire.
The formula was repeated on 1963 hits, `He’s Sure The Boy I Love’ and `Da Doo Ron Ron’, the latter a transatlantic Top 5 which saw the original CRYSTALS (save Thomas) reinstated with LaLa on lead vocals. Another seminal song, `Then He Kissed Me’, completed a stunning hat-trick of major UK hits a few months later (narrowly missing the No.1 spot), while on home-soil it reached #6. Another album to confuse as well as irritate record buyers, was the part compilation, SING THE GREATEST HITS VOLUME 1 (1963) {*6}.
Still reeling from Spector’s antics, Pat upped sticks to get married; she was replaced by Frances Collins. Yet subsequent singles (`Little Boy’ and `All Grown Up’) floundered while Spector concentrated his attentions on his latest baby, The RONETTES. A short-lived deal with United Artists provided a further couple of singles, but with zero success the girls finally called it a day in mid-‘66. Eventually resurfacing in 1971, The CRYSTALS (in various incarnations) would sporadically tour the golden oldie circuit over the forthcoming decades; Dee Dee remained a constant in an all-new touring post-millennium CRYSTALS, alongside Patricia Pritchett-Lewis and Melissa Antoinette Grant.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS Oct2016

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