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He’s So Fine
"We took 'He's So Fine’ to ten record companies. Ten companies turned it down. The eleventh company we went to was a little company called Laurie Records. We played it and they locked the doors and said, 'You're not getting out of here. We want that record.' They wouldn't let us out unless we made a deal with them.” Jay Siegal, producer of He’s So Fine. (1)
Seventeen year-old songwriter Ronnie Mack was working with a group in the Bronx by the name of Little Jimmy & the Tops who released a song written by Mack titled Puppy Love in late 1961. The song and the group didn’t go far.
Mack, with a satchel full of songs, turned his attention to a group of three high school girls from nearby James Monroe High School that he discovered a year earlier. The group consisted of 14-year old Judy Craig (born in 1946), Patricia Bennett (born in 1947) and Barbara Lee (born in 1944). Mack heard the girls singing in the school cafeteria, liked what he heard and the songwriter eventually became their manager.
For Mack, it was an uphill climb as none of the girls had previously sung in a group nor were they interested in pursuing a musical career. They sang for fun and were more influenced by Nina Simone and Nancy Wilson than current pop records. Mack persisted and eventually had the girls record some demos of his songs he had written. He also convinced them to add Sylvia Peterson, who sang with Little Jimmy & the Tops.
While the girls were busy with high school and finding jobs, Mack was pounding the New York streets in an attempt to sell his songs. Eventually, Mack found Bright Tunes Publishing, located in the Mutual of Omaha Building at Broadway and 54th. Bright Tunes consisted of four members—Jay Siegal, Hank Medress, Phil Margo and his brother, Mitch Margo—professionally known as The Tokens.
The vocal group had a #1 hit in 1961 with The Lion Sleeps Tonight. It led to a one-year, ten record deal for the group with another company, Capitol Records--not for recording, but for producing! "They thought we knew how to produce records because we'd had a hit record," Jay Siegal explained. "Of course, we didn't know how to produce... but we learned while we were there." The Tokens set up their own office in New York City and produced nine records for Capitol. They all flopped. There was only one record left in their deal. (1)
Siegal was impressed when Mack walked into his office with a composition book full of his songs. “They had the most incredible lyrics; not intellectual lyrics, but just the things that people speak of in everyday language. Most people don't have the talent to write them down as music, but he did. He's So Fine was one of the songs, but that's not the one we wanted to do. We thought Oh My Lover, the other side of the record, would be the A-side.” (1)
With contract in hand, Mack brought the girls to Capitol Studios in New York for a recording session. Bright Tunes had blown through their production budget and had to finance the session with their publishing money and they played the instruments on the session themselves with the help of drummer, Gary Chester. Hank Medress recalled the situation “We already spent our $12,000 budget Capitol gave us to produce singles, so we went in and recorded it on our demo budget for the publishing company. It was the first time we ever played our own instruments on a record. I didn't even know how to play bass!” (2)
L-R: Barbara Lee, Sylvia Peterson, Judy Craig and Patricia Bennett
Photo courtesy of Stan Allan Personal Management
Three songs were recorded at the session in August of 1962—He’s So Fine, Oh My Lover and another song that no one seems to recall. Jay Siegal did recall this fact. “He's So Fine didn't open with 'doo-lang, doo-lang' at first. It was just in the background. But the staff engineer at Capitol, a guy named Johnny Cue said, 'Why don't you start the song like that?' So we put 'doo-lang' in front of the song.
Even with the catchy phrase with the doo-lang’s in the background, Bright Tunes opted for Oh My Lover to be the A-side because it reminded them of the Tokens’ first hit, Tonight I Fell In Love. In time, it was evident the A-side would be He’s So Fine. But not everyone was convinced the song would be a hit.
“We thought it was a terrific record and brought it to Capitol--the last song of our deal. Voyle Gilmore was the president of Capitol at the time. He turned it down. He said, ‘We don't like the record. It's too trite, it's too simple.' So our deal with Capitol records was over,” recalled Jay Siegal. (1)
“They wrote us a letter to tell us how bad it stunk," said Philip Margo. "Then Victor turned it down, Columbia turned it down, ABC-Paramount turned it down. The master stayed in the can for six months before a small, independent company named Laurie took it." (3)
“I started with all the majors - RCA, MCA, Columbia - then I went to the small labels at 1650 Broadway, the Brill Building , 1697 Broadway - everybody turned me down! Finally, I went to a little record company that was off the beaten track, Laurie Records. I played the record for Bob and Gene Schwartz. They locked the door and wouldn't let me out until we made a deal!” remembered Hank Medress. (2)
He’s So Fine was released in December of 1962. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on February 23rd, 1963 (4) and climbed its way to #1 on March 30th where it perched for the next four weeks. (5) The song also hit #1 on the R&B chart. (6)
Shortly after the song hit #1, Ronnie Mack collapsed on the street and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital. He had been ill with Hodgkin's Disease and had not told anyone. The Tokens presented him with a gold record in his hospital room and a short time later, he passed away. (7) At a music/songwriters convention in 1964, Louise Mack, Ronnie’s mother, gave a impassioned speech about her son upon accepting an award for He's So Fine. Songwriters Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland attended the event and were so moved by the speech, they wrote the song Jimmy Mack, a 1967 hit for Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, in Ronnie Mack’s honor.
The Chiffons next top ten hit was One Fine Day, penned by the songwriting duo of Carole King and Gerry Goffin which peaked at #5 on July 13th. (5) The Tokens were looking for a follow-up song and heard a demo performed by Little Eva with The Cookies singing backup. The Tokens used the same tracks, erased Eva’s vocals, intermingled The Chiffons and The Cookies vocals on the beginning backgrounds and recorded over the rest leaving just King’s piano intro. (8)
The Chiffons third and final Top Ten song was Sweet Talkin’ Guy, which landed at #10 on June 25th, 1966. (5) Overall, The Chiffons scored a total of twelve songs on the Billboard Hot 100. (4) Like many other groups that found success before the scope of rock and roll changed with the British Invasion, The Chiffons popularity waned as the group would drift into rock and roll history…at least until 1971.
On February 10, 1971, Bright Tunes Music Corporation filed suit alleging the then current George Harrison hit, My Sweet Lord, was a plagiarism of He's So Fine. The case did not go to trial until February of 1976 when the judge ruled on the liability portion of the suit in favor of Bright Tunes, determining that Harrison had committed "subconscious" plagiarism. The suit to determine damages was scheduled for November 1976 but delayed until February 1981, by which time Allen Klein, Harrison's onetime manager who had been his legal adviser in the first phase of the suit, had become the plaintiff by virtue of purchasing Bright Tunes. The final decision was that Harrison himself would purchase Bright Tunes from Klein for $587,000—the amount Klein had paid for the corporation—and although litigation continued for at least ten more years that decision was upheld. (9)
Since there were no live performances found on YouTube, enjoy the enhanced sound quality.
1) Shannon, Bob, Wayback Machine, Behind The Story, Link.
2) Wayne, Artie, Hangin' in: Spectropop presents Hank Medress, 2006, Link.
3) Songfacts, He’s So Fine by The Chiffons, Link.
4) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 128.
5) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
6) Whitburn, Joel, Joel Whitburn Presents Top R&B Singles 1942-1999, Page 78.
7) Bronson, Fred, The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, 1985, Page 127.
8) Clemente, John, Girl Groups: Fabulous Females Who Rocked The World, June 24, 2013. Page 103.
9) Wikipedia, He’s So Fine, Link.
L-R: Sylvia Peterson, Patricia Bennett, Barbara Lee and Judy Craig.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss