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The Shirelles

Will You Love Me Tomorrow

It was at a talent show in May of 1957 at Passiac High School in New Jersey that four teenage girls, Shirley Owens, Beverly Lee, Addie "Micki" Harris, and Doris Coley made their first singing appearance as The Poquellos, (a name they made up in Spanish class). In the audience was classmate Mary Jane Greenberg who witnessed how the group just tore up the assembly at the racially integrated school performing a self-written song I Met Him On A Sunday.

Greenberg approached the girls about meeting her mother Florence Greenberg who had just started her own record label, Tiara Records. The group resisted Greenberg’s approaches but eventually showed up at the Greenberg home for an audition. Mother Greenberg was so impressed with the group, and especially with lead singer Shirley’s voice, she signed the group (with their parents permission) to record the song for Tiara.

Unhappy with the group’s name, Florence suggested The Honeytones, a name that was quickly rejected by the girls. So, Greenberg took the “Shir” from Shirley and “els” from The Chantels, the girls most-admired group, combined them and The Shirelles were born.

Backed by cash from Greenberg, The Shirelles recorded I Met Him On A Sunday and it was released on the Tiara label in 1958. Florence, knowing she couldn’t promote the song like a major label could, leased the song to Decca Records. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 21, 1958, stayed on the list for ten weeks and peaked at #49. (1)

Looking for some much-needed cash flow, Greenberg sold the label and the Shirelles contract to Decca for $4000. Decca had the group produce two follow-up singles with Doris in the lead and both flopped. With that, Decca dropped the group considering them nothing more than one-hit wonders.

Still the Shirelles manager, Greenberg was convinced Decca didn’t have a clue as to how to promote a group of four young black singers. She started a new label, Scepter Records, resigned the Shirelles as she was determined to do the proper promotion for the group.

Greenberg kept the girls working with gigs such as the one that produced their first song for Scepter. Between performances at the Howard Theater in Washington D.C., the girls heard The Five Royales, Dedicated To The One I Love. After they learned the song, they returned to New York and sang it for Florence who thought it would be perfect for their first Scepter single. The 1959 summer release would reach a disappointing #83. With two more flops following Dedicated To The One I Love, Florence decided the group needed better material and more promotion.

The next order of business was hiring Luther Dixon to write and produce the Shirelles. Dixon honed his chops in the music business as a former singer with the doo-wop group, The Four Buddies and as a songwriter with Just Born (To Be Your Baby), a #12 hit for Perry Como and as a co-writer and producer of Sixteen Candles by The Crests.

Dixon began rehearsing the Shirelles and working with them on songs. Before a recording session in 1960, Florence told them they needed another song, and to go write something. Shirley Owens asked, "When?" When Greenberg answered, "Tonight," Owens replied, "Well, I guess tonight's the night." She and Dixon worked on a song using that title. It was ready for the next day's session and became the group’s next hit, Tonight’s The Night. (2)

With Shirley singing lead, Tonight’s The Night fared much better than previous attempts. Released in late summer of 1960, the song plateaued at #39. One possible reason of the song’s lukewarm showing was that The Chiffons also released the song. Both hit the chart on September 12 but split the affection of the record-buying public with The Chiffons reaching #76.

L-R: Addie "Micki" Harris, Beverly Lee, Doris Coley and Shirley Owens taken around 1962.

Photo by Gilles Petard/Getty Images

Greenberg moved the Scepter offices the Brill Building at 1650 Broadway making the search for new songs much easier. By the fall of 1960, the Shirelles were popular enough that songwriters approached them with material. Don Kirshner, labeled as “the man with the golden ear,” was co-owner of Aldon Music, which at various times employed songwriters such as Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Paul Simon and Phil Spector. Kirshner added fledgling songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King to his roster.

Goffin and King hastily married after King had become pregnant at age 17. Goffin worked days at Argus chemical company testing polymers and plastics while Carole tended the needs of their child. Working together, the two writers split the responsibility of the job — Carole wrote the music, Gerry handled the lyrics. As songwriters, they had submitted nearly fifty songs without little or no success. Kirshner told Carole to think of the Shirelles when he asked her to write a new song. Kirshner wanted to pitch it to Florence Greenberg.

With a six-month old baby in the crib at their small apartment, a sleep-deprived Carole sat at the piano and began writing the ballad. With the bridge incomplete, she turned on the tape recorder that sat next to the piano with the typical full ashtray, and filled in words with “da-da-dah” to the wordless melody as she played it. Once finished, she grabbed her coat as she had a mah-jongg date that night with a friend and then wrote a note to Gerry, “Donny needs a song for the Shirelles tomorrow. Please write.” (4)

When Gerry arrived at the empty apartment and listened to the tape, he was astounded. “I never heard a melody like that from Carole. It was melodic and structured better than anything she had ever written before.” With libido firing, he listened to the tape a few times before asking himself a few crucial questions. “What would a girl sing to a guy if they made love that night? Will you love me in the morning after we’ve made love?” (5) In just a few simple lines, Goffin nailed the insecurities of a new generation of sexually liberated women. He wrote for a voice that was confident and vulnerable in equal measure: “So tell me now and I won’t ask again/ Will you still love me tomorrow?” (6)

Photo courtesy of James Kriegsmann, Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images.

When Carole returned home a bit after midnight, Gerry showed her the lyrics. Now she was excited. The missing bridge came into play with his lyrics as Carole picked it out on the piano. BY 2:00 AM, the song was complete. They titled the composition, Tomorrow.

The duo presented the song to Kirshner, who refined the hook and reduced the time to around three minutes (AM radio was adamant about this). A demo was created with Carole singing. Kirshner liked it so much that he shopped it to one of the hottest producers at the time, Guy Mitchell or Mitch Miller, depending on the source. Both, however, were in agreement stating it was a woman’s song and wouldn’t be appropriate for Columbia’s hottest client, Johnny Mathis.

Kirshner was dejected but still presented the song to Florence Greenberg, who in turn, passed it to Luther Dixon. Hearing the demo, Dixon immediately wanted the song for the Shirelles. When the girls heard King’s demo, they rejected the song. “We looked at each other like, ‘Is this a joke?’ It sounded like a country/western song, real twangy,” Beverly Lee recalled. The consensus was the song was too white. But Dixon who was black and more importantly, trusted, said, “You’re gonna record this song.” The Shirelles begrudgingly agreed to show up at the studio. (7)

Carole and Gerry knew the song needed more — it needed violins and cellos. Carole, knowing nothing about string arrangements, checked out a book at the local library entitled How To Write For Strings and proceeded with the song’s string arrangement. She wrote fifteen charts by hand. "I wish I had known that the arranger had only to scratch out a score and a team of copyists would work overnight to make the charts look the way they did on the music stands," Carole recalled. (8) Dixon wasn’t sure if Carole was right for the job but relented, with a nudge from Gerry when he heard what the songwriter had done. Still, there was a monumental job in hearing how the work was converted from chart to music and then selling the artists on the concept.

"Recording the rhythm track took less than an hour," King remembered. "Then the string players arrived. The first time I heard the cellos play the rhythmic figure at the beginning of Will You Love Me Tomorrow, I was euphoric. Some composers can literally hear the sounds in their head as they write. I had to wait until the session to hear what I wrote. As the musicians played the parts I had written for the song, I became giddy with excitement. The experience exceeded my wildest expectations." (8)

When the Shirelles got to the studio and heard the arrangement, they were stunned. Beverly Lee remembered, “The song was completely different than the one on the demo. It was beautiful with all those strings. It blew our minds.” (9)

With soaring violins, grinding cellos and the background chanting “shad a dop shop,” Shirley took the song from start to finish. By the time the track was completed, a new era of popular music was born for the writers, artists and pop music fans.

It was a new era of prosperity for the Goffin and King. "Gerry and I had set a million as the number of singles sold that would trigger him quitting his day job. The day Donnie (Kirshner) learned the record had reached the million mark, he insisted on conveying the information personally to Gerry. He had his driver pick me up and then we drove to Gerry's workplace in Brooklyn. Upon hearing the news, Gerry walked away from his job and, as he said many years later, he hasn't had a real job since," Carole wrote in her autobiography. (8)

The Shirelles became the first African-American female group to have a #1 hit. The song entered the charts on November 21, 1960, stayed 19 weeks as it reached #1 for two weeks beginning on January 30, 1961. (1) (10)

The Shirelles placed a total of 26 songs on the Hot 100 from 1958-1967. They landed songs in the top 10 five different times with only Soldier Boy in 1962 reaching the coveted #1 spot. (1)

Like many other vocal groups of the early to mid-60s, the group fell out of favor with the trends of pop music as the British Invasion took hold on U.S. shores. Chronologically, here’s what happened to the Shirelles after the hit years:

1968 Coley left the group to attend to her family.

1968-1971 The remaining three Shirelles recorded songs for several labels, including Bell Records, RCA, and United Artists.

1975 Coley returned as lead singer.

1982 Harris died of a heart attack.

1994 The Shirelles were honored by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

1996 The Shirelles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

2000 Coley died of breast cancer.

2002 They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

2004 Rolling Stone ranked them #76 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Will You Love Me Tomorrow was ranked 126th on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

2008 The Shirelles' hometown of Passaic honored the group by renaming a section where Passaic High School is located "Shirelles Boulevard."

Shirley Alston Reeves lives in Henderson, North Carolina. Beverly Lee still makes her home in Passaic, New Jersey.

The Shirelles perform Will You Love Me Tomorrow live to an audience.

1) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Top Pop Singles 1955-2002. Page 637.

2) Callahan, Mike; Edwards, David (April 8, 2009). The Scepter/Wand Story, Link.

3) Whitburn, Joel, Pages 637 and 128.

4) Weller, Sheila, Girls Like Us, 2008, Pages 52-53.

5) Weller, Sheila, Pages 53-54.

6) Brown, Helen, Financial Times, The Life of a Song: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, June 24, 2016. Link.

7) Weller, Sheila, Page 54.

8) King, Carole, A Natural Woman A Memoir, 2012. Pages 96-97.

9) Weller, Sheila, Page 54.

10) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts, 1961.

L-R: Beverly Lee, Doris Coley, Shirley Owens, Addie Harris

Photo by Gilles Petard

© 2017 Jerry Reuss

Copyright  2009