of the week

The Shirelles

Arguably Will You Love Me Tomorrow by The Shirelles is one of the most successful all girl group singles of the sixties. They were also the first all-girl group to top the American Billboard singles chart which they did in 1960.

In some ways it was surprising that it never got banned by the BBC who were extremely fussy about what they allowed onto their airwaves. 1960 was the year of the death disc, Teen Angel, El Paso, Tell Laura I Love Her and the following year, Johnny Remember Me to name four and of which had some sort of restriction on airplay, but not all actually banned because of the sentiment. Anything about religion or mentioned God or Lord were frowned upon, but perhaps the BBC never realised the connotation of Will You Love Me Tomorrow which basically was about a girl who was about to lose her virginity on the first date of a new relationship. Basically, it was saying will you still respect me in the morning if I sleep with you tonight?

The Shirelles were all schoolmates and comprised; lead singer Shirley Owens and backed by Doris Coley, Addie Harris & Beverly Lee. They got together in 1957 for a high school talent show which was so successful that they were spotted by Florence Greenberg who signed them to her own Tiara Records. The first single was called I Met Him on a Sunday and was licensed by Decca Records in 1958. Things didn’t go too well at Decca and the following year they and Greenberg moved to the newly formed Scepter Records and scored a minor hit Stateside with Tonight’s the Night.

They began looking for a follow up and turn to the husband and wife songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King who worked out of the Brill Building in New York. Carole King came up with the music and Gerry, who was excited about writing for The Shirelles, came up with the lyrics. They presented the song to Aldon music publisher Don Kirshner who loved the song, and recognising that he had something new and different, decided to use it to get in the door at Columbia Records, so he offered it to Columbia for Johnny Mathis, but their label head Mitch Miller politely declined, which Kirshner later said was “The best thing he ever did for me.”

Tony Orlando happened to be in Kirshner’s office and heard the song and was desperate to record it, but Kirshner, remembering what happened at Columbia said no giving the explanation that it was a girl’s lyric, and that no teenage boy would say these words. So finally, the song was first recorded by The Shirelles who it was intended for all along. However, following its released, Orlando did record an answer version called Not Just Tomorrow but Always under the pseudonym Bertell Dache.

Shirley initially hated the song, saying it as “too Country and Western and too slow for a four-girl group from Passaic, New Jersey,” but our producer Luther Dixon said to me ‘just do it as a favour to me’ so I did and as soon as I heard the music, the song came to life for me and I thought it was beautiful, I was crying on that session. It was a beautiful song and the record company knew it was risqué.” When it came to the recording, Carole and Gerry had added strings on Dixon’s requests and made it slightly more up tempo. Carole also turned up at the session and was unhappy with the musician playing the timpani, so she kicked him out and played them herself.

Initial copies of the US single showed the title simply as Tomorrow; presumably to put radio stations off the scent of its connotation, but the second pressing gave the full title. It peaked at number four in the UK but they were unable to sustain any momentum and thus the Shirelles are remembered as a one hit wonder here even though they charted with Soldier Boy (No.23) and Foolish Little Girl (No.38).

Many have covered the song, some even adding the word ‘Still’ to the title, but there have been versions by Melanie, the Four Seasons, Bryan Ferry, Roberta Flack and Laura Branigan. Carole covered her own song one her 1971 multi million selling album Tapestry. In the 1990s, Dionne Warwick recorded a version which was produced by Luther Vandross which started with Dionne speaking the words, ‘Some things I’ll never let go of, like friends. My friends like Doris, Beverley and Shirley which leads into Shirley singing the first two lines herself. The reason for this reference was because in 1963, both Owens and Coley took temporary leave of the group to marry their fiancés and Dionne briefly replaced them. Amy Winehouse recorded a cover for the Bridget Jones: The Age of Reason soundtrack in 2004, slowing down the tempo and using a jazz arrangement. Her version entered the chart and spent just one week at number 62 two weeks after her untimely death. Incidentally, the original B side of the Shirelles version was called Boys which the Beatles covered on the album Please Please Me. In fact the Beatles were real fans of the Shirelles and also covered their original of Baby It’s You.

The Shirelles remained under contract to Scepter until 1966 but the hits dried up. Coley left the group in 1968, but returned as lead singer, replacing Owens in 1975. By the early eighties all four members were touring separately all under the banner of The Shirelles. It didn’t last long and following a court case, Lee was the one who kept the trademark name.

Just two nights into her tour, Harris died in Atlanta of a heart attack and Coley died in February 2000 of breast cancer. However, Lee still tours as The Shirelles with members continually coming and going.

In 2011, The Shirelles’ story, called Baby It’s You! launched on Broadway. It was a musical revue written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott and told the story of the girls, Greenberg and Scepter Records. It was directed by Sheldon Epps and starred Beth Leavel as Florence, Christina Sajous as Owens, Erica Ash as Harris, Kyra DaCosta as Lee and Crystal Starr Knighton playing Coley. Like their UK chart career, it didn’t have the legs and ran for just 148 performances opening in April and closing in September the same year.