The Bobbettes were the first all-female R&B group to have a major pop hit record. Their "Mr. Lee" beat the Chantels "He's Gone" to the charts by one month and outranked it in the US pop charts. All of the original members were born in North Carolina, but most of them lived in New York since age 2 or 3. The group came from the Lower East Side of Manhattan and was originally an octet called The Harlem Queens, who began doing local amateur nights in 1955. Their manager, James Dailey, took them to Atlantic Records who wanted changes to both line-up and name. The membership settled down to Laura Webb (1943-2001), Reather Dixon (1945), Helen Gathers (1944), Emma Pought (1944) and her sister Jannie Pought (1945-1980, stabbed to death by a total stranger in New Jersey).
The girls went into the Atlantic studio on February 28, 1957, to record four of their own songs (a huge achievement, given their ages), including "Mr. Lee", a ditty about a fifth-grade teacher that they did not exactly like. Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun suggested a rewrite of the song to make Mr. Lee (and the recording) more sympathetic. "He's the four-eyed-est teacher we ever did see" was changed into "He's the handsomest teacher I ever did see". Released in June 1957, "Mr. Lee" had a slow start, but eventually went to # 6 on the pop charts and # 1 (for four weeks) on the R&B charts. Their first tour took them across 49 states, mostly one-nighters.
Despite their initial success and the excitement of their performances, the Bobbettes' next five releases sold poorly and Atlantic lost interest. At a final 1959 session, the girls recorded "I Shot Mr. Lee", in which they finally sang what they really thought about their former teacher, but Atlantic refused to release it. The company did release the girls from their contract and they went looking for a new label. At Triple-X, they started working with Teddy Vann, who produced a new version of "I Shot Mr. Lee", which peaked at # 52 in mid-1960. Atlantic took them to court, but lost, then issued the version they had in the can, but lost this sales battle too. For the next Triple-X 45, Teddy Vann arranged their re-workings of Billy Ward and the Dominoes' "Have Mercy Baby" and Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie" (as "Dance With Me, Georgie)". Both sides charted (# 66 and # 95, respectively), but in spite of a rare run of three chart successes from just two singles on Triple-X, the girls found themselves on the Galliant label in the fall of 1960. They next moved to George Goldner's Gone and End labels, scoring their last chart entry with "I Don't Like It Like That" (# 72, September 1961, an answer to Chris Kenner's hit "I Like It Like That"), which strangely appeared on both End 1095 and Gone 5112.
Actually, they did score a second Top 10 hit early in 1963, but the Bobbettes didn't get credit for singing background on Johnny Thunder's "Loop De Loop" (# 4), which was produced and co-written by Teddy Vann. The girls kept on recording until 1966, for King, Jubilee, Diamond and RCA, but their records failed to sell in any large quantities. However, the group remained intact (minus Helen Gathers, who quit around 1965) and never stopped performing. In the 1970s there were three releases on the Mayhew label. The current line-up still inc ludes two original members, Reather Dixon Turner and Emma Pought, along with two newer members, Pam McMullen and Debbie Thompson.* Recently they have performed at Viva Las Vegas (2003) and Hemsby (May 2004).
* Tony Rounce writes in his sleeve notes for the new CD "King Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 2" (Ace 1051) : "Still featuring three of their five original members...", which is not correct. The version of "Dance With Me Georgie" on that CD is the Triple-X version, overdubbed with additional percussion and handclaps.
Further reading: http://home.att.net/~marvart/Bobbettes/bobbettes.html (By Marv Goldberg) and "The Story of the Bobbettes" in Now Dig This 253 (April 2004, p. 26-27). CD : Titanic TRC 981008 - The Ultimate Collection: Mr. Lee And Others - 1998
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