Inevitably, the Crystals will be immediately associated with the name of Phil Spector. They were the first act that Spector gave full attention to while establishing his Philles label and some of his best work was done with the Crystals. However, the group was not his brainchild, but the creation of New Yorker Benny Wells, a former big-band musician and by 1960 a manager.
Deciding in the fall of 1960 to form a female vocal ensemble, Benny recruited his niece, 17-year old Barbara Alston, who recommended her friends Mary Thomas and Merna Girard. Delores (Dee Dee) Kennibrew, at 15 the youngest member, completed the quartet. The girls came from different sections of Brooklyn.
Since Benny didn't write songs, he acquired material from various song- writers, such as Leroy Bates, whose sister-in-law Patricia Wright (17) became the fifth member . The group named itself after Leroy's baby daughter, Crystal Bates. Leroy wrote a song called "There's No Other (Like My Baby)" which Barbara sang lead on. It was on a March evening in 1961 while rehearsing "There's No Other" that the group met Phil Spector, who was looking for talent to record for the label he was about to start, Philles Records. The Crystals were just what he was looking for. "There's No Other", recorded in June, became the first single on the new label (Philles 100) and peaked at # 20 in January 1962, also hitting # 5 R&B. The follow-up, "Uptown", written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, was even more successful, peaking at # 13. By this time Merna Girard had been replaced by Dolores (Lala) Brooks.
The third single, "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" had lyrics (by Carole King and Gerry Goffin) that were too far ahead of its time. Most radio stations wouldn't play it after being bombarded by complaints over the alleged sadistic implications of the lyrics. The Crystals didn't like the song either, though production-wise, it was another step closer to Spector's eventual "wall of sound" approach. Spector pulled "He Hit Me" off the market and released a fourth single in August 1962, just one month after "He Hit Me". It would become the biggest hit for the Crystals, but ironically, their voices are not heard on the record. The song is, of course, "He's A Rebel". Spector heard this Gene Pitney composition while in Los Angeles, where Vikki Carr had already recorded it for Liberty, though her version had not yet been released. Spector knew he had to move fast and recorded the song in L.A. with Darlene Love and her Blossoms, while the Crystals were still in New York. The song took off to number one in the week of November 3, 1962. Darlene Love also sang lead on the next Crystals single, "He's Sure the Boy I Love" (# 11 in early 1963), again written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Spector had promised Darlene that this would be the first single under her own name, but it was not to be. As the owner of the Crystals' name and as their producer, Spector had the right to record anyone he wanted and label it as being by "the Crystals". Needless to say, the group was frustrated by their producer's game of label-credit roulette. Next came "The Screw, Parts 1 and 2" (Philles 111), a monotonous unreleased single, intended to provoke Spector's partner Lester Sill. It must have had its effect, as Spector was soon partnerless and now in full control of Philles Records.
In March 1963, Spector seemed to finally discover the qualities of Lala Brooks as lead singer. She was flown over to L.A. to overdub her vocals over Darlene Love's original track on "Da Doo Ron Ron" (# 3 in June 1963, also # 5 in the UK). Lala also sang lead on the inter- national hit "Then He Kissed Me" (# 6 US, # 2 UK, # 1 Australia). This production officially established the "wall of sound", using more echo than any previous Spector effort. The Crystals contributed three songs to Spector's now-legendary 1963 Christmas LP : "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers", with Lala providing the lead vocals. The first Crystals single of 1964, "Little Boy" died at # 92. It was over- produced and Spector was now preoccupied with his newest discovery, the Ronettes. "All Grown Up" was the final Crystals' chart entry, spending one week at # 98 in August 1964. Prior to that, "I Wonder" was released to coincide with a British tour in February 1964. It went to # 36 in the UK, but was never released in the US. Strange, as it was one of the Crystals' best records, musically somewhere between "He's Sure the Boy I Love" and "Then He Kissed Me".
In 1965 the Crystals signed with United Artists and released two singles, the better of the two being "My Place". It went unnoticed amidst the turmoil of the British Invasion. Soon thereafter, Barbara Alston married. The Crystals split up around 1967. Dee Dee also got married, but circa 1971 she reformed the group with Lala, Barbara and Mary for a Richard Nader rock and roll revival show. Barbara left after a 1973 UK tour, but Dee Dee carried on the Crystals' tradition and kept on performing with two new Crystals, Darlene Davis (since 1978) and Marilyn Byers (since 1989). In 1986, Lala (on lead), Dee Dee, Darlene and Gretchen Gale- Prendatt recorded a 10-song LP in Nashville titled "The Crystals : He's A Rebel", featuring many of the Philles 45s. In 1974 "Da Doo Ron Ron" was reissued in the UK 11 years after it went Top 5 ; this time it reached number 15.
Acknowledgements: Jay Warner, The Crystals, in : The Billboard book of American singing groups (1992), page 351-354.
The best CD compilation is "The Crystals Ultimate Collection" on the Belgian Marginal label (MAR 063). 29 tracks, virtually all the Philles recordings (even a full version of "The Screw"), the three Christmas songs and two songs from the UA period
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