One of the first female R&B vocal groups to have nationwide success, the Chantels are also considered by many to have been the best female group of all time. Their choir-like sound and close-knit harmony brought a new dimension to rock and roll and R&B songs.
Arlene Smith (lead), Lois Harris (first tenor), Sonia Goring (second tenor), Jackie Landry (second alto), and Rene Minus (alto/bass) began their musical journey in their preteens while attending choir practice at St. Anthony of Padua school in the Bronx. By 1957 the members, aged 14 through 17, had been singing together more than seven years. A staple of their musical diet had been Gregorian chants taught to such perfection that changing notes and trading parts were second nature.
In contrast to their male counterparts, the girls weren’t able to “hang out” on a street corner at all hours practicing; five young Catholic schoolgirls live a more restricted lifestyle. So in 1957 much of their practice took place in the unlikely surroundings of the girls’ locker room at St. Anthony’s. Being one of the taller girls in school, Arlene Smith became a member of the girls’ basketball team and, win or lose, the group would sing after each game. The choir-like quintet began doing talent shows with the Sequins (Red Robin Records) and THE CROWS (Rama Records) at the P.S. 60 Community Center and at St. Augustine’s church. That same year their school team went up against the hoopsters o St. Francis de Chantelle. One of the girls (to this day no one remembers which) suggested they end their long search for a group name by calling themselves the Chantelles. It soon became the Chantels.
The girls had a strength apart from their angelic vocal presence: the writing ability of lead singer Arlene Smith. There weren’t many girl groups around in the mid-‘50s and even fewer that contributed to the recording process with their own lyrics and melodies (although THE BOBBETTES come to writing resources). Arlene contributed both words and music, and the combination of her classical and gospel background with simple yet poignant lyrics would make her more successful than she could possibly imagine at the tender age of 16, “He’s Gone,” Arlene’s first song, was written with a boyfriend in mind while she was working her way through piano practice.
Legend has it that the five classmates were on the second floor of the Broadway Theatre building on Broadway and 53rd Street in Manhattan when several of THE VALENTINES passed by underneath the window. The girls recognized them from an Allen Freed Show performance and scampered down to hunt for autographs. Amid the chatter it cam to Valentines member David Clowney’s attention that the girls were a singing group. Producer/writer/arranger and Valentines’ lead Richard Barrett entered the conversation. Thinking he was putting the girls on the spot he asked them to sing right there under he Broadway Theatre marquee, and sing they did. He was floored at the sound of the girls singing a hymn, and with his leaning toward rhythm and blues, he perhaps wondered how they would sound singing that kind of music. He took their phone number.
The girls were thrilled at Barrett’s interest; they knew he was the right-hand man of record entrepreneur George Goldner, owner of Gee and Roulette Records. Ironically, they had tried to sing for Goldner only weeks before, but he hadn’t been in when they showed up for their audition at Gee Records’ 42nd Street office.
Several weeks passed after the Broadway Theatre meeting without a call from Barrett. Not being timid, Jackie Landry told a friend of hers in THE TEEN CHORDS of their encounter and he gave her Barrett’s address. The entire Chantels cast dropped in on Barrett and reminded him of their meeting. This time the multi-talented producer wasted no time in calling rehearsals, meeting the group’s mothers, and arranging the teens’ first two sings, the Arlene Smith compositions “The Plea” and “He’s Gone.”
By the early summer of 1957 the girls were signed to Goldner’s End label, which he had just formed after selling off the Roulette/Rama/Gee organization. In fact, the girls’ first single was the second release (Malcolm Dodds and the Tunedrops’ “It Took a Long Time” was the first) on the label that was to be the future home of such stalwarts as LITTLE ANTHONY AND THE IMPERIALS, THE FLAMINGOS, THE MIRACLES, Little Richard, THE TEENAGERS, the Bobbettes, THE VELOURS, THE DELSATINS, and the one and only Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain (“By the Riverside,” 1960).
The Chantels’ first single was “He’s Gone,” released in August 1957. From the four-part a cappella chime harmony intro topped by Arlene’s floating falsetto to its duplicate ending, “He’s Gone” instantly set a new standard of quality for female group recordings. By September 30, the record was on the Billboard national Top 100 charts but inexplicable stopped at number 71, spending a mere six weeks in competitive company. Still, it was a major breakthrough. This record charted only seven weeks before the Bobbettes hit the top 100 with their first release, the infamous “Mr. Lee.” Ironically, these two trend-setting groups of the ‘50s lived less than a few miles from each other.
The Chantels’ first live performance was at Jocko show at the Apollo Theatre (Jocko was a legendary New York disc jockey at the time) in which the group was not even on the bill. Richard Barrett brought them backstage and waited for an opportune time for Jocko to present them to the world. For Arlene, her classical recitals at Carnegie Hall must have felt like a far cry from this; the Chantels’ wowed the enthusiastic audience with “He’s Gone.”
Their next recording session, on October 16, 1957, was scheduled not at a regular studio but at a refurbished church in midtown Manhattan, apparently for its acoustics. Richard Barrett played the piano along with supportive bass and drums for this Chantels recording of the Arlene Smith composition “Maybe.” The single was released in December; by January 20, 1958, it was heading up the pop charts and a week later was climbing the rhythm and blues charts. “Maybe” reached number 15 Pop by late winter and number two R&B. Interestingly (though not uncustomarily for the time) the original record’s writer credits read Casey (whoever he was) and Goldner (we know who he was). Later issues and reissues had “Arlene Smith and Goldner.” As recently as 1987 a Chantels compilation appeared on a Murray Hill three-LP set with “Maybe” listed as being written by R. Barrett.
Two days after “Maybe” hit the pop charts the group was recording again. Barrett was now heavily devoting his attention to the girls, even dropping his own group the Valentines by summer 1957. On January 22, 1958, the most productive recording session of the Chantels career generated five sides, all eventually released on singles or EPs: “Sure of Love,” “I Love You So,” “Every Night,” “Whoever You Are,” and “Memories of You” (the old HARPTONES classic). (In the girls’ sessions, Barrett would always rehearse the Chantels to perfection, yet when it came to the musicians, on-the-spot arrangements and one or two rundowns would suffice.)
The Chantels’ third single for End was “Every Night (I Pray),” another gem that sounded suspiciously like Arlene’s writing style although it showed George Goldner’s name on the record. “Every Night” hit the pop charts on March 31, 1958, and reached number 39 (#16 R&B).
That spring the Chantels became the first female rhythm and blues aggregation to release on EP; it included “Sure of Love,” “Prayee,” “I Love You So,” and “How Could You Call It Off.” The latter two became their fourth single in April. “I Love You So” was the first non-Arlene Smith composition to be released as an A side. It was written by Watkins and Davis, the latter a member of the Crows it was featured as the B side of their April 1954 hit “Gee”). A further piece of information in the continuing “what’s in a name” game has an early ‘60s 45 rpm pressing listing G. Goldner and Davis as writers, while a 1972 LP containing “I Love You So” as performed by the Crows lists writing credits of M. Levy (the now deceased president of Roulette Records, Morris Levy) and D. Norton (Daniel “Sonny” Norton, lead singer of the Crows).
Regardless of who wrote it, “I Love You So” was another perfect Chantels musical confection (#42 Pop, #14 R&B), but it would turn out to be their last hit on End. After “I Love You So,” the label released a second group EP, and unprecedented move for an act that had only released four singles. It was an honor usually reserved for acts like THE CLOVERS or COASTERS who had been having hits for years. End seemed to be trying to capitalize on the group’s current visibility (rather than planning on a long-term justification for an EP release). The cuts included “Memories of You” from the January 22 session, along with “Congratulations,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” and “C’est Si Bon,” all cut on July 24. “Sure of Love” and reworked gospel song entitled “Prayee” were released in July and became the first Chantels single to fail. Three more singles followed (and failed) through the end of 1958 and early 1959, including a beautiful recording of “Goodbye to Love,” immortalized in 1961 in a powerful arrangement by THE MARCLES.
The success of Little Anthony and the Imperials and the Flamingos kept End Records preoccupied in late 1958 and 1959, meaning less promotional support for the Chantels. (End stood to earn more from a touring group of male vocalists than they could from five high school girls still tied to their parents.) Although the Chantels became one of the first female vocal groups of the rock era to have an LP under their own name (We Are the Chantels in September 1958), they were dropped from End by April 1959.
Arlene Smith decided to go it on her own while Lois Harris went on to college. Chantels records were still being issued, except that the lead was one Richard Barrett and the label was Gone, and affiliate of End. In May 1959 “Come Softly to Me” (the former FLEETWOODS hit) came out and quickly failed. In July 1959 a most unusual record hit the marketplace entitled “Summer’s Love.” The label again read Richard Barrett and the Chantels. Recorded in lat 1958, the ballad had all the earmarks of a hit but only went to number 93 Pop (#29 R&B). It has shown up on three different labels over the years, with three distinctly different background vocal arrangements. Each included the Chantels with Richard Barrett on lead, but that’s where the similarity ended. The original Gone release had the Chantels holding sustained chords behind Barrett’s lead. An End “battle of the groups” EP from the early ‘60s had a male group doing a call-and-response backup with an occasional “shoo-do” and “shoo-be-do” (similar to THE FIVE SATINS’ “In the Still of the Night”) while the Chantels held their sustained harmony. A third version on Crackerjack Records in 1963 had the girls without the male backup vocals, but the Chantels were now singing “shoo-do” and “shoo-be-do” along with their sustained harmony.
In 1960 Barrett started his own label and recorded a new girl group similar to the Chantels which he called the Veneers. Their release of “I” b/w “Believe Me (My Angel)” went unnoticed but it helped him solve his Chantels problem by matching Veneers lead singer Annette Smith (no relation to Arlene) with the three remaining Chantels, Sonia, Jackie, and Rene. In April 1960, still trying to capitalize on the group’s name, End released “Whoever You Are,” formerly the B side of “Every Night”; it had all the original Chantels magic but still lacked the driving commitment of the label.
In the summer of 1961 George Goldner apparently got wind of Barrett’s move to take the revamped Chantels to Carlton Records; running low on Chantels tracks in the can, he decided to pass off a bogus group to the public, issuing the Veneers recording “I” under the name of the Chantels. His move didn’t work but Barrett’s did. “Look in My Eyes,” the first release on Carlton for Annette and company went all the way to number 14 on the pop charts (#6 R&B). The ballad was reminiscent of the Chantels’ early classics though the arrangement was more modern string-laden affair. Annette’s lead, which was very similar to Arlene’s, blended well with the group and only the most discerning ear could tell that a switch had taken place.
The group’s fortunes were once again on the rise, and everyone connected tried to get a piece of the action. End Records released an LP of canned tracks that included the Veneers’ two cuts (as the Chantels, of course), entitled There’s Our Song Again (End LP 312). By 1962 Carlton had released their own more honest LP entitled The Chantels on Tour that contained Seven Chantels cuts and songs by Chris Montez, the Imperials, and Gus Backus. Gus Backus was a member of the DEL-VIKINGS, and the Imperials recording was without Little Anthony. The LP included their second Carlton single, and answer to Ray Charles’ number one record “Hit the Road Jack” called “Well, I Told You.” It was the Chantels’ first up-tempo single, and from a creative standpoint would probably have served their reputation better had it never been released. The song had the group confined to unison call-and-response vocals while a Ray Charles imitation sang the lead. Still, it made number 29 Pop by December 1961 and the group wasn’t about to argue with success.
They couldn’t have known it was to be their last big record. One more single for Carlton, the ethereal jazz-tinged ballad “Summertime,” and they were off the recording scene until landing at Luther Dixon’s Ludix label.
Meanwhile, Arlene Smith had hooked up with a young hotshot producer named Phil Spector for a Big Tip Records one-off of the Clovers hit “Love Love Love” backed by the Paris Sisters song “He Knows I Love Him Too Much.”
The Chantels began their Ludix association with the song “Eternally” (#77, March 1963), produced by longtime believer Richard Barrett. It was the third time in six years that their initial release on a label had charted. Still, there were more Chantels records coming out and failing that there were successes. George Goldner released “I’m the Girl” (October 1961) and “Mon Cherie Au Revoir” (February 1963), and Ludix tried again with “Some Tears Fall Dry” (April 1963). Then it was on to 20th Century-Fox, Verve, and finally RCA before the group disbanded in 1970. The charts had become almost oblivious to fine harmonies and melodic ballads, now favoring records with a harder edge.
In 1973 Arlene Smith, who had gone on tot the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, reformed the Chantels with newcomer Barbara Murray and Pauline Moore for some oldies revivals shows. By the early ‘80s Sonia Goring, Lois Harris, Rene Minus, and Jackie Landry were all married and living in the New York area. Arlene went on to become a school teacher in the Bronx and continues to sing with the Chantels group to this day.
– Jay Warner