The Chiffons

Throughout rock and roll history, vocal groups (especially the non-writing variety) have spent entire careers in search of hit-bound melodies and captivating lyrics. In a reverse of that equation, the Chiffons garnered their greatest success because a hit song was in search of a group.

In 1960 the Chiffons formed an Monroe High School in the Bronx. The lead singer was fourteen year old Judy Craig, and she sang along with Patricia Bennett and Barbara Lee, both 13. They met writer/manager/entrepreneur hopeful Ronnie Mack at the after-school center. Up to that time Mack’s claim to fame was a 1959 local Philadelphia hit by Little Jimmy (Rivers) and the Tops (V-Tone Records) entitled “Puppy Love.”
Several reference books and countless websites repeat the erroneous information that The Chiffons’ first record was a version of the Shirelles hit “Tonight’s the Night.” However, researcher John Clemente, author of the book Girl Groups — Fabulous Females That Rocked The World, has proven conclusively that this is not the case. Rather, a west coast girl group with no connection to the east coast Chiffons recorded this song.

(see http://www.rockabilly.nl/references/messages/chiffons.htm).

So The Chiffons’ recording career actually began in the fall on 1962, when Ronnie Mack, ever hustling his songsdropped his wares at the doorstep of a new production team in New York City. The company was called Bright Tunes and the producers were Phil and Mitch Margo, Jay Seigel, and Hank Medress a.k.a. The Tokens. They liked one song he had entitled “He’s So Fine” and asked if he had a group to sing it. Fearing a negative response would end their interest he said he had a terrific group. The Bright Tunes crew said “Great. Bring them in tomorrow”. Scrambling back to the Bronx, Ronnie knew he had no such group, but he also knew the Chiffons had heard and even sung the song around the school. To bolster the harmonies he brought in one new girl, Sylvia Peterson, who had sung with Little Jimmy and The Tops.

Several months passed until the quartet was called in to record the single. Finally, in December 1962, it was released on Laurie Records (via the Tokens’ production agreement). From that point on the intro line of “doo lang doo lang doo lang” became the newest nonsensical adition to rock and roll vernacular. By March 30th “He’s So Fine” was the number one record in America on both the Pop and R&B charts and reached number 16 in England, making the Tokens the first vocal group to produce a number one record for another group. The one downbeat footnote to the Chiffon’s success was that their manager/writer Ronnie Mack, was dying of Hodgkins disease and would be gone before 1963 was over.

The next single, “Lucky Me”, was a big a flop as “He’s SO Fine” was a hit. But not wanting to waste any momentum, the Tokens immediately produced a thrid single, the sparkling “One Fine Day”. “One Fine Day” proved to have the same simple appeal as “He’s So Fine”, and the Carole King – Gerry Goffin composition rocketed up the charts to number five Pop in June and to number six in R&B. By July it was also on the British Best Seller list peaking at number 29.

The Tokens decided to create a multiple personality for the group, so at the same time “One Fine Day” was being released, they recorded the Chiffons on Laurie’s Rust subsidary as the Four Pennies.

“My Block” was their first single as the Pennies, and it reached the charts only three weeks after “One Fine Day”. It was cha-cha rhythmed, castanet-spiced slice of life a la The Crystals “Uptown”, incorporating Drifters styled kettle drums into a sound reminiscent of Phil Spector’s productions. Unfortunately, it only went to number 67 pop. But 1963 remained the year o the Chiffons; they charted top 40 in September with their third Laurie single in four tries, the catchy “A Love So Fine”. Meanwhile, back as The Four Pennies, their September release of “When The Boys Happy” reached number 95 Pop in November.

The group was greatly in demand, and having honed their craft into an excellent blend of four-part harmony, had been playing everything from TV’s “American Bandstand”, “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig” to Murray the K’s Brooklyn Fox live show, and had been singing commercials for the likes of Great Shakes drinks.

In the Fall of 1963 the Chiffons released “I Have A Boyfriend”, considered by some to be their best recording. Written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and the Tokens, the rhythm ballad was a Ronettes styled mix of early 60’s rhythm and blues and doo wop. It charted in November, reached 36 on Billboard’s Best Seller list, and was gone ten weeks later.

Several strong Chiffons recordings followed (“Tonight I Met An Angel”, “Sailor Boy” and the Goffin-King song “What Am I Gonna Do With You”) but the charts now seemed to belong to the British then to the Bronx. Still, a good song is a good song, and in the spring of 1966 the Chiffons struck again with “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”, a Top 10 record in June.

The Tokens pulled the group from Laurie in 1968 for one single on their own B.T. Puppy label called “My Secret Love”, which remained a secret to the public since radio never gave it a shot.

By 1970 the girls were on Buddah singing the old Tymes hit “So Much In Love”, while George Harrison was (unconsciously) plagiarizing Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine” while writing his first solo hit “My Sweet Lord”, and released the single that same year.

Another Chiffons twist of fate occured in March 1972, six years after their last chart record. It seems someone in Britian felt the old “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” deserved another shot at the Top 10 (in keeping with a common modu operandi in England) and so London Records issued the original recording on the U.K. label Statesides. To everyone’s surprise the record went skyrocketing to number four in the U.K. when the Chiffons were working in small clubs and didn’t even has a U.S. record deal.

In 1976, Laurie issued the last Chiffons single, “Dream, Dream, Dream” with “Oh My Lover” (the “He’s So Fine” B Side) on the flip. By the 1970’s Judy Craig (Mann) had left the act. Pat Bennett married and Barbara Lee did the same. The Chiffons continued to perform locally into the 80’s, perhaps hoping the girl group sound might remerge in the 90’s.

– Jay Warne

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