La La Brooks, by then the lead singer for The Crystals, was 14 years old when their producer, Phil Spector, used different singers on their 1963 hit "He's A Rebel."
Even by Spector standards, this is a strange story, and one that is still being revised on account of the 2013 movie Twenty Feet from Stardom, which features the real "He's A Rebel" singer, Darlene Love.
The Crystals were the first act on Spector's Philles Records. The Ronettes (now ensconced in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), would record one of Spector's biggest hits with "Be My Baby," but his first Wall of Sound production came a few months earlier, with The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron."
Apart from the mystifying "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)," Spector had The Crystals record songs about teenage love, using three different lead singers along the way. Original lead singer Barbara Alston sang their first three singles: "There's No Other (Like My Baby)," "Uptown" and "He Hit Me." La La Brooks, who came later to the group, took the lead on "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me." In between was Darlene Love, who through a quirk of geography and opportunity, sang "He's a Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love."
Love got the feature film treatment, but La La's story is often overlooked. Her singular talent - a soulful and spritely sound - was discovered in high school. By 1961 she was a Crystal, soon fronting the group for a few whirlwind years that took her around the world performing the hits Spector crafted.
Through it all, La La has had to live with two lies. The first - the unavoidable, victimless lie - was performing "He's A Rebel" with The Crystals under the auspices that she sang it on the record. It hardly mattered, as her TV appearances were lip-synched (another accepted deception), and the New York DJ who championed the group broke the news on the air.
The second lie came from Darlene Love, who decades later claimed that she sang lead on "Da Doo Ron Ron," La La's most famous track. When Love's star rose with the release of the movie, the lie rose with it. It was a lie so permeable and pervasive that even The New York Times reported it as true, later issuing a correction.
What makes this lie so hard for La La is that she idolized Darlene Love, and even brought her on stage in 2008 to perform "He's A Rebel." Love may have seen it as an innocent stretch of the truth, but to La La, it's a betrayal - one she hopes they can reconcile.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Are people allowed to call you La La if they haven't met you before?
La La Brooks: Oh yeah, sure. Please don't call me Delores. That will bring me back too far.
Songfacts: Where did that name come from, anyway?
La La: It came from my sister, who is two years older than me. My mom said that when we were small she couldn't pronounce Delores, so she would say "Lo La," and then they started calling me La La. The only one who called me Delores was my dad.
Songfacts: It's so sad when little kids start outgrowing that thing where they mispronounce words and names.
La La: Exactly.
Songfacts: So what I'm wondering, when you are doing these recordings and performing these songs, what are you thinking about?
La La: You mean when I was recording "Da Doo Ron Ron," "An Then He Kissed Me" and all those songs?
La La: Well, when Sonny would pick me up at the hotel, I'd go into the studio and I'd see all these musicians, strings and those big kettle drums. I had just turned 15 - I'm like, "What is all this?" Big orchestra. That's frightening at first, because they sound so great - all professional top shelf, and I'm a child.
So naturally I'm a little bit - not intimidated - but afraid. But when I hear them and I sing the song, everything goes out of my head. It's just me doing the best song I can do, getting my voice together and focusing. Then I'm not afraid.
Songfacts: Did you say Sonny would pick you up at the hotel?
La La: Yeah. Sonny Bono. I'd be at the Knickerbocker Hotel [in Los Angeles] and Sonny and another guy named Tom - he was the driver - used to pick me up and bring me to Phil at the studio.
Sonny was a riot. I was young and he'd laugh with me and joke with me. I'd be flown in all the time to put down the tracks, and Sonny was the one that always picked me up at the hotel. When we'd get to the studio, Cher was always there because she was married to him. Sonny would pick me up at the Knickerbocker Hotel about noon, and say, "You'll be going on mike about one." So naturally Sonny and Cher would be coming from their apartment, and she would be there waiting for Sonny to come back to the studio.
Songfacts: Gotcha. So these were the Los Angeles recording sessions.
La La: That was Los Angeles. I did all those tracks with them in New York, when Phil was in New York, but that was a different type of studio. I did all the background with Barbara when she was putting down "Uptown," "I Love You Eddie," all the things that Barbara Alston did.
Songfacts: So they would separate the lead vocalist from the backup vocalist. Those would be done in different sessions?
La La: Well, when we were in New York with Phil at the studio, he would put Barbara in a little glass studio and she'd be putting down a track, and Dee Dee (Kennibrew) and all of us background singers on Barbara's songs, we'd be standing on the side. Then when Phil would be recording Barbara's lead tracks, we could see him because we were out in the open. He would talk to us and say, "Okay, you girls on the mike. Start doing this background." That's how we would do it in New York.
I had never been familiar with background, because I was always a lead vocalist. Phil would say, "Put La La in the back, because she's so loud." When we would be doing oos and ahhs, Phil would say, "Put La La a little bit further behind you."
I was so young, I was about 13 and a half then and I didn't know how to blend, because I came from singing gospel.
Songfacts: Did you ever have formal vocal training?
La La: No. I just started when I was 7. We had a group with my sister, my niece, and my brother called the Little Gospel Tears. I used to be the lead singer for that when I was 7 years old in church. So I just learned, it came natural.
Songfacts: In New York you were eased into it by being in the background, but then suddenly you find yourself the lead singer of this group and you're getting flown to LA and getting picked up by Sonny Bono. Can you explain how you became the lead singer and what that was like for you?
La La: Well, it started when I was 12 and a half. Dee Dee Kennebrew's mother worked in my school at PS 73. She used to be there in the daytime and she'd also come after 3; we had to go to after school programs since my mom didn't allow me to play in the street. She figured that after you come home from school, there's recreation at school, so you go back there and you play volleyball or whatever. So I'd go back every day, and one day I heard this man playing on the piano down in the hallway in school. So instead of playing volleyball, I followed the piano.
When I went down there, I stood in the door, and I see this man playing on the piano, and I said, "Can I sing?" And he said, "Can you?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, come on in." He said, "What could you sing?" I forgot what song - I think it was "Gee Whiz" - but I started singing. The school door was open, which carries an echo, and Dee Dee Kennebrew's mom walked down the hallway. She said to me, "Was that you, little girl, singing with that big voice?" And I said, "Yeah." She says, "My daughter's in a group called The Crystals. Would you like to join them?" I said, "Yeah."
Then I realized what she said, and I said, "But you'll have to ask my mother." She came by the house and said, "She's so good, we'd like her to join the group." And that's how I joined The Crystals, from Dee Dee's mom.
Now, here's how I became the lead singer.
When we started with Phil, Barbara sang lead on "There's No Other (Like My Baby)." Then Phil went in the studio and we did "Uptown" and all the other ones Barbara did. "What A Nice Way To Turn Seventeen," "I Love You Eddie," all of them I did the background.
So we're on stage at the Apollo. Barbara is really stage frightened. She's 18. I'm 13, so I don't know about stage fright. We're in the dressing room, and Barbara says to me, "Do you want to lead 'There's No Other Like My Baby'?" And I said, "I can?" And she said, "Yeah." Next thing you know, she says, "You want to lead 'Uptown'?" I said, "Yeah."
Now, mind you, when I was on stage previously with Barbara, she used to shake her leg, and I thought it was so cool. She used to shake this one leg. And so years after, we talked. I said, "Barbara, I used to think you were so sexy and cute when you used to shake your leg." She said, "Oh, La La, I didn't tell you, but I used to shake my leg because I was frightened to sing lead."
So from that day on I sang the lead for "There's No Other Like My Baby" and "Uptown" on stage, and then when we'd add other repertoires to the group, I had the strongest voice, so I was the lead singer. Barbara, she really didn't like doing the lead. Plus, her voice wasn't as powerful as mine from singing gospel and we just had a completely different tone and projection. So that's how I became the lead singer.
Phil knew I could lead, but because I was so young, he still was stuck on Barbara's sound that was in his head, that softer sound.
We were managed by Joe Scandore, who used to manage Don Rickles for 40 something years. Now, Barbara had put down all the tracks in New York, everything as all of us original Crystals. Phil relocated to California, and we needed a record out. Joe Scandore was bugging him and saying, "You have to put a record on the Crystals. Even though you're in California now, you still have a contract, they're due for a record." Phil kept procrastinating.
I never told this story to Dee Dee and them, because I was young and I forgot about it, but I went up to Joe's office one day. Joe loved me like his daughter, and he said, "Oh, come on in, La La." He and this big, big mafioso guy, Jim, were laughing.
I'm a kid, about 14 then. He said, "Jim, tell La La what happened when you just came from California." And Jim said, "I went to Phil, because Joe said we need a record out. I ran Phil around the f-ing table, and he's going to record you guys. And I told him if he don't record you, I'm going to break his leg and kill his mother."
I'm confused, and I'm saying, "What?" And he said, "Yeah, because he went to California, he's supposed to put out an f-ing record on you guys and he's procrastinating."
Well, I didn't think anything of it. The next thing you know we're riding in a car, all of us girls going on a gig, and we hear: "He's a rebel and he'll never never be any good." We hear "He's a Rebel," but we don't think anything of it. At the end, the DJ said, "The Crystals, 'He's a Rebel.'" We looked at each other like, "The Crystals? Where did that come from?" So we were confused.
So we get to the gig, we call Joe on the phone and we tell him what we just heard. Now we have this record out that's on its way to #1 with "He's a Rebel," but we don't know the girl singing it, and we don't know why it happened. So now Barbara's voice is like, [singing softly] "There's a story I want you to know," she can't do it. They're looking at me. I'm 14. They're saying, "La La, if we get a record from California, we've got to learn this."
So we get on the phone with Joe, and he's pissed off. He says, "Well, we've got a record, we have to learn it. The same thing with 'He's Sure the Boy I Love.' They'll probably do two of them at the same time."
For "The Boy I Love," I don't have that accent. "I always dreamed the boy I love would come along." I had to learn to be Darlene's voice. Now, I'm from Brooklyn. You know, Carl, I would have said [with Brooklyn accent], "I always dreamed the boy I love would come along." So now I've got to listen to this (singing), "I always dreamed the boy I loved would come along and he's be tall and handsome, rich and strong. Now I love my boy."
That's what she's singing. So now I'm listening and I'm saying, "Oh, god, I'm so embarrassed over this accent, because this is not Brooklyn, it's not New York, it's between Southern California and the South and I don't speak like this." So I keep listening. And Barbara says, "La La, try it." I said, "Okay, okay." And then we had to learn it from a record.
Joe must have really wanted to kill Phil. "He's a Rebel" was recorded in 1963, "Da Doo Ron Ron" was recorded in 1963. Phil must have got the word that they were going to break his legs, because the next thing you know I'm on the plane. He knew I could lead sing, but they were probably fighting him. When I heard Jim say that to me as a kid, I didn't know how to take it, because my brain wasn't comprehending hurting somebody.
What are you going to do when you're 14 and the girls are 18 and you've got a name under The Crystals? Should we throw it in the garbage can when our name is underneath it? Phil was a jackass. He shouldn't have did that. But now that it's out in our name, what are we going to do? There's no place we can run. We've got to run with the embarrassment, we've got to do it on stage.
Love claims she was paid $5000 for her contribution, but thought a Spector-produced smash with her name on it would be forthcoming. Later in 1963, Spector did release three charting singles sung by and credited to Darlene Love: "Wait Til' My Bobby Gets Home" (#26), "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" (#39), and "A Fine Fine Boy" (#53).
When I used to go to California I loved Darlene so much I used to get in a hotel, and the first one I would call was Darlene because I loved her voice. Then when they finally would come to the studio, I was like, "Oh, my God, here's Darlene." And here's Fanita.
Fanita would be so sweet; Darlene would be a little bit brush off, probably because Phil replaced me too quick on her and she was this star of the studio. Maybe it had an effect on her. It did to me, because I idolized Darlene.
So it happened like that. Phil dropped me on a plane. Joe Scandore flew with me now. The Mafia, Joe Scandore flew with me, and I was in the studio putting down "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Then He Kissed Me," "Little Boy"... never again did he use Darlene.
Songfacts: It sounds like what you're saying is that if he had put out "He's a Rebel" as by Darlene Love, he would have had a problem, because first of all, she was an unknown name, whereas The Crystals were already established. And second of all, she wouldn't have been able to promote the song by performing at all the places that The Crystals did.
La La: It's because she could not go on the road. She could not sing on the road, because she was married, she had two children at the time. All of these crazy things were happening in her life, and Phil couldn't risk it.
So I go up to Bobby Sheen, and I'm heartbroken. I said, "Where's Darlene?" He said, "Oh, Darlene can't come on the road, she has a baby and she's home married."
She couldn't even go out with Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. She would never go out with The Crystals because we were an established group and you couldn't go out with anybody. I was sort of heartbroken because I admired her so much.
I think Phil used her, which was not right, and said, "I'll pacify you in some way." But Phil knew that The Crystals name would make a hit. Even if it didn't go #1, it would have went someplace. With Darlene, it wouldn't have went anyplace. He issued "The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" after she bugged him, but it didn't make that big smash, and that was underneath Darlene Love.
Songfacts: When was the first time that you met Darlene?
La La: When I was 14, 15; when Phil first flew me out there.
She tried to cover up the lie of "Da Doo Ron Ron." She says, with all this craziness in her book, "Oh, Phil erased my voice and put La La on. He recorded me first with 'Da Doo Ron Ron' and erased it and brought this young girl in." It's all a bunch of fabrication.
When I went to the studio to do "Da Doo Ron Ron," Phil had taught me the song. When I walked in the studio, all the musicians were there, and after they finished putting down the track, I sat there for hours. Me and Cher went out to get something to eat. We come back, they're still putting down the track. All of the sudden, when the track is finished, Phil says, "La La, go in the booth and put down the song now." I went in there, put down the song. I had trouble with (singing) "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." I had trouble with that because he liked my ending, because it was my ending in my head, and he said, "I want that again." I had to double it, and it was hard for me to double it, because I couldn't get together with the "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah," and then (in lower voice), "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." It was confusing. He said, "La La, try it again." And that's how we recorded it.
Darlene waited 'til 1984, after I moved to Europe, to say that she sang on "Da Doo Ron Ron." I knew it was happening, but I wasn't here or in the group anyway. I was in Europe, but I used to speak to Dee Dee every now and then. She said, "La La, Darlene is running around saying some lies. Sometimes she'll say she was a Crystal, and then she's claiming she did 'Da Doo Ron Ron.' Every time I do an interview, I have to say that La La Brooks did 'Da Doo Ron Ron.'" So she and Dee Dee used to get into it.
Dee Dee didn't have the leverage to go up against her, because my girls, the original Crystals, never flew with me to California. I did it myself. So she knew Dee Dee would not be able to challenge her.
When I came back in '97, I was trying to get work. Shirley (Owens) with The Shirelles, she called me and said, "Darlene is going around saying she did 'Da Doo Ron Ron.'" I was heartbroken, because I loved her so much. And from that day that I got back in '97, I was fighting.
I wasn't only fighting Darlene, Carl. I was fighting Dee Dee in my original group. Because when I left in 1984, Dee Dee trademarked the name The Crystals. Now, when she trademarked the name, I was in Europe. Barbara and Mary (Thomas), the original girls, left the business and could give a damn about the name. So now when I come back, I couldn't work because Darlene's saying she did "Da Doo Ron Ron" and Dee Dee trademarked the name. I had contracts for a couple of thousand dollars to book as The Crystals, but Dee Dee would write them and say, "If La La uses the name The Crystals, because I trademarked it, I'll sue her." So now these promotors are saying, "Well, listen, we can't deal with this foolishness. We just won't use La La." So they'd call me and say, "Listen, your gig is cancelled, because we don't mess with the trademark and name."
Thank God I had The Cutting Room, which is a New York club here. Steve Walter kept booking me in The Cutting Room, so I kept putting "La La Brooks, original lead singer in The Crystals." I was that good on stage and that strong that it made my name come out from underneath The Crystals.
But with Dee Dee, it was okay. I loved Dee Dee because I grew up with her. I was 13 when I joined the group, Dee Dee was 15. Barbara and them were 18. So with Dee Dee I have more of a bond, and I can understand her being afraid because an original Crystal has come back to America, and she might lose some gigs.
I had to pull myself together to where I was powerful enough and strong enough, and I was a fighter. Dee Dee couldn't be a fighter to Darlene. I could be a fighter. I said, "Darlene, I will stand toe to toe with you." I even called her on the phone when she did this movie. I saw the movie with her making it look like The Crystals needed her. She needed the Crystals.
I called her on the phone, I said, "Darlene, it's a shame that you would lie. But you know what? It's mental. You have enough leverage to go on. Phil put you under the Crystals name and made you somebody. Why would you even lie? Don't worry about me, because I know the truth, but you're going to lie to your fans and make them believe that you did something that you didn't?"
All I can do is tell the truth and stand for the truth. I can't do anything more. It's not that I don't love Darlene and care about her, but I just wouldn't lie. When "He's a Rebel" first came out, we told the truth, because why would we lie?
In 1963, Murray the K said on the radio, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Crystals didn't do 'He's a Rebel.' This girl named Darlene did it." So it was all out, and we didn't care, because I could sing it well. But you can't keep a lie.
Songfacts: I didn't know that. So Murray the K back in the '60s broke the story that it wasn't the original Crystals doing "He's a Rebel"?
La La: Yes. Murray the K called me, and I spoke with him. I told Murray that it was not my voice.
Songfacts: Oh, so you exposed yourself?
La La: I did. Murray the K had called me about it. We had been working with Murray every now and then.
Songfacts: Because you would do his shows?
La La: Yeah. And Murray the K loved us. He was friendly with us. Murray the K was cool. So when it came out, he was questioning it.
Songfacts: Here's where this gets weird: It seems like somebody would want to tell you to hush up about that because it's not good for you to go out performing songs that they know you didn't sing on. And, in fact, I came across an interview The Crystals did on your European tour, and when they asked you guys about about your favorite song, the reply was "He's a Rebel." And, of course, in England they had no idea that you guys didn't sing the original version of that song.
Did you come to the conclusion that it would be in your best interest as a group to not have that out, because when you were out performing, you wouldn't want the audience to know that you didn't do the studio version?
La La: We were in twixt and between. If we could get away with it in Europe, we wouldn't say anything. But we couldn't get away with it with Murray the K.
Songfacts: Okay. I see what you mean.
La La: And eventually we just gave up. Murray knows everything, because we worked with him all the time. But when you go to Europe, you're going to say yeah, yeah, whatever.
So eventually you swallow the embarrassment. You swallow the bullet.
Songfacts: Now, La La, you said that you were the only Crystal that would get flown out to Los Angeles. Does that mean that the other girls were not on those songs like "Then He Kissed Me"?
La La: They're not on "Then He Kissed Me." They're not on "Da Doo Ron Ron," they're not on "Little Boy," they're not on "Girls Can Tell." It's sad to say, they're not on that. Anything that I was flown out to California to do, they're not on.
I'm on everything in the background that Barbara's done, except for "There's No Other (Like My Baby)." I sang all the leads after I got into the group, but I'd just been turning 13 when I joined the group. There was a girl in there named Myrna Giraud, and she was pregnant. There were five of them, and I took the place of Myrna, who was pregnant and had to leave the group. When I got into the group, I began doing lead when Barbara didn't want to do it, and from that day on I took the lead. I took the lead on stage, I took the lead in every aspect of the group. When there were new songs, some Ray Charles things, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," cover versions, I became the lead singer, and Barbara did mine because Barbara was afraid.
Songfacts: Who would sing backup with you at the Los Angeles sessions?
La La: It varied. Now, that's another thing: when Phil would put down the tracks, he would not have the background singers there. The Blossoms wouldn't be there. He'd use the Blossoms most of the time, but on one of the Christmas songs - "Wooden Soldiers" - those were white girls, they were not black girls.
Songfacts: I was going to ask you about the Christmas songs. That means you're the only Crystal that appears on the Christmas songs that you did on that album - is that correct?
La La: Yeah. I'm the only one that did "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," "Wooden Soldiers" and "Rudolph." I did the three.
Songfacts: On the cover of that album there are four Crystals - the whole group is appearing there. But you were the only one that was actually singing on it.
La La: I'm the only one actually singing on it. And when we did the cover for that Christmas album where Darlene is up at the top, we never saw each other.
Songfacts: So you didn't cross paths with her at all during the Christmas album?
La La: No. We did the pictures in New York, and Phil had all the sweaters for us. We went into this room, and he took the box of sweaters out. He gave me that green one - I liked that one the best of all.
I think Darlene was flown in later because she was coming from California. The Ronettes were already in New York, and we were already in New York. We went into the studio, and a man was taking the pictures. We put on our sweaters and he took our pictures. Then he brought in The Ronettes, who did their thing; we must have waved a pinkie wave to them. The next thing you know it looks on the album that we had seen each other, talked to each other, and hollered and said hello. No, it wasn't like that.
Songfacts: You become the lead singer of these songs that are very much songs that a teenage girl would sing. Was that contrived by Phil Spector? Did he think, Jeez, wouldn't it be great to have an actual teenage girl doing "Then He Kissed Me"?
La La: Yes. I'm telling you, when I spoke to Jack Nitzsche, he said, "Listen, Phil is a genius. He knew exactly what he wanted. Darlene's voice was good for some things, but it was too gospel, and it was too heavy for certain songs like 'Then He Kissed Me,' for 'Da Doo Ron Ron.' Phil knew what he wanted." Phil was very, very good to me.
Songfacts: What kind of instruction did he give you when you were doing "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me"?
On "Then He Kissed Me," he said, "Think of somebody kissing you." I was a kid, so I'm not going to think like that. So he would turn off the lights, I would have a little light on my music, on my words, and then he said, "Now, concentrate." And I said (singing), "Well, he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance." He said, "That's the way you do it!"
So I guess he had to train my mind to think that I was talking about a boy. He knew how to get things out of you. Phil knew how to push you, or if he was dissatisfied with how you were doing something, Phil ran it the way he wanted to run it.
Songfacts: Had you even been kissed by the time you had recorded "Then He Kissed Me"?
La La: Yeah. My little boyfriend at 13 years kissed me on my mouth at the door. But not kiss kiss - you know what I'm saying?
Songfacts: How were relations with the rest of the girls when you became the only voice and the only one doing the actual recording?
La La: You know what, I guess maybe because we worked so much, nothing was ever said.
Songfacts: So you guys got along even when you were on those crazy bus rides and doing all these shows?
La La: Yeah, we got along. And I'm not bull-crapping you. Barbara and Mary went to high school together, so they had a rapport. I don't know which school Patsy (original member Patsy Wright) went to, but it was in Brooklyn. So those three had a rapport.
Me and Dee Dee had a rapport because we went to high school together. We went to Quintano's Professional School with Gregory Hines and Patty Duke. I was put into private school at 13, and I never went to a mixed school. I went to school with a lot of rich children. That's what I grew up with. So I guess by us being in school together, and Mary and Barbara being in school together, we had our differences, but nothing really bad.
Songfacts: Did you say that you would hear the tracks being put down when you would do these songs?
La La: Some tracks I would hear. I can recall "Then He Kissed Me" and "Da Doo Ron Ron" with all the musicians.
Songfacts: But did you hear the tracks before you recorded the vocals?
La La: Yeah, because the musicians would be in the studio. They would put down the track first.
Songfacts: So you would hear them put down the track and then you would do your vocals after they were done?
La La: Yes, because the studio would be so crowded. When I was putting down "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me," I saw the full band. Especially on "Da Doo Ron Ron." Because I was listening to Phil, I was in the studio inside the control room. After they put down the music, I would sit there and I would wait, and then Phil would say, "Okay, La La, now you can put down the vocals," and I'd go into that little booth and put down the vocals.
Then sometimes when I'd see Darlene and them come in, I'd already put down the leads. Phil would bring them in to put down the background.
Songfacts: So the Blossoms, including Darlene Love, would come in to do background vocals and you guys would be crossing paths then.
La La: Yeah. I would be near the vending machine, I would be out of the studio and saying Hi to them, and then they'd go in and I'd see them. I'd go in the control room where Phil was, and I'd see Darlene and them putting down background. I'd even listen to them put down background, because I could hear it through the door. I would see them lined up around the mike.
Once or twice when I put down the lead vocal, say, on like "Little Boy," "Girls Can Tell," me and Cher would be sitting in the listening booth, we'd see Darlene and them. And then one time Phil said, "La La, come in, come in. Put down the extra voice." I forgot whether it was "Da Doo Ron Ron" or one of those songs, but I had to put down an extra voice and background, because he wanted it fuller.
Most of the time I would see the band there, because Phil would work them so much. It would be, "Oh, god, when is Phil gonna stop?" He's, "Put this in, do this string here." I would hear one of them say, "Phil," and look at his watch because they were union and he would have to give them a break. Phil would say, "All right, take 10 minutes."
So when he'd give them a break, they'd go out the side door and they'd smoke a cigarette or they'd get something to eat. They'd come back and Phil would be timing them. "Alright, you've got two minutes. Come on." Because now he's on a mission.
Stateside, they did two stints on Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars" tour the same year, sharing space on the bus with an up-and-coming Motown act called The Supremes. The word used most often to describe these tours is "grueling," but they were a great way for artists to gain exposure around the country. Other acts along for the ride included The Drifters, Brian Hyland, Dee Dee Sharp and Lou Christie.
La La: Crazy. [Laughing] Dick Clark was a jewel. But it was hard. It was very hard. The buses were hard, and it was just hard driving. But Dick Clark was a gem when it came to the racist part that we had to deal with. That was the hardest thing about going on the tours: the racism. It was a lot to endure for me as a kid.
Songfacts: The Supremes said that when they went on those tours, it was okay when they were in the North, but then as the tours would go farther south you would hit more problems.
La La: Yeah, so many problems, it was terrible. On the Dick Clark tours, we couldn't eat in the restaurants. We'd get to hotels and we couldn't stay in hotels; the white acts would stay in the Sheraton, we'd have to stay in a motel that had roaches and mice. After Dick Clark dropped the white artists off at the Sheraton, the bus driver had to drop us off at the other motel. Then in the morning, all our colleagues at the Sheraton were picked up already, and they'd pick us up on the highway with our suitcases and then drive us to the gig. We'd join the other people on the bus. It was very difficult.
Songfacts: Where would this happen?
La La: South Carolina, North Carolina.
Songfacts: Was that fairly common?
La La: Yeah. It was all over. I remember one incident when Diana Ross, she was in the front of the bus with all the white guys. We were all like family, so she was hugging on them and she was just playing with them. They stopped at a restaurant, and Diana Ross got off the bus to go with them. All of a sudden Diana was coming back and we were going, "What the hell happened?" They got in, but Diana didn't get in. She came back on the bus and told us that they didn't allow blacks in there.
Dick Clark ended up saying, Okay, if they can't eat in that restaurant, then you guys can't eat in there. And then he had this guy named Eddie take a note of everybody that wanted hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and he'd bring them on a big box and then he'd hand them out to everybody, and we had to eat on the bus to go to the next gig. Dick wasn't going to let one person feel bad.
We played one place in Richmond, Virginia, where we weren't allowed to stay in a hotel. The white people could go up into the rooms and we had to stay in the lobby. We had to go to the next gig in about eight hours, so we had to lie on the floor in the lobby because they wouldn't allow us in the room.
The guys were so cool, the white kids, they were saying, "We're going to sneak you up to the room." But those people down at the reception desk, they weren't allowing it. They were watching everything to make sure that we weren't going to take one of those rooms. It was horrible.
Songfacts: What about in Europe, was that any different?
La La: Europe was nice. We did Australia, New Zealand, we did England, Scotland. It was cool. We were with Manfred Mann and Dave Clark Five, and we did some things in England with Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield, a television thing.
England was cool. We didn't have too much of a problem in England. We played a lot of the odeon theatres. England loved black music, and they loved black artists, so we were accepted more in Europe than we were in America.
Songfacts: What about the TV shows that you did at that time, were those all lip-synch performances?
La La: Yeah. Those were lip-synch.
Songfacts: How would that work out?
La La: Well, the Dick Clark one [American Bandstand], he would just tell us when he was going to call us on and what song we were going to do. That was the hardest thing, because I had to lip-synch "He's A Rebel," and I was like, Oh, Lord, have mercy. I was always embarrassed in some way and I was always feeling bad. Sometimes I'd have to tell whoever didn't know.
But I made up for it because I played The Cutting Room two or three years ago and I called Darlene. That's why I'm hurt so much by her with "Da Doo Ron Ron," because she knew I was playing The Cutting Room so much. She called me one day and said, "La La, you play The Cutting Room a lot in New York, how do you get in there?" I said, "Darlene, if I ever play there again, I'll tell you and invite you down and you can talk to the guy."
So one day, about two or three years ago, I was playing there, so I called Darlene. I said, "Darlene, listen, you can come down and talk to the guy, I'm playing there." And she said, "Oh, cool, La La." So then I called her back, I said, "Darlene, if you come down, would you like to do 'He's A Rebel'?" She said, "Oh, sure." So I had my own band, I had my own music, she was coming to see my show. I said, "Well, come downstairs and then my music director will get you a key." So she came downstairs. And I said, "Midge, Darlene's going to do 'He's A Rebel.'" I would sing it in a different key, and Darlene said, "I don't change my key. I sing it in the same key."
So we get on stage and she was sitting in the audience with her husband. I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I always felt like Milli Vanilli doing this 'He's A Rebel' thing. This is a woman that is so bad that can sing so great." And I called her on stage. I could have taken the mike and sang a duet with her and come in on her with "He's A Rebel," but I never did. I let her have the whole thing and sing.
Songfacts: This story is all taking place when you are very young. I'm wondering how you get your high school degree or how you even go through normal teenage life while you have all these commitments?
La La: Well, when I went to school, I only went from 10 to 1, and I had correspondence. I was watched very closely. I graduated from Quintano's Professional School. I would be given my work to do on the road, which always got done. I was 14, 15, but Barbara and them had finished high school, so they were going to help me. And if I don't do my homework, Mary's going to just grab me and sit me down. Mary was like the older sister, Barbara was the passive one, Dee Dee was the more educated one. If I had a problem, Dee Dee was smarter and she would say, "La La, do it this way." The girls were in different categories when it came to disciplining and helping me.
Then I had a guardian. Patsy Wright's mom was my guardian, so I wasn't allowed to do things like the other girls did. Barbara and them could go out with Diana Ross and they could go out maybe to a party after, because they're 18, 19. I couldn't do that. I had to stay in my room, do my homework. Barbara would say, "Did you finish it? We have to get it off tomorrow to the school." So by the time I got back to the school, I had been caught up with everything, because they would give it to me before I left.
Songfacts: You did cross paths with The Supremes. Did it ever occur to you guys to jump ship and go to Motown?
La La: Well, when Phil was acting up with us, I remember in the car Dee Dee and Barbara and all of them discussing how Motown wants us on their label. And I'm listening. Dee Dee and Barbara said, "We don't want to go on their label." And I'm saying to myself, "I don't know what the heck we're talking about."
When Berry Gordy asked us, Dee Dee and them felt - which I can understand - that we would get lost, because there were too many girl groups.
Songfacts: So you were asked to go on the Motown label?
La La: Definitely. By Berry. In fact, I saw Berry not too long ago and he said, "Yeah, I wanted you girls," and I started laughing. Me and Darlene did something about three or four years ago at B.B. King's called "Motown Meets Broadway." Berry Gordy and one of the writers came back in the dressing room. He said, "Hey, La La, how you doing?" I guess he saw me as a girl group and he was like, "Oh, you lookin' good." I said, "Lord, I'm a grown woman now." He said, "You know we tried to get you all when you all were younger." I said, "Yeah, I heard you did, Berry."
Songfacts: Is that something that you regret?
La La: No. We didn't regret that because we had so much success with Phil. Look at The Velvelettes...
La La: No, the Velvelettes. They had "Needle In A Haystack."
Songfacts: I'm not familiar with them.
La La: Yeah, see, they were on Motown, so we would have been in that category. And that girl from the Velvelettes, she could sing. She was very good, but they had that one song and they were lost.
Songfacts: La La, so much of your story takes place during the '60s, but clearly you've done a lot of other things. What are some of your other memorable accomplishments?
La La: Well, I was in the original cast in Hair on Broadway. Then I did Two Gentlemen of Verona, then I did the movie Cotton Comes to Harlem. Then when I went to Europe I had my own radio show for almost two and a half years.
Songfacts: When you say your own radio show, what do you mean by that?
La La: I had a radio show on Blue Danube Radio in Vienna. I went on from 2-4, and I would play music from '40s to '60s music. I was a disc jockey.
Songfacts: You were a disc jockey in Vienna?
La La: Yeah, I was a disc jockey in Vienna. There was a station called Blue Danube Radio and it was only in English. Other stations were in German - it was the only English radio.
They knew who I was, and I think I got it because of my voice being soft and they knew I had "Da Doo Ron Ron" with The Crystals. So this lady that owned Blue Danube Radio hired me, and I'd play music from 2-4 every Sunday.
They would give me my direction, and on a sheet they would write down what songs I'm going to be playing the next Sunday. I'd go up on Thursday, they'd give it to me and I had to be prepared for Sunday.
I had a friend that had a radio shop, so when they'd give me the playlist, I would borrow his CDs and I'd go home and I'd practice them: I would sing with Sam Cooke, I would sing with Elton John. Whoever I was going to play. I knew that I could move my seat back from the mike and I would be able to blend with them as a duet. People were writing and calling in thinking that this was a duet that I had with John Lennon, Sam Cooke, Elton John, but it wasn't.
When I was coming up as a kid, when you'd hear a disc jockey come on, sing over your record, you'd get pissed off and say, "I wish he's shut the hell up, because that's what I want to hear." I knew if I wanted my show to be good, I would have to make it different, so I would practice when to come in and when not to come in. When there was a little music, I would sing.
Songfacts: So you would augment the songs as they were playing.
La La: Exactly. And then when I would have to speak, I'd push my chair up and then speak properly on the mike. But if I was singing with them, I would push my chair back because I didn't want to overpower his voice. I wanted to blend.
And the lady that owned the station, I forgot her name, she would come and say, "La La, I'm getting so much mail. They're asking for this duet, this record that you sang on with Elton John." It was crazy. There was no such thing.
Songfacts: Did you save any of your airchecks from those days?
La La: Do you know what, I did. But what happened was I came here and I got this manager named Janet, a manager from hell. She was so aggressive, and I was so much in the dark. I gave her all my cassettes, and then she wanted me to do something that I didn't want to do. She said to me, "Well, I won't send your material back to you." I said, "Yes, you will," and she ended up taking my material. If I went crazy I could probably get it, it's on a reel in Vienna.
I would do the show and I would tell my daughter to put a tape in, and she's record it in the kitchen. She'd tape every show I did. And it was lost.
Songfacts: It's too bad. It would just be so much fun to listen to that.
La La: I was so upset, I cried. But you get involved with somebody and you give them your material, they have a right over you.
But I love doing disc jockey work. I love it. It was so funny, because some of the guys thought I was younger than I was and they'd write me letters. Some of them thought I was white - they didn't think I was black. And sometimes I'd trick them. People would say, how long is your hair? What color are your eyes? Do you have beautiful blue eyes? And I would say, I do, they're very blue. It was hilarious, because my voice was much lighter than when I'm talking now. They didn't think I was black.
It was really fun to do. I've had a full life, and I'm not really angry at anything. I just wish I could work with Darlene. In fact, when Sony released a compilation album on us with Phil, I said, why don't you get us together - me, Darlene and Ronnie [Spector] - and we could do a show. She does "He's a Rebel," "He's Sure The Boy I Love"; I do "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Then He Kissed Me"; Ronnie does "Be My Baby," "Walking in the Rain." I said, "Why don't we just make money and forget all that other nonsense."
Songfacts: It would be nice if there was a happy ending so we could put a bow on it and let everything go under the bridge. But it's sad, because it rarely works that way. And I also understand that it's really difficult to have your accomplishments hijacked, and that can have a bad effect on your psyche. I totally get it.
La La: That's true. And I think eventually Darlene will come to her terms. Especially when she knows I love her as an artist and love her as a person. I can tell you if I'm lying. But some people don't have that strength. But she could prove it. She doesn't even have to say it. She could prove it by us working together. If you work together, people automatically know that you've worked it out.
I don't dislike Darlene, I love Darlene to death. But I'm angry, not by the song as much, because I know the truth. I'm angry because I loved her that much. My heart went out to her when I put her on stage with me and said how I felt doing her song. It's like somebody taking your hand and you bowing down, and that's what I did on stage on my show. Then you put up there that you did "Da Doo Ron Ron," and you stab me in the back. I think that's what hurts more than the song, because that's not my nature. It's just not my nature to do that.
But I think because I'm younger and I have more energy, I'm very much on fire on stage. I think that has a lot to do with it. My look is different. My look is younger. Some women in the business, like Darlene, who looks older, it has an effect on them. Which it shouldn't, because you should just say "Thank God you're here." Doesn't matter how old you are, you're still here. But I think if we could just get it out there and I get on stage with her and we just do it, I give her a big hug and say, Girl, you know what, we got it going on now, the past is the past. Just sing your ass off.
September 12, 2013
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