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Monday, September 11, 2017

The Chantels: We Are The Chantels


1) Maybe; 2) The Plea; 3) Come My Little Baby; 4) Congratulations; 5) Prayee; 6) He's Gone; 7) I Love You So; 8) Every Night; 9) Whoever You Are; 10) How Could You Call It Off?; 11) Sure Of Love; 12) If You Try.

Allegedly, the first relatively successful African-American girl group were The Bobbettes, whose ʽMr. Leeʼ (available on various Atlantic compilations) is a fun, giggly romp and who lasted all the way up to 1974 — but with only a small handful of singles to their name. The Chantels, how­ever, came right on their heels, and with ʽMaybeʼ, pretty much invented the classic girl group sound. Technically, it is still in the doo-wop paradigm, but with Richard Barrett's loud, brash piano playing and lead singer Arlene Smith's go-all-the-way shrill, gospel-and-classical-influ­en­ced vocals, ʽMaybeʼ does to doo-wop pretty much the same thing that the Beatles did to pop music. It isn't much of a song, but it's a hell of a performance, and it must have sounded just as liberating for young girls in 1958 as Little Richard did for young boys.

The good news is that the single caught on so well that The Chantels got to release a whole LP on the End Records label — no mean feat in 1958 for five young girls from The Bronx, who probab­ly deserve to have their names listed: Arlene Smith, Sonia Goring, Renee Minus, Jackie Landry, and Lois Harris. The bad news is that, although Richard Barrett (lead singer for The Valentines who took the girls under his patronage and produced their records) wrote some songs for them and Arlene Smith herself also contributed to some of the numbers, most of the other tunes pale in comparison to ʽMaybeʼ, largely based on the same '50s progression but not adding much to the original impact — not surprising for a cautious pioneering act in the late Fifties, but twelve songs set to the exact same doo-wop melody can be as mind-rotting as twelve 12-bar blues tunes in a row. Correction: eleven songs — the twelfth one, ʽCome My Little Babyʼ, is the only one here to feature a more playful R&B sound, a massive sax solo, group vocals rather than lead vocal with harmonies... and is the most embarrassing and silly one of the lot.

Repeated listens still bring out some specific goodness in the Smith/Barrett collaboration on ʽThe Pleaʼ, with some of the most nicely chirped baby-baby-baby's ever, and in the bass-heavy ʽCon­gratulationsʼ, which describes the classic situation of betrayal with a nice mix of desperation, sarcasm, and arrogance. But overall, it is useless to dwell on the minor differences between the songs — as a single, somewhat monochrome package, they all get by largely on the strength of Arlene Smith's lead vocal, in the tenseness and shrill power of which you can see the seeds of everybody from The Ronettes to The Shangri-La's (particularly the Shangri-La's, with their em­phasis on total broken-heartedness). And after all, it is not that bad to have to listen to 11 cases of the doo-wop progression in a row when you have such a great voice to drive 'em.

The weirdest deal here might be with the original album cover where, for some reason, the Bronx ladies are dressed in «Southern Plantation» style despite not having anything whatsoever to do with the art of cotton picking. Maybe somebody found that embarrassing even in 1958, because the album cover was quickly withdrawn and replaced with an even weirder choice of two utterly white teenagers, a girl and a boy, picking out a Chantels song on the jukebox — then again, ʽMaybeʼ did hit #15 on the pop charts (in addition to #2 on the R&B charts), implying that white folks were probably just as enthralled by this new sound as black folks. But regardless of the silly (or offensive, if you prefer to look at it from a 21st century perspective) taste in album covers, and regardless even of the not-too-great variety of compositions, We Are The Chantels deserves a thumbs up for both historical importance and one fine wave of personal charisma.

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