They aren’t called “golden” for nothing.
What we know today is that the Golden Oldies represent a time period of simplicity. The beginning of Rock and Roll changed not only music but became a cultural movement.
The Shirelles are a familiar name to some but have songs that are familiar to everyone. After the "British Invasion" of the 1960s, John Lennon professed them to be his favorite band. They were the first all-female group to have a Number One hit on the Billboard charts, and they paved the way and influenced musicians for decades.
The New Jersey quartet had the character and the talent (of course), but it took an unknown housewife named Florence Greenberg to believe. The story of Florence Greenberg and The Shirelles isn't too well-known to the majority of us, but it plays a very significant role in our history, and it has been brought to life on the Broadway stage.
I was fortunate enough to speak with a rising star who portrays Doris of The Shirelles -- Crystal Starr Knighton tells us about her rediscovery of The Shirelles, their story, and her musical influences, check it out, because Baby It’s You!...
YH: What attracted you to the role? How did you first hear about it?
CSK: I actually was on tour with a singer named Joan Sebastian; he is a Spanish superstar singer in Mexico. I was touring with him and Christian Castro, another artist, and my mentor Leslie Drayton gave me a call and told me that there was this little play going on. He said, “I don’t know if you would be interested, but they are looking for some singers... give this guy a call; his name is GenoHenderson.” And Geno is actually a character in the show -- his name is Jacko Henderson, and he is an amazing, amazing, amazing singer and actor. So, he said, “Go ahead and give this guy a call. It’s basically a little play out in West Hollywood.” So, at the time, I wasn’t really interested, because I was touring in and out of Mexico and Latin America every day of the week. So, I give it some thought. I literally put a number down, couldn’t find it, then found it about a week-and-a-half later, and I’m like, “Oh, why don’t I just give this guy a call?” And he basically sold me on the idea. He was like, “It’s playing The Shirelles, you’re gonna love it. There are all these people coming in to see the show like Quincy Jones and Barry Gordy.” And I’m like, okay, I’ll come and audition. So he had been calling me like 30 times a day to sell me on the show, because I was still not sold on it, because I was busy at the time. So, I finally came in, and I was 15 minutes late, because it’s L.A. and you know how traffic goes. I show up, and I think I was the last person to audition, and they were like, “We absolutely love you!” And they gave me the job on the spot. At the time, I was like, I don’t know if I can go through with it because I was obligated. But a long story short, I left the tour and I joined Baby It’s You! in West Hollywood at Coast Playhouse.
YH: Did you know the name Florence Greenberg before?
CSK: No, not at all. The thing that we say in the show is, “She is the most famous person that nobody knows about.” I had no idea about her.
YH: A lot of people have no idea the singers behind some of the songs that they know are The Shirelles.
CSK: Exactly. Even for me, I had no idea who they were. I actually talked to my mom about it, and I said, “Mom, there is this guy -- I was talking about Gino at the time -- who keeps telling me about this show and they want me to play The Shirelles?” And she was like, “Are you kidding me? You don’t know who The Shirelles are? They sing all these things...” I was like, wow, I didn’t know they sang all these hits like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “Mama Said.”
YH: You play Doris Jackson; what is she like?
CSK: Really fun-loving. I’m the really sweet character that kind of brings everybody together. The one that is footloose and free, really fun and giddy. It’s kind of like my personality, I would say, a little bit.
YH: Was there any input from any of the original members, or people who were around during their time?
CSK: Oh yeah, definitely. People who actually knew Florence Greenberg. Even now, people come and they tell us all the stories that they have about Florence and how she was as a person, and they same with The Shirelles and how it was working with them. So yeah, there are a lot of people who come and share with us how they really were as people, and how they were in business. It is really interesting, because Florence Greenberg was actually a lovely person, but she was also stern; because, think about it -- it’s 1960 and there was no such thing as a woman out there doing what she did. She broke down a lot of walls.
YH: The Shirelles were considered to be Rock and Roll; Is that what you guys have learned, that they are Rock and Roll?
CSK: Yeah. We basically say that they set the standards for everyone. They were the first girl group to have a Number One hit. In a part of the show, I sing “He’s So Fine,” and Florence Greenberg stops me and she says, "Oh stop, stop, stop. That was great, but we can’t do the song.” And we’re like, “Well, why not?” And she says, “Because we are the originals,” and The Chiffons actually sang that song. That just goes to show that The Shirelles were the originals.
YH : I must say that this is very exciting. It’s nice people can get the stories from the glory days of music.
CSK: Exactly. Even in my own music, I do that. I just released my new single called “Alright” featuring L. Young, and a lot of people have said that it reminds them of Marvin Gay. People ask all the time, why do you think this music lasted? Well, there is so much heart and soul into it, and people remember it because of that. They didn’t even have all this autotune and all that stuff going on; you just had people singing from their heart. Heartfelt words with real life experiences.
Actually, Shirley (Alston-Reeves) just came to our show, and she announced that there will be a post-performance; we are going to perform with Shirley, the original Shirley from The Shirelles, which is going to be amazing, July 19th-22nd. She was mentioning that it was such a fun time to sing back then, and she was asked the same question -- she said, “I think it was because, back then, life was easier. You didn’t have all these issues going on.” I feel like the difference with the times then and the times now is that people were carefree, and now everything has to be perfect. You have to sound perfect and do all this, but in reality, it’s not supposed to be that way; it’s supposed to be fun. When you are having fun on stage and in your music, people feel that, and I think that’s what made that music last so long... My passion is to bring music back to that. Artists like Cee-Lo Green, he’s so original. Music with real instruments -- that’s where we can start.
YH: Going back to your music, where did the inspiration for “Alright” come from?
CSK: I love singing soul music. When I do my shows, I always include some soul music. It basically comes from us just loving the authenticity of that time. It came from us loving the duets of that time. The lyrics of “Alright” were inspired by the times and what is going on. There are so many things going on -- people are losing their homes, but you will always have love to hold you up.
YH: How would you describe your sound?
CSK: You know, it’s so hard... that question is hard for me because people always put you in a box, saying that you are this or you are that. I would say that I am a soul singer, and when I say that I am a soul singer, it is not even the styles; it’s a person that sings from their soul, a person that sings from their heart, and that is basically what I am, a person that sings from the heart and my soul. Any music that I do will come from my heart, whether it is Funk, Soul, Pop, whatever it may be.
YH: Who are you listening to these days?
CSK: Golly, you know, the person who is in my CD player at all times is Cee-Lo, but there are so many people that have influenced me that I listen to all the time. I love Ella Fitzgerald as well as Billie Holiday. New artists, I love Adele... there is a jazz singer named Kurt Elling, I love him as well. Those are the kind of people that really influence me in my music... and, oh my God, I am the biggest Tina Turner fan that you will ever find in your life, and I will kill “Proud Mary”... Whenever you see me live, I will kill the “Proud Mary” song.
YH: Is Baby It’s You! planning on touring, or are you just sticking to Broadway?
CSK: Well, right now we are doing Broadway. I am sure that once we get word that we are touring, it will be a great show to tour with. I’m telling you, every single night, people are in the aisles dancing, and I am not even joking. If we have a two-show day, both audiences all get up and dance. I have never seen a Broadway show were people are so included. When the show does tour, it will be a great tour. Right now, we do not have any current dates, but once I find out, I will definitely let you know.
If you find yourself on Broadway and are looking to be entertained, look no further than the BroadhurstTheatre and a trip back in time with Florence Greenberg and The Shirelles. You are guaranteed an interactive experience because I bet you won’t be able to stay in your seat! For more information on Baby It’s You!, check out their official Website.
To follow Crystal Starr Knighton check her out on Facebook!
- Kellyé West, YH Staff