The Chantels: Rock's First "Girl Group"

The history of this groundbreaking all-female vocal group

The Chantels
The Chantels. chantels.com

Who were the Chantels?

Believe it or not, females in any sort of music but blues and jazz were a rarity for decades, at least as solo stars. The Chantels were a vocal group, but their impact was as real as that of any "girl band," as their highly emotional brand of doo-wop (okay, pop vocal) struck a very lucrative chord with females, leading to an entire genre of early '60s pop known bluntly as the "girl group." They never got to reap the rewards like they should have, however.

The Chantels best known songs:

  • "Maybe"
  • "Look in My Eyes"
  • "I Love You So"
  • "Well, I Told You"
  • "The Plea"
  • "Eternally"
  • "He's Gone"
  • "Every Night (I Pray)"
  • "If You Try"
  • "How Could You Call It Off?"

Where you might have heard them "I Love You So" got some play in the baby comedy Look Who's Talking, probably because of its earlier inclusion in Scorsese's classic indie slice-of-life Mean Streets (and also probably why "Look in My Eyes" made it into Goodfellas). How the obscure "Sure of Love" wound up in Her is a more intriguing question, but usually "Maybe" is the tortured ballad of choice in other forms of entertainment. 

Formed 1956, The Bronx, New York, NY

Styles Girl group, R&B, doo-wop

Claims to fame:

  • The first successful modern "girl group" of the rock era
  • Their 1958 hit "Maybe" is considered the standard by which other girl group songs are judged
  • Lead singer Arlene Smith was one of the very first female rock performers to write her own material

    The Chantels members in their classic lineup:

    Arlene Smith (born October 5, 1941 in in New York City, NY): lead vocals
    Lois Harris (born 1940, New York, NY): vocals (top soprano)
    Sonia Goring (born 1940, New York, NY): vocals (second soprano)
    Rene Minus (born 1943, New York, NY): vocals (first alto/bass)
    Jackie Landry Jackson (born May 22, 1941 in New York, NY; died December 23, 1997, New York, NY): vocals (second alto)

    History of the Chantels

    Early years

    All five of the Chantels started their musical journey at St. Anthony of Padua school in the Bronx, where they'd been singing together since the second grade. Classically trained, they were adept at Gregorian chants and traditional Christian hymns; indeed, lead Arlene Smith had performed at Carnegie Hall at the age of twelve. By 1956, the quintet had begun performing at church and community events and sharing the stage with doo-wop pioneers like The Crows of "Gee" fame. When the group ran into another group, The Valentines, lead Valentine Richard Barrett was so impressed with their talent he offered them a session on the spot.

    Success

    Barrett, also an A&R man at Roulette Records, eventually made good on his promise, recording two songs written by lead singer Arlene on her home piano: "The Plea" and "He's Gone." The latter was the a-side, and while it made the Hot 100, the group's real success came with the next release, Arlene's "Maybe." An instant classic, the song almost singlehandedly created the "girl group" sound with its plaintive and dramatic delivery. The followups "Every Night (I Pray)" and "I Love You So" also charted. But the girls were too young to tour, and as a result the label promotion -- and therefore the hits -- soon fell off.

    Later years

    By 1959 Arlene had left for a solo career, while Lois Harris dropped out to become a nurse. Undaunted, Richard Barrett first replaced Arlene's lead with his own vocals, and then with Annette Smith, from fellow vocal group The Veneers. With the real girl group craze just starting, the Chantels managed to keep scoring minor chart hits through 1961, but though they recorded throughout the decade, their hitmaking days were over. Smith led a new group of Chantels during the oldies revival in 1973; today, the other original members (minus Landry, who succumbed to cancer in 1997) tour with new lead Ami Ortiz.

    More about the Chantels

    Other Chantels fun facts and trivia:

    • The group's name was inspired by Padua school rival St. Francis de Chantelle, whose basketball team Smith played against
    • "Maybe" was recorded at a Manhattan church instead of a studio, because the acoustics were better
    • The Chantels' 1962 single "Well, I Told You" was an answer record to Ray Charles' "Hit The Road, Jack"
    • Arlene Smith worked with Phil Spector after leaving the group and later attended Juilliard
    • The original group members (minus Landry) reunited for the 1997 PBS special Doo Wop 50

    Chantels awards and honors Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2002), Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award (1996)

    The Chantels songs, hits, and albums:

    Top 10 hits

    R&B "Maybe" (1958), "Look in My Eyes" (1961)

    Notable covers Janis Joplin, who knew good over-the-top drama when she heard it, covered "Maybe" on her 1969 LP I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Philly Soul girl group The Three Degrees also managed to get a cover of it into the Top 40 in 1970

    Movies and TV The Chantels were in the spotlight just long enough to get an appearance on "American Bandstand" in 1958, and later reunited for the 1999 PBS special "Doo Wop 50"