The Crystals: World's Grittiest Girl Group

All about the girl group that defined "girl group"

The Crystals
The Crystals. Keystone / Getty Images

Who were the Crystals?

Though they were among the most prized of Phil Spector's retinue of pop ingenues, and though that meant they weren't always the group you thought you were hearing, in their finest moments the Crystals captured romantic (and, surprisingly, urban) reality in a way radio usually refused to face. 

The Crystals' best known songs:

  • "He's a Rebel"
  • "Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)"
  • "Then He Kissed Me"
  • "He's Sure the Boy I Love"
  • "There's No Other (Like My Baby)"
  • "Uptown"
  • "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" 
  • "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
  • "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry​"
  • "Look in My Eyes"

Where you might have heard them "He's a Rebel" is standard issue stuff for any movie or TV show where a true "bad boy" comes into the plot, but the group's darker side has also gotten some light shone on it the past few years in unflinching portrayals of the era like "Mad Men." Then, of course, there's the iconic (and somewhat ironic) use of two of their songs during Goodfellas: "Then He Kissed Me'" during the famous one-shot Copacabana scene and "He's Sure the Boy I Love" during the infamous "shinebox" argument

Formed 1961 (Brooklyn, NY)

Styles Girl group, R&B, Pop

The Crystals members in their classic lineup:

Barbara Ann Alston (born December 29, 1943, in Baltimore, MD): lead vocals
Mary Thomas (born 1946, Brooklyn, NY): vocals
Dee Dee Kennibrew (born Dolores Henry, 1945, Brooklyn, NY): vocals
Merna Girard (born 1943, Brooklyn, NY): vocals
Patsy Wright (born Patricia Wright, 1945, Brooklyn, NY): vocals

Claims to fame:

  • One of the most successful girl groups of all time
  • Part of "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector's legendary stable of artists
  • Specialized in gritty and dramatic tales of urban romance atypical for the genre
  • Revolving lead vocalists Barbra Alston, Darlene Love, and La La Brooks are considered among the finest of their era

    The History of the Crystals

    Early years

    The Crystals were formed by Brooklyn native and former big-band sideman Benny Wells, who decided to build a female vocal group around his niece, Barbara Alston, after hearing her sing in church. Alston recommended Mary Thomas and Merna Girard from her Brooklyn neighborhood; Dee Dee Kennibrew was brought in thanks to her mother, Kate Henry, who worked at the public school where the group rehearsed; Pat Wright joined after being recommended by her brother-in-law, local songwriter Leroy Bates. Bates also provided the Crystals with a song he'd written, an uptempo number entitled "There's No Other (Like My Baby)."

    Success

    While rehearsing at the offices of Hill and Range, a very influential music publishing concern, they were overheard by producer Phil Spector, who liked what he heard. Bringing the girls into the studio, he dimmed the lights and recast "There's No Other" as a slow, sultry ballad. It became the group's first hit, followed by "Uptown," written by the Brill Building's Mann-Weil team. Girard, who by then was pregnant, was replaced with "La La" Brooks, a fellow P.S. 73 schoolmate discovered by Dee Dee singing in an afterschool show. Mary left in 1962 to get married and was not replaced.

    Later years

    The Crystals enjoyed a number of hits in the early '60s, but their relationship with Spector soured after he forced them to record the bizarre domestic-abuse song "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)," which radio rejected, as well as a joke song entitled "(Let's Dance) The Screw" and a number of songs, including the hits "He's A Rebel" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love," that were the Crystals in name only, having actually been recorded with Darlene Love and the Blossoms. Barbara, Dee Dee and Mary reformed in 1971 to tour the oldies revival circuit; Dee Dee heads up a version of the Crystals that still tours today, though Dolores "La La" Brooks and Darlene Love have finally begun to be recognized as the group's most famous lead vocalists. Both continue to record and tour separately.

    More about the Crystals

    Other Crystal fun facts and trivia:

    • The Crystals were named after Leroy Bates' daughter
    • The group recorded "There's No Other" on the night of their Senior Prom, still in their dresses
    • "He Hit Me" was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil after their babysitter, Eva Boyd, told them of a fight with her boyfriend; she would go on to be Little Eva of "Locomotion" fame
    • Darlene Love was brought in for "He's a Rebel" because Spector was in Los Angeles and couldn't wait for the Crystals to fly across the country
    • "La La" Brooks sings lead on "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me"
    • "He's A Rebel" was originally offered to the Shirelles, who turned it down

    Crystals awards and honors Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2006), GRAMMY Hall Of Fame (2004)

    Crystals songs, hits, and albums

    #1 hits
    Pop "He's A Rebel" (1962)

    Top 10 hits
    Pop "Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)" (1963), "Then He Kissed Me" (1963)

    R&B "There's No Other (Like My Baby)" (1961)

    Famous covers '70s teen idol Shaun Cassidy took a rather lame version of "Da Doo Ron Ron" all the way to #1 in 1977; the classic 1981 Bill Murray comedy Stripes finds Harold Ramis teaching it to a whole class of ESL students just for laughs; KISS actually recorded a hard-rock version of "Then He Kissed Me" (as "Then She Kissed Me") on their 1978 album Love Gun 

    Movies and TV The Crystals in their '70s incarnation once appeared on an episode of the syndicated music/comedy show "Sha Na Na"