In the early 1960s, Phil Spector produced a remarkable treasure trove of music on his own Philles label, much of which has been unavailable for years. On October 18, Spector Records/Legacy will be releasing these original albums, remastered and issued as a seven-CD box set entitled Phil Spector Presents: The Philles Album Collection.
The first album released on the Philles label was by The Crystals (The Crystals Twist Uptown), a Brooklyn-based group first brought to Spector’s attention in New York’s famed Brill Building in 1961.
The Crystals were Barbara Alston, Patsy Wright, Dee Dee Kennibrew, Mary Thomas, Myrna Gerard, and Dolores “La La” Brooks, six teenage girls who were still in school when Spector took them under his wing. How did it all begin? La La Brooks explains. “I was going to school, P.S. 73. I was like twelve and a half, and Dee Dee’s mom worked at the school.” When the school day was done Brooks’ mother sent her back there “just so I could stay off the street.”
It was at an after school program that Brooks first started singing with the other girls who had already dubbed themselves The Crystals. Brooks was thrilled to be a part of the group. She was no stranger to singing, having sung gospel in church from the age of seven.
What did she recall about the early days of working with Phil Spector? “He was really young and he was not like people portray him to be today. He was about 22 or 23 and he was normal.” She credits The Crystals as being as much a part of his success as he was of theirs. “When Phil was recording us, we were the first ones who started with him. He didn’t have The Ronettes, he didn’t have The Righteous Brothers, he didn’t have Darlene Love. The Crystals started Phil Spector.”
“He was in New York with us on York Avenue in Manhattan. He had an apartment upstairs and another apartment downstairs for us to rehearse and listen to the songs he wanted us to record.
“We would be listening to songs by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. They’d be in New York and recording, putting down tracks and stuff. Then when Phil went to California, he changed and things started changing. Then the sound got bigger. Then the head got bigger.”
A short time later, Spector flew The Crystals out to California to work with him. It was at that time he realized Brooks had the strongest voice in the group. “ When I was 13, Barbara was doing the leads and she had that soft sound. [Two years later] when Phil went to California, he flew me out there to record. I put down “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” the Christmas album, and other tracks, “Little Boy,” “Girls Can Tell,” “Heartbreaker,” everything like that.”
She has wonderful memories of those days but is saddened by the fact that the quality of of those sessions can never be replicated. She laments the passing of what she considers a purity of sound. “I remember there were so many people in the studio. That was fascinating. Just to sit outside the studio in the seating area before I put on the vocals and seeing all the musicians just playing live, which they don’t do today. I think that was an experience. So many of the young artists now, they’re using all kinds of computers and some kind of technology. They lose that gift that I had in the studio with Phil with all the musicians at one time playing.”
Some controversy exists over whether Spector stripped Darlene Love’s vocals off the classic “Da Doo Ron Ron”, substituting Brooks’ voice instead. Some of the controversy was fueled by Love herself in her book My Name Is Love: The Darlene Love Story. Brooks is quick to dispute what she considers a grievous error.
“That’s a misconception,” she says. “ I heard from Jack Nietzsche that Darlene was one of The Blossoms. They were background singers for Phil in California, and Phil could not get a hit with Darlene Love with that name. I guess to satisfy her, because she was doing so much studio work, he just put the Crystals name [on her work] because our name was hot at the time. We had just put out “Uptown” and were releasing all those songs that Barbara Alston had done. As soon as he did that, then Darlene’s name rang a bell. Ever since he started recording me on songs, he never used Darlene because she was never an original Crystal and she never worked with us. She was a studio artist.
“It’s a myth because, you have to understand, Phil would not strip anything. If he didn’t like the voice or if he didn’t like the sound he would just get rid of it.”
After she left The Crystals, Brooks went on to do Broadway. “I got into the original cast of Hair. I was in the dressing room with Melba Moore and a girl named Laurie Davis, and I was in the dressing room right next to Diane Keaton. Diane Keaton was in the original cast of Hair. She played Sheila. After I did Hair, Galt McDermott put me in another hit play Two Gentlemen of Verona. I did many things when I left the group. I did a movie called Cotton Comes to Harlem with Melba Moore. Ossie Davis was the director and Redd Foxx was in the movie.
“Eventually I went to England for a while and then I moved to Austria where I had my own radio show.”
More recently, Brooks’ talents were featured in the PBS special My Music: Rock, Pop and Doo Wop, which was instrumental in clarifying who actually sang on those classic Crystals hits. Brooks is happy she was offered the opportunity.
“I’m so grateful for the PBS special because I was really having a hard time. When I came back from Europe, I had so many strikes against me because Darlene had put out her story about "Da Doo Ron Ron", which was, as I’ve said, not the truth. It was hurtful because when you know that you did the song and someone else said they did it, it’s a problem. Then the original Crystal, Dee Dee, trademarked the name, The Crystals, and when I tried to work, she was calling all the promoters for them not to book me, knowing that I made the hits. That’s what happens when people have fear and the original comes along, and I don’t look that bad for my age. I had a difficult time.
"Now with the PBS special and a lot of interviews I’ve done, I’ve been able to tell the truth.”
These days, Brooks continues playing shows, most recently co-headlining a tour with another '60s icon, Ben E. King.
With the release of the Philles box set pending, I wondered if Brooks could shed some light on why her music and the music of Phil Spector continue to endure. “I don’t know. We’re blessed. I really don’t know. I think it’s just music. People get tired of the computer sound. Even with the rapping, if you notice, a lot of artists that do rap songs, they always have ‘60s music behind them, whether it’s Motown, whether it’s Phil’s, whether it’s Marvin Gaye, whether it’s Stevie Wonder, the rap artists sample that. The difference is today it’s just not pure.”