Gary James' Interview With Arlene Smith Of
Arlene Smith is an original. It was back in 1957 that she put together a group known as The Chantels. Their first record "He's Gone" was a major hit, followed by the unforgettable "Maybe", which Arlene co-wrote with producer Richard Barrett. "Maybe" became the first million seller by an all girl group, is considered to be a classic and has been recorded by such artists as The Three Degrees and Janis Joplin.
The Chantels other hits include "Every Night I Pray", "I Love You So", "Well I Told You" and "Look In My Eyes".
Rolling Stone Magazine called Arlene Smith "the best female vocalist in the history of Rock 'n Roll." She is recognized as "the Queen of Doo-Wop Music" and the founder of the "Girl Group" sound.
Q - As I look at some of the all-female groups around today, "Vixen" in particular, it strikes me that it could be an all male group, because of their sound and stage presence. Is it possible for an all female group, today, not to look and sound like guys?
A - Society sets up a criteria, a standard. Rock music as I hear it, I don't really listen to hard rock that much. If you could categorize it, it has a lot of masculine energy. It's not a lady-like form of music. You can't be prissy and pull that off and have it believable. It's a unisex kind of look. The guys seem to do it as well as the girls. I don't think it's a conscious effort of one's femaleness being compromised, in terms of emulating males to be successful. Who can categorize them as a girl group according to the way you know it now? I mean, to the way it's popularly known. The unisex idea is probably the most ligitmate one where the energy is just coming forth and it's not particulary feminine or male, but it has to be credible.
Q - Did The Chantels ever appear on Dick Clark's American Bandstand?
A - Yes. Several Times.
Q - How about Alan Freed's shows at the Paramount?
A - Yeah.
Q - Who were some of the other acts on the bill?
A - Jackie Wilson, The Teenagers, LaVern Baker, JoAnne Campell, The Coasters, The Drifters, Huey Smith. This was maybe a Southern tour line-up too. Ike and Tina Turner and the Ikettes. Maxine Brown, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Screamin' Jay Hawkins. We toured with those folks. And then when we got up in Brooklyn, it would be pretty much the same situation.
Q - How long did you get when you were on stage at the Paramount? How much time?
A - I don't remember. We usually did three songs.
Q - Since you were a part of rock's earliest days, did you ever envision that rock 'n roll would become so universally accepted?
A - I never understood what the controversy was about, because it was music that I lived with. Understandably, the racial aspect; the fact that it was a race music, black music at first, and then between the racist attitude towards the blacks, and then the music was very simplistic. You could understand
why the majority of folks would think it was just a fad or a phase. It's not credible as music. But, the thing they forgot to deal with was the music was very real. And that's what I tend to go along with. The music was pure and honest. The harmonies were pretty. It was a romantic music. So that usually wins out over a lot of things. Before I discovered rhythm and blues stations, I listened to all white stations. I had real favorite singers. I know there was always a difference in the music. What becomes open for everybody and everybody has the option of accepting or rejecting it. Then, it's looked at through a microscope and picked apart. And there's always the speculation of whether it's going to last or not. As far as the music lasting, it never occurred to me that it wouldn't. I thought eventually, all the furor would die down, and the music would persist, just like it always has, because there was a lot going on that nobody really tapped into. But a lot of folks who tapped into it, found they liked what they heard.
Q - You went to the Julliard School of music. What did you get
out of that?
A - The same thing I got out of most of the courses of study, a
sensitivity. My stay was about a year. So, I didn't really get into all the things I could have. But, I came there with some knowledge of theory. What I got out of it was really was the association of other musicians, whose lives were involved with becoming concert stage artists and having access to the music library and listening to Bartok and Stravinsky and learning to listen to passages and truly appreciate the music.
Q - There are some unscrupulous agents and managers in the
business who will put a group together where there are no original members in the group. Did that ever happen to The Chantels?
A - Yes, it did.
Q - Do you have any legal recourse in that situation?
A - Yeah, you do, but you just have to catch up with the
people. And, very often they're in some remote places. You can't have scouts everywhere.
Q - You wrote both the songs, "He's Gone" and "Maybe".
Wasn't that kind of a unique thing? Wasn't the Tin Pan Alley thing still in existence?
A - Not during the '50s. Writing became a real hot thing during the '60s, when producers would bring their material into a session. But, the '50s artists just getting started,
usually were singing their own songs walking in. The industry was young. Alot of these companies were not set up to have writers and producers. The song usually got ripped off.
Q - Were there a lot of girls who wanted to do what you did?
A - No. We were the first ones. They didn't know what to do with us. The lesson to be learned from that is, to have a successful product out, you have to be unique. And the
uniqueness of our group was that we were young women who had a pop sound and a strong lead singer and she sang
ballads and I sang high, with pretty harmonies around me. So, that's what they went with. I know there was a time when you couldn't record anything slow. The companies didn't want to deal with it. They wanted you to sing something up-tempo 'cause that was an easier shot, easier to sell.
Q - Do you still perform?
A - I work weekends, I work summers, I coach a few people, belong to a few community groups. I still write a little bit. You know, just taking care of myself and my cat.
Q - Touring must've been difficult?
A - No, it wasn't. It was fun. I was only 14. You just take your
books, get 'em packed. You don't have a thing to do all day. You sit next to your buddy on the bus, read, crochet, do your homework, look out at scenery, sleep, eat. C'mon, it was wonderful! I didn't have a thought or care in the world. It was really a nice time in my life, because I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.
The Chantels were Arlene Smith, Sonia Goring, Rene Minus, Jackie Landry and Lois Harris
They placed 4 songs in the Billboard Top 40
"Maybe" (#15 - 1958), "Every Night (I Pray)" (#39 - 1958), "Look In My Eyes" (#14 - 1961), "Well, I Told You" (#29 - 1961)