Gary James' Interview With Dee Dee Kennibrew of
The Crystals

They have six Gold records to their name for such songs as "Da Doo Ron Ron", "He's A Rebel" and "Then He Kissed Me". They did the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tours, The James Brown tours and The Sam Cooke tours to name just a few. They've toured the world, performing in Australia, Japan, England, Canada, Scotland, Wales, the Caribbean, New Zealand, the Bahamas and of course all points in between New York and California, including New York and California.

At the center of The Crystals success story is Dolores "Dee Dee" Kennibrew. "Dee Dee" spoke to us about The Crystals.

Q - Dee Dee, are you somewhat surprised, given all that has happened in music over the years, that there still is this wide spread interest in The Crystals?

A - I guess not really. No, because I didn't stay out that long. I was surprised originally that it even just stayed on for so long. But, no more surprises, (laughs) because everybody is still here I guess, those that hung in there through the British Invasion are still around.

Q - Is it because you're still performing that you think the interest is still there?

A - Probably. I'm sure that if people weren't there to do the shows, interest would have waned, but a lot of people who come to the shows are not interested in Rap or Disco, so they want to see what they want to see when they come in.

Q - How old were you went you first started touring?

A - Sixteen.

Q - How did you pull that off? Weren't you supposed to be in school?

A - Well, how I pulled it off... I went to a special school that was for kids who were on the road. When you were on the road, you took your work with you, you did your work, came back in town and had to be up with the class. Like ongoing correspondence courses. It was regular college prep courses. You had to take the Regents every year just like you were in school all year. You had to pass your Regents. It wasn't easy, but you had to do it.

Q - Were you in class with other famous kids?

A - All of the kids were working, Bernadette Peters, Patty Duke, Gregory Hines. It was a very small school. A private school. You went on correspondence when you were away on the road. You didn't have gym, football games or proms. Not many electives. You had to get your primary college prep courses, which is all they offered. And that was it. So, all the kids in the school were working. One was in a soap opera. She's still in a soap opera. She was on General Hospital as an adult. She was on a soap opera back in those days called Our Five Daughters. There was an oriental girl that was in Flower Drum Song, which was on Broadway and Patty Duke was doing Miracle Worker at the time. So all the kids were working. You couldn't keep regular schedules, but you still had to go to school and get our grades so we could pass and get our academic degrees in case we wanted to go to college, we were prepared.

Q - Did you ever go on to college?

A - No. It was hard enough going to high school like that, believe me. It was not an easy feat. When you're on the road, you tend to not do your homework until it's almost time to be off tour and then you kind of cram everything in when you get back to class.

Q - You bass yourself out of Atlanta?

A - Yes. I'm in a town near Atlanta. It's like fifteen minutes from downtown Atlanta.

Q - Let me see if I have this right. You did not sing lead on The Crystals' records.

A - No, I did not.

Q - But you're the lead singer in The Crystals today?

A - Yes. Well, one of them. The Crystals never had one single lead. We had three. So, we split it up between the three of us because there's only three of us now! I'm the only original left. Actually they started leaving in the '60s. Barbara (Alston), who was our first original and Mary (Thomas) came back and joined me in '66. The group disbanded in the early part of '66 and by the end part of the year, the three of us had gotten back together. We stayed together until about '73, '72, I can't remember. Then they left and I replaced one. Then the other one, Barbara left and I replaced her. They just couldn't keep up the schedules with children and marriage and after one particularly grueling tour overseas, they said "I've had it! My kids are complaining." Then Mary got pregnant with her first one. She was about thirty, thirty-two, something like that, at that point.

Q - So, before The Crystals, what were you doing?

A - I was in school, just like all the other school kids. (laughs)

Q - How'd you know you could sing? Did you sing along to the songs on the radio?

A - Nope. I guess I was always interested in music. My mother and I used to listen to things like Rosemary Clooney, The Hit Parade. She'd watch Arthur Godfrey. When no one was listening, I'd sing along with them. But I was always shy to sing in front of people. Anyway, my mother worked at a junior high school. A guy who was our first manager, lived in the neighborhood of the school. He used to let different groups rehearse in the music room. He decided he wanted to start a girls group. So he asked around if anybody knew any girls that could sing. So my mother said "Well, I've got a daughter at home that I can bring in. You can audition her." So she did. And he said "OK" after he auditioned me. "I like her" and he put me with a group of girls that were from that neighborhood, which was called Oceans Hill Brownsville. But then he realized those girls weren't very serious. He felt like he couldn't keep control of them. They were interested in boyfriends and that sort of thing and I wasn't. So he took me out of that group. He heard that his niece, Barbara Alston, had been in a talent show at her school with two other girls. So, he had her bring in the two other girls and he decided he would put me with the two other girls and his niece. He started training us to sing harmonies together and then he said "OK, let me take you over to this guy who's writing some original material. You're gonna need some original stuff before we approach any record companies." He took us over there to this guy's house. He had a sister-in-law living there with him, who was in her last year of high school, as was Barbara and Mary and Myrna (Gerrard), who were from Maxwell High. So he figured, let me make it a quintet instead of a quartet. So, he just rehearsed us for about a year and when he felt we were ready to start auditioning and had some original material, we picked a name.

Q - Why The Crystals?

A - We picked the guy who was the songwriter of our first hit, we picked his little girl's name, which was Crystal and we started going around to different companies to see if we could get recorded. Phil Spector happened to come in one evening while we were recording or rehearsing up at Hill And Range Publishing Company in the Brill building. He walked in and said "Ooh, I like that song. Could you slow it down?" And we slowed it down. Then he said "Are you interested in recording?" We said "yes", but we didn't know who he was. Our manager did. He had had a hit with Gene Pitney, "Every Little Breath I Take" and "Spanish Harlem" with Ben E. King. He took us into the studio, which was in May. The girls all came in their prom dresses 'cause it was right after the prom. We recorded "There's No Other Like My Baby" and "Oh Yeah Baby Baby" on the other side. A couple of months later we heard it on the radio and the song was a hit (Billboard #20). And there we were, in show business! The first job I think was in The Apollo Theatre.

Q - Isn't that amazing?!

A - That's just exactly in a nutshell how the whole thing happened. (laughs)

Q - What did you think of Phil Spector when you first met him?

A - I thought he was a little kooky, but he was nice enough. He wasn't really much older than maybe we were, maybe a few years. When you're in high school, those few years make a big difference when somebody's like twenty-two or twenty-three, and you're still in high school. But still, we thought he was pretty OK. He wasn't a gun totin' crazy lunatic. He was funny sometimes...witty and funny. Sometimes a little sarcastic about certain things, but never nasty to us.

Q - You did those Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars tours.

A - Yeah, did loads of those.

Q - Who else was on that bus and on the bill with you?

A - Oh, my gosh. Everybody and anybody. Gene Pitney, Dion, Charlie and Inez Foxx, Dee Dee Sharp, Brian Hyland, Dick and Dee Dee, Bobby Freeman who had "Do You Wanna Dance?" at the time. The Drifters, Esther Phillips...was she on there? No, she was on with Sam Cooke. Anybody who had hits out at that time always did that. The Dixie Cups were on there. The Supremes. Everybody. It was almost like advertising for your new record because you went all across the country. So if they didn't know your record before, they got to hear it and know you and see you and that was a promotion for your song.

Q - You also did the Sam Cooke tours.

A - Yeah. We did the Sam Cooke tours, the James Brown tours.

Q - What kind of guy was Sam Cooke?

A - He was the most personable guy, the most charismatic guy you'd ever want to meet. Down to earth guy and a great performer. He taught me how to eat crabs. (laughs) In Philadelphia, he sent his guy out to Baltimore to pick up a bunch of crabs. I looked at those things and said "I'm not eating those things!" They were enjoying them, so I said I may try them. Boy, we were hooked after that. We sat in the middle of the floor at the Uptown and ate crabs until we couldn't eat 'em anymore. He was a really great guy. He was the best as far as I'm concerned, with just plain, flat out entertaining. No dancing. He used to say "I can't dance", but he could move.

Q - No gimmicks.

A - No gimmicks. Just a straight up, charismatic, personable, and the people were up on their feet from the morning show morning show at the Apollo. He was just a good performer. Jackie Wilson was good too. Jackie Wilson could dance. He probably had a lot better voice, but when I say better, he had a bigger range, but for me, he didn't have the charisma that Sam had. He had the talent, but Sam was a class act.

Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?

A - Never did.

Q - How about The Beatles?

A - We were supposed to meet them our first trip out overseas and somehow we missed them the night we were supposed to go over there. In fact, when we first went over in '64, I think it was the same time they were coming here. We crossed at the airport. But they got back and we were still on tour with Manfred Mann and I can't remember who else.

Q - What type venues do you perform at today? Are you doing these package shows?

A - Some of 'em are package shows. Some of 'em are private parties. All different types of shows...Casinos. We haven't done a cruise in a while, but we have done plenty of those. We're getting ready to go to Stuttgart. We haven't been to Germany in a long time. We haven't been to Australia and New Zealand in, oh gosh, maybe fifteen years.

Q - When you perform anywhere, they want the "hits" of course.

A - Of course.

Q - Do you ever get tired of sing the "hits"?

A - Not really. The audience is what makes it different. It's not always the same audience. Every audience is a little different from the last.

Q - Would you be planning on putting any new product out?

A - You know, I am because a few people have been asking. I'm like, "Where you gonna play it?" But now the market is so different that you just have to find a way to market stuff. The old days of depending on them to distribute your stuff... You can sell your stuff over the internet these days. You don't really need them. Clear Channel came in and said "we're not even playing anything that's older than The Beatles", so that let us out. But people complained so much, they started back playing some of the oldies because people were in an uproar about it.

Q - Satellite Radio. Maybe that's the answer. You could probably host your own show.

A - I probably could.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.