“We were fooling around in the gym, and the gym teacher heard us and said, ‘There’s a show coming up,’ ” Lee recalled. “She said, ‘Do the show or fail gym.’ ”
The teacher wasn’t serious about flunking them. But the four teens from Pasaaic, N.J., did perform at the school’s talent show, which marked the first time The Shirelles officially performed together.
It might have been the last had it not been for a classmate, who suggested the teens audition for her mother, who owned a record label.
“We were school kids who knew nothing about show business and thought she was kidding,” said Lee, who will perform with the Shirelles in Arroyo Grande on Saturday. “She actually chased us after school for quite some time. We got tired of her chasing us and decided to let her mother hear the song.”
Soon the teens found themselves touring with legends such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. And in 1960, they became the first female group to score a No. 1 hit with the Carole King-written “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”
“First thing I did was buy a house for my family,” said Lee, who, like the other Shirelles, had lived in public housing.
Before the Shirelles were bumped off the charts by the British Invasion in the mid-’60s, they exploded with a string of hits that have endured through the years thanks to cover versions and movie soundtracks.
Their songs have been covered by artists including The Beatles, Amy Winehouse, The Bee Gees and even the Chipmunks’ sister act, the Chipettes. And their songs have appeared in blockbuster movies such as “True Romance,” “Dirty Dancing,” “The Mask” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”
“I just wish we had written those songs,” Lee joked, noting that major royalties go to the songwriters.
Still, Lee has spent decades singing classic songs like “Soldier Boy,” “Mama Said” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.”
The original Shirelles lineup consisted of Lee, Doris Coley, Micki Harris and Shirley Owens. The group came up with its name by combining the name Shirley with the Chantels, a group they liked. (They used to practice harmonies to Chantels songs on the radio.)
As their songs became popular, the Shirelles were quickly whisked off to the road, which wasn’t always convenient.
“We were supposed to have a night out with The Beatles, but we were going on tour,” Lee said. “They kept us on tour quite a bit.”
Eventually they toured the South, becoming the first group to perform at desegregated concerts. Back then, many Shirelles fans didn’t even know the group was black.
“In the North, our pictures were on the albums,” Lee said. “In the South they wouldn’t release our pictures. So there was a de-
mand for us because our music was popular in the South. But when they came and they saw that we were black it was a different story.”
Still, they broke new ground, paving the way for groups like The Supremes to win over white audiences.
“Mary Wilson (of The Supremes) often speaks about the Shirelles paving the way for them,” Lee said. “But the Chantels opened the doors for us because we heard the Chantels first.”
The Shirelles continued to tour despite lineup changes. But in 1983, tragedy struck when Harris died of a heart attack minutes after a performance.
“We’d just come off the stage in Atlanta at the Hyatt Regency Hotel,” Lee remembered. “And I told her I was going to change, and she said, ‘I’m not going to change — I’m just going to go on in. I’ll order for you.’ I went up and I changed, and I was on my way out the door when the phone rang. They said, ‘Come downstairs — something’s wrong with Micki.’ And when I went down, there she was — stretched out — and I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Harris was just 42. “She always said, ‘When
I die, I want to go real quickly, and I want to go with my rock and roll shoes on,’ ” Lee remembered. “She lived her life, she enjoyed it. She was a wonderful lady.”
In 1996, the Shirelles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside David Bowie, The Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd.
Despite the loss of Harris and subsequent death of Coley, Lee has continued to perform. Today she’s the only original member of the touring Shirelles, now a trio. More than 50 years after the group’s first No. 1 hit, those old songs still bring back memories — of first kisses, marriages, life and death.
Everybody seems to have a story attached to a Shirelles song, Lee said.
“We were in San Francisco in June, and the whole week we were there I was crying after the show each night with people coming up to me, telling their stories.”