The Chantels - Lois Harris
The Chantels are a historic Bronx, New York cultured African-American girl vocal group. The quintet formed in the late 50's while they were in Catholic School and named themselves after a rival school. After being discovered on Broadway in matching dresses, they went on to record and hit it big with the song "Maybe". The Bobettes and the Chantels were the first African American female vocal groups ever to make it nationwide. I caught up with original member Lois Harris.
R.V.B. - This is Rob from Long Island. How are you?
L.H. - I'm good - how are you?
R.V.B. - Well not so hot - looking out my window and seeing an inch of snow on the ground.
L.H. - Oh haha - that's not good.
R.V.B. - No it's not - I mean I thought this stuff was over.
L.H. - I know
R.V.B. - Where do you live?
L.H. - I'm in Delaware.
R.V.B. - Oh you're in Delaware. Once again the weatherman said rain and it's snowing heavily right now.
L.H. - (Hahaha) I saw that.
R.V.B. - So anyway, you were originally a Bronx girl right?
L.H. - Yes. We are all from the Bronx.
R.V.B. - How old were you when you started singing?
L.H. - I was fifteen. I was sixteen when we recorded.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you exposed to as a little girl?
L.H. - The music I was exposed to was classical music, and we would listen to make believe ballroom, which was basically popular music from the day. I was classically trained. I took piano lessons and we all went to the same Catholic school. We were all in the choir. That's really how we got started singing together.
R.V.B. - When you got together to learn your own songs, did you practice in somebody's living room?
L.H. – Yeah, we were either at my house or Arlene's house or Jackie's house. I mean, went around to different houses. Jackie, Arlene and I had pianos in our houses, so that's pretty much where we did most of our rehearsing. It was either of the three houses.
R.V.B. - Now obviously at that time singing groups were real popular. Did you run into any groups on street corners in your travels? Did you see any of the male groups?
L.H. - Oh yeah, my cousin was in a group with some neighborhood guys, that all of us knew, and we used to listen to them. Sometimes we would mimic them. Yeah, that was going on all over the Bronx at the time. We saw the guys and said , ”well, if they could do it, we could do it”. That's basically what got us started.
L.H. - We did a lot of neighborhood contests at the public high school. We went to - as I said - the Catholic school, and we went to the public school because they gave these contests - singing group contests at P.S. 99, P.S. 63. So we would go, and a lot of contests we won.
R.V.B. - Do you remember any of the competition that you went up against?
L.H. - No - (hahaha) unfortunately, no. Because we really weren't out on the streets that much. We were not allowed to be just hanging out. So that's why we sang in our living rooms. Unless we were going someplace like skating, we would stand in the vestibule of the trains, which they no longer have any more these days, but we used to stand out there and sing. But that's really where we would... unless we were on a bus we would break out into song but we really didn't just hang out in the streets and sing.
R.V.B. - When you had these contests, was it all singing groups or was there a variety?
L.H. - It was all singing groups. Mostly guy groups.
L.H. – Well, we ran into Richard Barrett from the Valentines. He's the guy who discovered Frankie Lymon. We were on Broadway, headed for a theater that somebody was having a rock and roll show. I can not remember - it might have been the State theater? I don't know for sure, but we saw a guy or a guy saw us and asked us if we were sisters and we said no, we sing - because we were dressed alike and then he started to give us you know - "I can get you a record contract and blah blah blah". So we went up to his studio, and he started to sing and I looked out the window and saw Richard and two of the other Valentines. I told the girls "There's Richie Barrett". So we go down to them and they said, "Come Down" and we went down. Richard said "What are you doing? How come you are dressed alike?" and we said "Because we sing". So he said sing something and we did.
R.V.B. - So it was kind of just a chance meeting?
L.H. – Yeah, it was purely accidental.
R.V.B. - That's really how it happens sometimes though.
L.H. - Yep. Well he said that he could get us a recording contract. We didn't really believe him and he said ,"I didn't lie to Frankie Lymon". We knew he discovered Frankie, so we gave out our phone numbers and he did call. It felt like about six months, but it was really about three weeks. He called Arlene's house and we set up a meeting. So we went, and he talked to her parents and said that he could get us a recording deal, but we had to really work hard. He was gonna rehearse us before he introduced us to the person that he thought would be the best person to hear us. That's what we did. When he thought we were ready, we went for an audition with George Goldner, from Gone Records at the time. And he created a record label and recorded us. It was us, and shortly after that it was Anthony and the Imperials. Then on and on and on.
R.V.B. - You girls were teenagers at this time right?
L.H. - Oh yeah, Rene was only twelve. She wasn't even a teenager then. Sonya was about fifteen and Jackie and I were about the same age... we were sixteen. Arlene was sixteen.
L.H. - My mother was not happy, and she was not impressed.
R.V.B. – Yeah, I kind of figured. You're going through a nice upbringing in a Catholic school. Did she have other plans for you? What did you want to be?
L.H. – Well, I always wanted to be a nurse... and I am a nurse. (haha) So that's what I did. I went on eventually... after the Chantels, and I became a nurse. I went back to school and got a graduate degree and became a nurse practitioner. Everybody went on to great careers. Sonya is a Special Ed teacher, and Rene is in Real Estate. Jackie was a court reporter in New York, the Bronx, and Manhattan, and Arlene became a teacher. So we all went on to wonderful careers.
R.V.B. - That's really a fantastic story. You girls have to be proud of yourselves. You have great careers, and also you were trailblazers in the music industry. So I guess you always kept in contact with the other girls. When did you re-form and start playing again?
L.H. – Well, I left the group early on, as soon as the record company went bankrupt. There are stories out in the papers, and in books, that say that the record company dropped us. They did not drop us. They told us that they were bankrupt, and they in fact, stole a lot of our money. So, (haha) to keep the record straight, once that happened I was very, very disillusioned, and I went back to school. The girls reformed and they sang and they did some more recording. They did "Look in my Eyes" but it was without Arlene Smith. She went solo at that point. The girls continued to sing, and it wasn't until 1995 that I rejoined the group, and we reformed as the Chantels. We got the "United In Group Harmony" award from Ronnie Italiano... who is known as Ronnie I. He used to do the shows in Jersey - and the very next year The Rhythm and Blues Foundation called and said that we were getting the Pioneer award for 1996. There was a lot of press, because that was the night after the Grammys. They were out in California that year. So a lot of the people who were at the Grammys, were at these awards. There was a lot of press. So right after that, we started getting calls about "Are you ladies gonna sing again?". So we thought about it and decided yes, we would re-group. We called Arlene and we told her. We asked her to re-join us and she said no. So we said we're gonna sing regardless, and since we owned the name we performed as the Chantels. So we got together and then we said, “well, we need a lead singer”,.. even though Rene is capable of doing it and does many of the leads now, when we perform. By accident again... Ronnie I. got married, and when we went to the reception. Ronnie had a request that we sing his favorite song, which I think was "I Love You So". We said "There's only two of us here. How are we going to sing because Sonya is in Florida and we need somebody to do the lead?". It was Jackie and me. So Sandy... Ronnie I's wife said, “My best friend sings, and she knows all your songs.” So we went into the kitchen, and Ami sang as if she had been singing with us for years. She was a lot younger than us but we went out and sang, "I Love You So". So that was the year of the new Chantels.
R.V.B. - It was just like a magical happening? It just worked. You could sense it right away right?
L.H. - Yeah. We had no music and the three of us went into the kitchen and started singing. It was like we had been singing forever. So we went out and we did that. There was a band behind us at that time, and they knew the music. From that point on, we started singing again. Since then, we have received several other awards. Two nominations for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We got the 2002 Bronx Walk of Fame which we were inducted into. That year was with Danny Aiello, a young actress, and several other people who were born and raised in the Bronx. So we did the Bronx walk of Fame.
R.V.B. - You have a street sign at the Courthouse, I was reading.
L.H. - There was a street sign at the courthouse for a year. Every year there was an induction... the person honored got a street sign like we did... for a year and then somebody else gets it. It continues that way, but we are told that we are trying to get a permanent street sign in our neighborhood. I'm not sure about that. We've received several other awards, and so we have been working pretty steadily.
R.V.B. - So do you make friends with some of the other groups that share the same bill?
L.H. - Yeah...we've been friends for years with a lot of the groups. The Harptones, we're good friends with... at the time - Anthony of the Imperials. There's kind of been a split off I guess... so I've heard. Actually Jackie, Sonya, and I did some background on one of Jimmy Castor's albums, "The Jimmy Castor Bunch". We did about four or five tracks. Jimmy and I were like brother and sister. We were really, really good friends. I was good friends with Darlene Love... Still am. I mean, just a lot of groups. Many of the groups - The Platters - both groups. Most of the people we are going to be singing with next week. There are a lot who we have traveled together over the years. Jay Siegal’s Tokens, The Marcels... both groups, The Doves... both groups hahaha, The Drifters, Charlie Thomas's Drifters in particular, The Coasters, The original Coasters we've been friends with and we've done shows with them so it's kind of a reunion when we get together.
R.V.B. - What are some of the memorable shows you've played through the years? Do any of them stick out?
L.H. – Well there were so many shows... I don't know, I mean the memorable ones were not the happy ones necessarily because it was during segregation. If we were down south, it was a whole different experience for us. We couldn't do the shows in the main theaters. We had to be split into the white audience and the black audience. And in many cases, the show was in the basement of the theater for the black audience and then, for the white audience it was in the main theater... or it was a theater where the black people had a separate entrance, and were way up in the top of the theater where they could hardly see anything. So that was not a happy experience, but it was memorable. We were again - from New York - and discrimination was a lot more subtle than in your face, but when we got down south it was really in our faces. We read about it but we really didn't experience it per say. So that to me was the most memorable.
R.V.B. - It's a shame that it happened. I'm sure it was in the 60's. We have come a long way and I'm happy about it. It was a bad time period.
L.H. - Touring with groups like: LaVern Baker, Joanne Campbell, The Crests... as they were known then... then eventually Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge, Paul Anka, you know it was great. During those times we were traveling. We would go up north, out to the mid west, Ohio and Cleveland. So those were nice. After the first year after "She's Gone" and "Maybe" hit, I was in my senior year in High School. I was seventeen then and I was graduating that June. The nuns and my mother decided I wasn't gonna be traveling with the girls on the road, and they pulled me out of the group. I still recorded with them if they were in New York, or if it was during Easter vacation. I was able to make the shows. For that, or for the last two or three shows at the Apollo because they would have five shows a day. On the weekend they had about seven shows. I would be able to do that after school but for the most part, but if they were traveling anyplace... I couldn't go. Once I graduated in June, I re-joined the group full time. This continued until the record company went bankrupt.
R.V.B. – Now, did you play all five shows a day or did you just play one portion of the day?
L.H. - The girls did. I got out of school at 2:30 and then I would take a cab down to the Apollo and do the last two shows.
R.V.B. - That must have been exciting.
L.H. – Yeah, it was interesting - it was fun. I mean we all had to do homework. The girls were all in school, but they went to a professional children's school and that was not my mother's plan for me. I had to stay in my high school which was a Catholic high school.
R.V.B. - So are the rest of the girls in the group today local? Do you get to rehearse? How does that work?
L.H. - Well we could sing pretty much all our songs in our sleep. (hahaha) We get to rehearse when there's a show. We rehearse at the sound check. We pretty much do the same songs, except if we are doing our own show. Then we do about an hour's worth of songs that we have. But for the Doo Wop shows, they want us to sing the popular songs for that particular area. So if we are in - let's say the southern areas, we'll do some of the songs that are not quite as popular as in New York. If we are in Pittsburgh - we sing the songs that they like. Rene sang in her church choir, I sing with a classical chorus. I have done that for most of my adult life. So with vocal training and what not, it's a little bit easier. I just kinda go with the flow with the girls. We all just know what we know.
R.V.B. - Is there anything else you enjoy doing other than music? Do you have any hobbies?
L.H. – Yeah, I collect gem stones... different and rare gem stones. I do a lot of holistic nursing. I do a lot of guided imagery with patients and with people and that kind of thing. I love music. I listen to classical music. I go to concerts and I love jazz. As a matter of fact, we have the biggest jazz show here in Delaware... the biggest in the country they say. We have a Jazzfest every year in October, and for the first three years that I was here, I worked the show in some capacity. I was an usher or a ticket taker. I would get to hear great jazz. There's a lot of places to volunteer here. I try to volunteer as much as I can. I'm very active in other things. I do Tai Chi (haha) so I have a lot of interests.
R.V.B. - That's good. So you're feeling good and healthy?
L.H. - Absolutely. I am healthy, and hopefully I'll stay that way. All of us... considering we're all not spring chickens... except for Ami. Ami could be our daughter. She's that much younger than us, but yeah - we all do what we do, and we're all healthy as far as we know. We enjoy singing together. We get on the stage, and the audience is really wonderful, and so that pumps us up as well.
R.V.B. - Well I'm really looking forward to seeing you guys. I think it's in two weeks. The music community is really proud your careers and what you've accomplished and of course you guys should be proud of yourselves. Now, I just have one ignorant question. On the picture of you girls on the album cover with the gloves…
L.H. - Yes?
L.H. - (haha) Um… let me think. I have to go look at the picture because I don't even remember where I am. Let's see I am the one on the right. Next to me is Jackie, then Sonia, then Rene, and Arlene.
R.V.B. - Awesome. So now I know who to look for next week. (hahaha)
L.H. - I don't know if I look like that. (hahaha) I'm the only one in the group that performs with my hair in its natural color which is gray. (hahaha)
R.V.B. - Oh ok.
L.H. - Nobody else does so that's how you know who I am.
R.V.B. - Now I know how to pick you out. (hahaha)
L.H. - Right exactly (hahaha) and I'm the oldest in the group too. People like to make that known because Rene always says "I'm the baby in the group" but she really isn't any more because Ami is the baby now. But Rene is the youngest - then Sonya, and then me.
R.V.B. - Is that part of your stage schtick?
L.H. - Sometimes we do it (haha) sometimes we don't
R.V.B. - Again I'm really looking forward to meeting you and thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
L.H. - In your research have you ever heard of a group called The Four Cheers? They recorded a long, long time ago.
R.V.B. - The Four Cheers?
L.H. - The Four Cheers. They did a record called "Fatal Charms of Love". One of the guys who was the leader of that group... he's a guitarist as well - he has a great voice. His name is Tony Salveggi. I did the backround on that record.
R.V.B. - I'll have to look into that. Is it on You Tube...do you know?
L.H. - I don't know if it's on You Tube. It might be. It's four guys I think and Richard Barrett used to do stuff like that. He used to call one of us if Jackie wasn't available "I want you to do backround on this record". He would call me in to just do the backround and I would just make it up. The reason why I say that is because Tony and I are still friends today. He used to be one of the Jimmy Castor bunch as well after The Four Cheers. He used to be a member of The Casals which was a mixture of his name and Jimmy's name.
R.V.B. - Oh I see. I'm also a record collector. I have 45's up the gazoo and I'm in the process of alphabetizing them so I might even have this because I do have a lot of 45's from the late 50's. So I'll be on the lookout for it.
L.H. - Ok
R.V.B. - But anyway, I'll see you in two weeks.
L.H. - Alrighty
R.V.B. - Alright Lois
L.H. - Nice talking to you.
R.V.B. - Take care, goodbye.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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