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LaLa Brooks Remembers Singing for ‘Whack Job’ Phil Spector

You may not know the name LaLa Brooks, but you know her voice. Dolores "LaLa" Brooks was only 15 years old when she sang lead vocal on a girl group classic – the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," a No. 3…

You may not know the name LaLa Brooks, but you know her voice. Dolores “LaLa” Brooks was only 15 years old when she sang lead vocal on a girl group classic – the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” a No. 3 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963.

Brooks was not a charter member of the Crystals. The group was formed in 1961 by Barbara Alston, Mary Thomas, Myrna Giraud, Dolores “Dee Dee” Kenniebrew and Patricia Wright. They were signed to Phil Spector and Lester Sill’s Philles Records and gave the label its first Hot 100 chart hit, “There’s No Other (Like My Baby),” featuring Alston on lead.

Brooks was a student at P.S. 73 in Brooklyn and one afternoon while enrolled in an after-school program, she heard a piano playing and followed the sound. She found a man playing the keys in a schoolroom and asked him if she could sing along and he invited her in. Miss Henry, a school office worker who monitored the after-school activities, heard her voice and showed up in the doorway, asking, “Was that you with that big voice in a little girl like you?” Miss Henry happened to be the mother of Dee Dee Kenniebrew and she asked LaLa if she would like to join the Crystals as a replacement for Giraud, who was pregnant. “I said yes,” Brooks tells Billboard, “which was stupid, because I was only 12 and a half. So then I said, ‘You’ll have to ask my mom.’ Miss Henry came by my house and my mom was reluctant at first. I had been singing gospel in church since I was 7 so my mom was between a yes and a no. Miss Henry explained that we would have guardians traveling with us and the girls would be monitored and then my mother felt safe. They took me out of public school and put me in a private school with a lot of rich kids who were arriving at school in limousines. They came from a different environment but eventually I adjusted.”

Brooks was 13 when she met Spector for the first time. “Phil brought us into the studio to record Barbara for ‘Uptown.’ We went to Phil’s apartment. If Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, or Carole King and Gerry Goffin or Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had a new song, they would go to his apartment and Phil would listen to any thing they had.”

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Mann and Weil wrote “Uptown,” which was the Crystals’ second chart entry. Brooks remembers the recording session. “I felt sorry for Barbara. Phil had her in a booth by herself and we were doing the backgrounds on the mics outside. He wanted Barbara to sing things his way. She was very delicate and had a very soft voice. She was stressed because Phil wanted perfection. Barbara was nervous and upset. We were too, because we had to do backgrounds over and over, but we got through it.”

Despite that, Brooks was amazed when she heard the finished version of “Uptown.” “No matter what people say about Phil, he was a genius. Later I would listen to recordings and know how hard I was singing and he covered it up with all of his instrumentation. I thought, ‘Where’s my voice?’ And then I would realize that Phil was about Phil. He had the Wall Of Sound, which was positive in some ways. But for a vocalist, he was a whack job.”

Shortly after Alston recorded the lead vocal for “Uptown,” the Crystals were playing the Apollo. In the dressing room, Alston asked Brooks if she would take the lead on “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” and “Uptown” on stage that night. Brooks was surprised but said yes. “Years later, I found out Barbara had stage fright. When I was a kid, I remember her shaking onstage. She wore cute dresses and I thought she was being sexy. When we were much older, I said, ‘Barbara, I used to admire you so much. When we were on stage, when you moved, you were so sexy and looked so cute.’ And she said, ‘I was nervous as hell. That’s why my legs kept shaking.’ And I realized that’s why she gave me the lead. She felt more comfortable in the background. And from that day on, I was the lead singer all over the world, whether we were working in Europe or in America.”

In the summer of 1962, the Crystals were being driven by their chauffeur to a gig. “He would turn on the radio and we would always listen for the top 10. We heard the Crystals were No. 1 [with “He’s a Rebel”] and we were shocked. We didn’t know what to think.” There was good reason for the confusion – the Crystals had never recorded “He’s a Rebel.” “We didn’t know whether someone was using our name or were copying our name. We stopped the car and called our manager and told him what we just heard. He found out that Phil had put the record out with this woman that nobody knew. So now what do we do?” The girls knew that the audience at their live show that night would expect to hear “He’s a Rebel.” “Barbara’s voice is light. My voice is powerful. We have to get the record and we have to rehearse it with the record playing for the live performance. I nailed it. No one ever knew until months later when Murray the K in New York told the truth. He said on the radio it was not the Crystals. It was this woman named Darlene Love. None of us knew who she was.”

Love was the lead singer for the Blossoms, a three-member girl group that provided backing vocals for many pop hits in the early ’60s, including a lot of Spector productions. When Spector heard that Liberty Records was going to release “He’s a Rebel” by Vikki Carr, he wanted to rush out his version. The Crystals were in New York and Spector was in Los Angeles, so he called in L.A.-based Love to record the song. But instead of crediting the record to her as a solo artist, or to the Blossoms, the artist name on the label was the Crystals. He did the same with the follow-up single, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.”

Brooks was 14 when she went to see the Crystals’ manager, Joe Scandore. “There was a guy named Jim standing there and Joe said to him, ‘Tell LaLa what you just did when you went to California’ and Jim said, “I ran Phil around this f***ing table and I told him I’ll break his legs and kill his f***ing mother if he doesn’t put a record out on you guys.’ It shocked the hell out of me because I’m a kid and I loved Phil. From that day on, Phil always had bodyguards.”

There were no more singles recorded by Darlene Love and released under the name the Crystals, although she recorded solo hits for Spector like “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home” and was a member of Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, singing lead on singles like “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart?”

After “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” Spector went back to using real Crystals for the group’s recordings, although he only flew Brooks out to California. “They put me in the Knickerbocker Hotel,” says Brooks. “Sonny Bono would pick me up every day around 12 o’clock, take me to Gold Star Studios and I would record from 1pm until 6 o’clock in the morning. Phil would have you in there until the sun came up and he never gave you food. I remember being hungry and I would eat peanuts and Coca-Cola or Pepsi from the vending machine.” Staying in L.A without the other Crystals, Brooks recorded a Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich song, “Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home).”

Barry played percussion on the track, as he did on all of the songs he wrote. Also in the studio for the session: Sonny and Cher. “Cher was in the studio nonstop, because Sonny was Phil’s right-hand man,” Brooks explains. “He was rude to Sonny, but Sonny wasn’t stupid. Sonny let him be rude. He was a doormat, because Sonny was learning. Cher wanted to be on everything, but her voice wasn’t what Phil wanted at the time. ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ was easy to sing, so that’s why Phil said, ‘Come on, Sonny. Come on, Cher, da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.’ It wasn’t like a ballad, not like Frank Sinatra with the strings and voices. A kid could have done it.”

What did Brooks think of “Da Doo Ron Ron” the first time she heard the song? “I thought it was crazy. I didn’t understand the lyrics and Phil said, ‘Just sing it.’ I asked, ‘What does “Da Doo Ron Ron” mean?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Phil never would explain anything to you. I thought it was a joke. I’m grateful now, but as a kid, I didn’t understand it.”

The song was definitely not meant as a joke, says lyricist Jeff Barry, who wrote the song with his wife, Ellie Greenwich. “‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ wasn’t about singing to a guy, it was a story about a guy. LaLa was very good at that. She wasn’t singing romantically. She was telling me a story and she sang it very strongly. We were writing for kids but I wanted the parents to like the songs because in many cases they were the ones buying the records for their children. It worked out well. There’s something about the innocence of the song that still resonates. It’s amazing that anywhere in the world, if you sing, ‘I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still,’ everyone in the room will sing, ‘Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.'”

Brooks continued to sing lead vocals on all of the Crystals’ singles on Philles. The follow-up to “Da Doo Ron Ron” was another girl group classic, “Then He Kissed Me” (No. 6, 1963). The next two singles had disappointing chart runs. “Little Boy” stalled at No. 92 and “All Grown Up” sputtered out at No. 98, both in 1964. The Crystals recorded a couple of singles for United Artists, but never returned to the Hot 100 after “All Grown Up.” However, they continue to be radio perennials with the songs they recorded for A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” all with Brooks on lead vocals, return to the airwaves every December.

Brooks says she recorded those three Christmas songs by herself, without the other Crystals. The album was recorded in the summer of 1963. “I remember thinking why the hell did we have to wear sweaters [for the album cover] when Phil took them out of the box.”

After the Crystals disbanded, Brooks continued to work on Broadway, with roles in Hair and a rock musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as the film Cotton Comes to Harlem. She spent a number of years living and working in Europe.

Brooks still performs the Crystals songs for fans, most recently on a rock n’ roll cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, just before the cruise industry shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. “The fans are my age, maybe a little younger or older. It touches me when they say it takes them back to their childhood and they forget their problems and they feel young again. And that’s what it’s about. Some of them come up and say with all the problems that are happening in the world today, it just gives them a way to break away from all the negativity and come together as one.”