’60s Girl-Group Members Reflect on Jersey Roots and Barrier-Breaking Moments

The Shirelles' Beverly Lee and the Angels' Peggy Santiglia Ricker also shared their stories in But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?, a recently released oral history.

Black-and-white promotional photo of the Shirelles around 1962

Beverly Lee (far left) and the Shirelles were Passaic classmates. Photo: Pictorial Press Limited/Alamy Stock Photo

In many ways, the girl groups that ruled the airwaves six decades ago—from the Shirelles and the Angels to the Ronettes and the Crystals—remain “in everyone’s minds and around them all the time,” says Laura Flam, coauthor with Emily Sieu Liebowitz of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?, a recently released oral history of several ’60s girl groups (Hachette Books). They serenade us “in movies…and in the background: in a taxi, in the grocery store—everywhere,” Flam says. And yet, Sieu Liebowitz laments, most of the women behind these songs are not household names. 

The book cover of "But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz

An oral-history format lets the women of the girl groups “speak for themselves,” coauthor Laura Flam says.

In part a response to this injustice, the duo’s book is a treasure trove of illuminating accounts directly from the girl-group members themselves, who were trailblazers not only in their recordings—reminiscent of summer nights, teenage-tinged yearning, and transistor radios tucked into pockets or under pillows—but also in their songwriting, performing, touring and, in the case of the many Black girl groups, “desegregating [of] pop music and culture,” the authors write. Even as they endured rampant sexism, racism and mistreatment, “these girls created a space for being women in public,” Sieu Liebowitz says. We spoke to two of these artists with deep Jersey roots.

Beverly Lee • The Shirelles

Lee was born and raised in Passaic, where she met the other founding members of the Shirelles—Shirley Owens, Doris Coley and Addie “Micki” Harris—by junior high. In 1961, their hit single “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” became the first number 1 song by a Black girl group. Regarded as rock ’n’ roll’s first female supergroup, the Shirelles were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The city of Passaic renamed a portion of Paulison Avenue, near Passaic High School, Shirelles Boulevard in 2008. Lee, 82, currently lives in Passaic, where she enjoys walks in the park, still sometimes takes the bus, and serves as an usher/deaconess at St. Paul Baptist Church “any Sunday I’m home.”

What do you recall about Jersey’s music scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s?
Well, it was male dominated, and you heard mainly male groups. After [the Shirelles] were introduced to show business, we broke that cycle. We were [later] universally credited as the creator of the girl-group sound. 

You and the other founding members of the Shirelles were teenagers when you wrote what would later become your first single, “I Met Him on a Sunday,” on the fly at your Passaic apartment in 1957. How did you come to record it?
We were fooling around in gym at Passaic High, and the teacher said, “There’s gonna be a show. Do the show or fail gym.” Quite naturally, we opted to do the show. We brought “I Met Him on a Sunday,” [about having] your first date, your first kiss and the whole nine yards, and you don’t know what you’re doing, and everybody’s nervous. The kids went berserk. One of my classmates said, “They stomped so hard that the ceiling was cracked.”

As a result of that show, we discovered that we had a classmate, Mary Jane Greenberg, whose mother, Florence Greenberg, owned a record company, which we had no knowledge of. Mary Jane asked us to let her mother hear the song, and she pursued us constantly. We got tired of her chasing us, and we finally said, “Okay, we’ll let your mother hear the song.” We went and sang the song in Florence’s living room, and she fell in love with it and wanted to record it. We were teenagers and knew nothing about show business, but we were excited. And we all told a white lie—telling our parents, “You’re the only one who won’t sign [the contract].”

The first time we heard the song was in Passaic High, on the intercom. Florence had arranged for the principal to [play it]. We were in the classroom, and…it was quite an experience. 

In August 1963, the Shirelles performed at the first integrated fundraising show held in Birmingham, Alabama. In the book, you recall that you were “a part of the civil rights movement and didn’t know it.” What is it like to realize, in hindsight, the kinds of barriers you broke?
Well, at the time, we were young, and we were having fun, and we didn’t know the dangers of what we might encounter. I’d never been [down] South before; [I’d only been] as far as Washington, D.C. We went on a chartered plane. When the plane landed, we heard that the Ku Klux Klan had marched before we got there. [The National Guard] had to guard our plane. Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], we were told, led the caravan of cars to the hotel, like the leader he was. [At the hotel,] we could not leave. Everything was guarded. It was frightening, but we had praying parents, and we knew that God was on our side and we would be all right. We still didn’t know at the time that we were making history. When I saw Dr. King sitting to my left, I said, “Oh, dear God.” Words couldn’t describe it.

When “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was initially introduced to the Shirelles, you actually didn’t want to sing it; you thought it was too country-esque. It ended up becoming your biggest hit, and the new book describes it as “an anthem for a generation and for a nation coming into its own adulthood.” How do you feel about the song now?
It’s true that we didn’t like the song when we [first] heard it, because Carole [King, who wrote the music,] did the demo, and it was very, very twangy. It sounded like a country-and-western song. [But producer] Luther Dixon said, “You’re gonna do this song.” [Then] when we went to the studio, we heard a lush arrangement with strings and violas. As a matter of fact, I believe Carole played the kettledrums [on the record] ’cause she didn’t like the way [the other] guy was playing [them]. That’s girl power. We had girl power in that song. Because we had the right—a female has every right—to ask that question: Will you still love me tomorrow?

Peggy Santiglia Ricker • The Delicates, the Angels

Black-and-white promotional photo of the Angels in 1964

The Angels’ Peggy Santiglia Ricker (far right) hails from Belleville. Photo: Pictorial Press Limited/Alamy Stock Photo

Santiglia Ricker grew up in Belleville, across the street from Branch Brook Park. She formed her first girl group, the Delicates, with two elementary-school classmates. (In 2013, part of Belleville’s Union Avenue was renamed The Delicates Drive.) In high school, she joined the Angels and sang lead on their 1963 number 1 hit single “My Boyfriend’s Back.” The Angels were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2005. Santiglia Ricker, 79, now resides in Maryland but returns to New Jersey often to visit family. “It’s a special place,” she says.

What was your musical upbringing like in Belleville?
My sister sang opera. My dad played clarinet, saxophone, mandolin…and guitar. And I started singing and recording as early as elementary school, actually. I met my two original partners [in the Delicates], Denise Ferri and Arleen Lanzotti, in second and third grade. By seventh grade, we were recording. We wrote theme songs for an extremely popular New York DJ at the time, Murray the K. And that’s how we started as the Delicates, not because we were—well, we were innocent—but because Denise’s parents owned a delicatessen on Union Avenue.

It was rare for girls, especially of such a young age, to be writing their own material back then. What do you recall about those early songwriting days?
Well, at that time, we wrote about our two favorite subjects: boys and cars. In that order. And then probably boys again. It’s funny—we didn’t even think of it as writing; we thought of it as making up songs. About friends and [such]. So some, of course, were [written] at the deli, or in back of the deli, where [Denise’s family] lived; some were [written] in my house; sometimes at school, when we would have a break, and an idea would come to us. …Now, maybe at the time, we were just trying to impress our friends. We certainly weren’t thinking about making money. We did love to perform. But that is how it started—with friends that had natural musical ability.

You were a senior at Belleville High when sisters and Orange natives Barbara “Bibs” and Phyllis “Jiggs” Allbut asked you to join the Angels. You sang lead on “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Fast-forward to the summer of 1963: You were at the Jersey Shore with your family when Bibs and Jiggs called and said, “Peggy, come home! We have a hit record!”
“It’s climbing the charts!” It was a very exciting time. Of course, at that time, we didn’t have Sirius radio, or even FM [stations in cars]. I can remember riding around in a convertible…with Jiggs and Bibs. Every major station that you turned to, we would hear “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

And in the late ’60s, under a pseudonym, Peggy Farina, you wrote, with Bob Gaudio, the lyrics to “Beggin’,” which became a Four Seasons hit.
Yes…and at the time…it did get on the charts, number [16] in the country, which I was very happy about. Then, a number of years later, “Beggin’” was also in the [2005] Broadway show version of Jersey Boys, which I’m very thankful for; that was just fabulous. Then, [in 2007,] a group called Madcon did [the first modern cover of it]. And then when Måneskin recorded [another cover in 2022], I didn’t even know about it until I was with a few of my step-grandchildren, who were quite young at the time. And we’re in the car, and they had their phones, and they’re playing Måneskin’s version. And they said, “Oh, this is a big hit.” And I’m listening, and I’m saying, Could it be possible? …Oh, my God, what is going on here? But it became a huge global hit all over the world, which I am so grateful for. And I kind of joked: If people only knew that someone who wrote those lyrics could be their grandmother!  

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