Are you old enough to remember the great girl groups of the 1960s? The Chiffons? The Shangri Las? The Shirelles? The Rhonettes?
Well let me tell you about a group you never heard of, but which was, just maybe, one of the greatest girl groups of all. They were three students from James Madison High School in Brooklyn.
Does the name of our school ring a bell? I’ll give you a minute to think about it, and then I’ll drop a few names.
Carol King, Bernie Sanders, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Chuck Schumer, Stanley Kaplan, Judge Judy – not to mention four Nobel Prize winners and the founder of Mad Magazine, Bill Gaines. That’s right! They all went to Madison, so if you went to our school back in the fifties or sixties, you probably knew some of them.
Joanie, Bobbi, and Helene met in their junior year when they performed in SING. What’s SING? It’s a show that’s put on every year at our school that consists of original songs and skits. The freshmen, sophomore, junior, and senior classes vie against each other, but the seniors were always expected to win.
There were months of planning and rehearsals, which culminated in Friday and Saturday night performances before full houses in the school’s huge auditorium. A panel of judges would vote on Saturday night, and when the results were announced, the winners would hug and the losers would cry.
Joanie, Bobbi, and Helene had become best friends during the months they were rehearsing. Joanie was a fantastic pianist, and composed most of the songs of the junior class. Bobbi wrote most of the lyrics, while Helene did the choreography.
On Saturday night, when the results were about to be announced, the three of them stood on stage holding hands. No matter which class won, the audience would instantaneously begin applauding. But there was really never much suspense since the seniors had won every year since SING was introduced in the late 1940s.
The head of the panel of judges walked out on stage. She was smiling. She tore open the envelope and announced the winning class. The audience took fifteen or twenty seconds to react. Joanie, Bobbi, and Helene burst into tears. They had won! For the first time in the history of Madison, the seniors had not won SING!
That night the three girls, their families, and their closest friends all went to Dubrow’s Cafeteria to celebrate. Other friends from SING and their families were there as well. In fact, the whole place seemed to have been taken over by the junior class.
The next day the girls asked each other, “So what do we do for an encore?”
Bobbi came up with the answer in just seconds, “We form our own singing group.”
“Yeah,” said Helene, “and then what?”
“We play at clubs. We can start at “The Elegante” on Ocean Parkway. In fact we have an “in” there,” answered Bobbi.
“Which is?” asked Joannie.
“I’m having my sweet sixteen there in June. My parents already booked about eighty seats.”
“So how come we weren’t invited?” asked Helene.
“Whaddya need a personal invitation? OK, so I’m officially inviting yuse guys. Look, the invitations don’t even go out until next month.”
“So they’ll let us sing there?” asks Joanie.
“Who’s gonna stop us?”
A week later they began rehearsing at Joanie’s house. She was the only one with a piano, and she had already written dozens of songs long before SING. Bobbi reprised her SING role as the lyricist and Helene worked on their choreographic moves and planned their outfits.
Joanie had written the lyrics to a few of her songs, but she quickly recognized that Bobbi was a born song-writer. So as soon as Bobbi plugged in the lyrics, they were good to go.
The early sixties was largely an extension of the repressed fifties. You didn’t want to show too much, but at the same time, you wanted to be kind of flirty – but just not so flirty that the boys would get the wrong impression. Helene, who could easily mimic many of the prominent girl groups, came up with the look that was just right. White sweaters, but not too tight, long pleated skirts, white bobby socks and saddle shoes.
A few weeks later they had their first gig at a small club in Bay Ridge, not far from where they were building a bridge to Staten Island. As long as the place had a piano, they were happy.
Just as they were getting ready to go on, the owner asked them what the name of their group was. And before they had a chance to even think about it, he began his introduction.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if this next group sings as good as they look… well you’re gonna just love them! So everybody, let’s hear it for… Three Girls from Brooklyn!”
There was polite applause, and then a couple of guys in the back started yelling, “Yay Brooklyn!”
Joanie took her seat at the piano, flanked by Bobbi and Helene. She played the languorous first few chords and the three of them sang their first song. When they ended, there were a few seconds of complete silence, and then the applause began and kept building. It was almost as though they were back at SING.
They quickly ran through their entire repertoire. When they finished their last song, members of the audience began shouting, “Encore! Encore!”
They glanced at the owner. He had a broad grin. He nodded. They looked at each other and shrugged. What could they possibly sing? Then Helene mouthed a word, and the other two nodded. For the next half hour, the audience got to hear all the songs from SING.
The owner, who was a nice-looking man in his forties — and who smoked like a chimney — came over to them.
“You were great! Everybody loved you!”
“Thank you, Mister …?”
“Taylor. Kevin Taylor. So what are you ladies drinking?”
“Thanks,” said Bobbi. “but none of us drinks.”
“Say, wait a second! How old are you girls, anyway?”
“Well, you know, Mr. Taylor, just because you’re old enough to do certain things, it doesn’t mean you have to do them,” answered Helene.
He threw his head back and laughed.
“You know, I’m old enough to be your father. So let this old man give you a good piece of advice. And you’re welcome to take it or leave it.”
They looked at him, expectantly.
“Remember how the crowd couldn’t get enough of you girls, and kept asking for encores?”
They all nodded.
“Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but this is advice you need to consider for life in general.”
“Don’t give stuff away for free when you can charge for it. And remember, I’m talking to you like a father.”
He then handed each of them a twenty-dollar bill and walked off. Then he stopped, turned back towards them, and said, “Next time, I’ll need to see some draft cards.” Then he winked at them and headed to the back of the club.
On the way home, they excitedly conducted a post mortem of their performance, the audience’s reception, and even Mr. Taylor’s advice. They quickly agreed upon one thing: no more songs from SING, even if they did contribute to the junior’s historic win. They also concluded that they would definitely need to add at least another six or eight songs to their repertoire. So they put off their next performance for another month. Mr. Taylor had promised to talk to a couple of other club-owners, and practically guaranteed them some more engagements.
Bobbi put words to a bunch of Joanie’s songs, and the three of them practiced until they got them just right. When Mr. Taylor called with a gig in Queens, they were ready.
On a late April evening, they took a cab to a club in Queens Village. It was somewhat larger than the one in Bay Ridge. And this time, they would be in control right from the get-go. They had taken Mr. Taylor’s advice to heart.
When they were announced as Three Girls from Brooklyn, the reception was mixed. Then a couple yelled out, “We love Brooklyn!” They shouted back, “We love you too!”
Within minutes, everybody in the club loved them. And they loved them back. And when it came time for an encore, Joanie took charge.
“You want an encore?”
“Yeah” almost everybody shouted back.
“How badly do you want an encore?”
“Bad!” “Very bad!” “Very, very bad!”
“All right then,” declared Joanie. But yuh gonna hafta pay for it.”
And the manager, a guy named Frankie, handed over a bucket to be passed around.
After the next couple of songs, Joanie yelled, “You guys keep payin’ and we’ll keep playin’.”
On the ride home, they counted up their loot.
“Holy shit!” proclaimed Helene. “Almost two hundred dollars!”
Their next gig was not as lucrative, but their performance in a tiny club on St Marks Place was actually reviewed in The Village Voice. It was a fantastic review! The Three Girls from Brooklyn had actually made it in “the City.”
Next on the agenda was Bobbi’s Sweet Sixteen party. A large club on Ocean Parkway, The Elegante was about a mile and a half from Madison. It had attained some measure of fame four years earlier, when Johnny Mathis headlined there. Maybe the club would once again make musical history.
Bobbi’s parents reserved a table for the press, and reporters from every paper from the local Kingsway Courier and the Flatbush Life to The New York Times and the Herald Tribune were invited. When just the Courier and the Life responded, Helene had a brainstorm.
“Let’s invite the editors of all the high school newspapers in Brooklyn!”
How did that work out? Bobbi’s parents had to reserve two more tables.
At last, the big night came. As Joanie, Bobbi, and Helene looked out at the crowd from behind the curtain, they saw Mr. Taylor sitting next to a woman they presumed was his wife. At the same table was Frankie, the manager from the club in Queens, and even the owner of the club on St. Marks Place. And best of all, the three tables reserved for the press were fully occupied.
Then the house lights dimmed, and the MC came out from behind the curtain.
“If there’s anyone here who doesn’t already know, one of the performers in our first act is celebrating her birthday tonight!”
The cheering began.
Tonight, Bobbi is sweet sixteen. She will be singing with her two closest friends, Joanie and Helene. And so, let me present…”
As the curtain began to rise, most of the crowd was on its feet, cheering wildly.
“Let me present to you, Three girls from Brooklyn!”
The ovation was almost deafening. When it finally died down, the girls took their places, and the performance began.
How did they do? Obviously, it’s hard to provide an objective answer. After all, with so many friends and family members on hand, they would probably have cheered almost an even mediocre performance. So it’s best to wait for the reviews.
Amazingly, there was actually a short write-up the next day in The New York Times. As luck would have it, one of the paper’s stringers happened to be at The Elegante that night with his wife. He wrote that, “The energy and the sheer musical talent of the group created an instant bond with the audience. The enthusiasm and the love seemed mutually reinforcing.”
A few days later, the Kingsway Courier had this front page headline: Three Girls from Brooklyn Put Boro Back on Map. In the article that followed, the writer explained that after the Dodgers have deserted five years ago, Brooklyn finally had something to cheer about.
Invitations from clubs all over the city began to pour in, and the girls had much more work than they could possibly handle. They agreed to limit their performances to no more than five or six a month. They would keep singing together as long as they were having fun.
I wish I could have told you that the group stayed together, and that to this day, you could still buy their recordings. But that was not to be. After graduation, the girls went their separate ways.
If you were to visit James Madison High School, you could ask to see the old year-books with photos of SINGs. And if you looked very carefully, you might find the photo of the three girls from Brooklyn holding hands on stage, with tears running down their cheeks. They were never happier.
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and
economics books. The second volume of his short stories, “To the City, with Love,” was recently