La La Brooks

Brooklyn raised La La Brooks is the original lead singer of The Crystals, the girl group famous for the hits Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me (featured in Goodfellas). Sheís worked alongside Phil Spector, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, Diana Ross, The Supremes, Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Cher, to name a few, as well as being a seasoned Broadway pro. And 45 years on, La La is still going strong. In a recent visit to the UK, where she performed to thousands of soul aficionados at ĎSouldhamí, Karolyn Judge got to polish of some old memories with this Crystal.

Q: How did it begin for you with the Crystals?

I was in the 7th grade, going on 13. I went to a school called PS 73, a junior high school and when weíd come from school at three o clock, my mother didnít allow us, me especially because I was next to the youngest of all my motherís children, she wouldnít allow me to play in the street. So sheíd say, you either stay at home or you go back to school and go into the recreation programmes, where they played pool and have little dance things, things like that. And this particular day, I went back to school, and when I walked in, I heard this music, a man playing the piano and I followed the piano player. And I walked in the room, and I said to him ĎCan I sing with you on this piano?í He said ĎCan you sing?í I said Ďyeah.í And I started singing, and then Dee Deeís mom, which was one of the Crystals, Dee Dee Kennibrew, her mother worked in my school, as an after school programme lady, she must have heard me. She came down the hall and she said to me ĎWould you like to be in a group?í And I said Ďyeahí and we started talking, she told me it was the Crystals. I joined them when I was 13, and she said they were going on the road. I think it was the James Brown tour. I told her she would have to ask my mom. She went and asked my mother, who said that I had to have a guardian. So I had a guardian on the road, and I was the youngest, I was 13, I was turning 14 when I started travelling, Dee Dee was 16, Barbara and Patsy were 18, just finishing high school. Patsy Wrightís mom was our chaperone.

Q: You were discovered at 13, but were you singing before that?

I sung gospel when I was 7 years old. We had a group called the ĎLittle Gospel Tears.í It was me, the lead singer, my brother, my sister and my niece. We used to sing in church. And when I was in the 5th grade too, even though I was singing in church on Sundays. When I was in school, I think I was about 10, I remember this man, he used to bring me around the classrooms and sing for the kids in the 5th grade, Mr Goldstein. Iíll never forget his name. And after in the school programmes, we had chorus and I remember singing out loud! And if we had to sing something straight, I would add something to it, just yell out something, that I thought would sound good. And thatís when people started to notice Ďoh she can singí lets pull her out and bring her around. Thatís when he would say to me, ĎYouíre going to be a big star.í And I would smile. At 10 or 9 years old, I didnít really know.

Q: Did you have even influences then?

Clara Ward was very popular at that time but all the women that were famous through gospel, and I love gospel, I always sung gospel. And thatís where I trained from and people ask me if I was trained to sing, Iíll say no, it just came automatically, but I never had training, itís just natural.

Gospel is a feeling. Even when Iím singing pop songs, Iím feeling spiritual. Because my voice is different, itís a voice that comes from gospel, so when I sing gospel itís a feeling that I have when I sing, I still feel that sound inside me. Even if Iím humminí. Iím thinking of the lyrics but Iím also, feelingÖI have a voice that has a sadness in it. Itís real.

Q: How did the recording process begin for the Crystals?

We were recording for Phil Spector. At first Phil Spector was using Barbara Alston when I got into the group at 13. Because they didnít know that I could sing lead. So I did all of Barbaraís background when Phil Spector was in New York recording. And when Phil heard that I could sing, and I had a much stronger voice than Barbara, much more gospel. When I went on the road with the girls, Barbara didnít want to do ĎThereís No Other Like My Baby Anymoreí. I said ĎIíll do themí. They were older than me and Barbara couldnít care less. And because I was singing gospel in church, I always was the lead singer. And after when I started doing the lead, I always did the lead on stage, all the things Barbara did, I did the lead. I guess the word got around, and I started doing the lead on the road, and then I was recorded as the lead. I did the Christmas Album, everything.

When I started recording, Phil just flew me out to record, the original Crystals would stay in New York. And he would use the Blossoms and Cher as the background. When he moved out the company to California, then I was taken out to California. Sonny Bono would pick me up from the Knickerbocker hotel and he would take me to the Goldstar studio, and Iíd record. Cher would always be sitting in the recording booth, always wanting to get on the mic, you know she was Sonnyís wife, and she never really got on mic, but thatís what she wanted to do. And eventually Phil let her do something, ĎCome on Cher, you can do the background for thisíÖsheís on the Da Do Ron Ron background. People donít know that. They think the Crystals are on it. The only thing that the Crystals are on, and Iím on is what Barbara did when Phil was in New York. When Barbara was doing that lead when I was too young, she had a very soft voice, too soft, but Phil wanted that sound at the time. Everything that I did was in Goldstar studio, even the album tracks.

Q: Was there any anger with the rest of the Crystals about that?

I donít know, personally I donít know.  I was too young to realise it, but I knew we were having trouble with Phil. The only thing that shocked us was that people thought that Darlene Love was one of The Crystals, she was never a Crystal. We never had even met her, never in life. And one time, all the original girls, we were out on the road travelling and we heard ĎHeís a Rebelí on the radio, and we all looked at each other, and the radio announcer said itís a hit, ĎThe Crystals, at Number One!í And we were like ĎWe never did ĎHeís a Rebel.í And ĎHeís Sure the Boy I loveí came out next with Darlene Love, and so what happened was is when it became a hit, I had a strong voice, so I could sound like that and Phil would always pit the lead singers that could sound like each other.

So I rehearsed ĎHeís a Rebelí, and I was able to do it strong on stage, but we had never met Darlene Love. He put the Crystals with ĎHeís a rebelí and Darlene with ĎHeís sure the boy I love.í I always met Darlene when I was at Goldstar studio, but it was passing by, like she would put down her track and I would put down mine but Phil would never let us meet. He was doing tricky stuff. Darlene was older and I adored her, I adored her sound. At the end of the day, I learnt how to do it but people would always get mixed up and think that Darlene was a Crystal.

Even Phil would keep us separated when we did that Christmas album. He did that Christmas album in New York. He bought us all sweaters, and kept us in different rooms so we didnít really see each other. If he wanted to take a photo of us, and then we were gone, if he wanted to take a photo of Darlene, then she was gone, the same with the Ronnettes [who sung Be My Baby]. But he never kept us together, because he was doing slick things and he didnít want us to talk about it.

Q: Looking back, because of the fact you were so young, did you feel taken advantage of?

For some reason, as angry we can get with Phil, he treated me a little bit nicer. Maybe because I was so young. I remember him buying me a poodle. We were in the studio, and he called me, and we went into his limousine, he had this box, but I was scared to go back to the studio, because the other girls were there and I didnít want to make them jealous. Then when he bought us Christmas gifts, they were matching suitcases, apart from mine, so mine was sort of prettier. I donít know if he was trying to brainwash me, because I was naïve and a child or if he just had respect for someone for that young. Then he started recording me with everything on Goldstar studio.

Yeah we were naïve, and he took advantage, definitely. I think that had an effect on all of us, to know that he would take everything from us. Someone should have a heart, because we were kids. Out parents didnít know anything about contracts and he was smart. What people donít realise that if it wasnít for the Crystals there would be no Phil Spector, because the Crystals came first. Philes Records was established by Phil Spector and Lester Sills, and Phil was smart enough to get Lester Sills out, and he took over the company. If it werenít for the Crystals, Phil would not be Phil Spector. Phil came from the group the Teddybears, and so when he left, he formed this label, and after the Crystals came, the Righteous Brothers, the Ronnettes, Darlene Love and then he was doing stuff with the Beatles.

But we put him on the map, from the hits we had, with Da Doo Ron Ron, and Then He Kissed Me, which has been in movies. Heís just ruthless. But what goes around comes around, now heís in court for murder. You have karma, especially as me being a child, he should have been protective, but he knew what he was doing, and he had smart people behind him that were crooks. They didnít give a damn about black people, period, in America. We didnít grow up thinking that people were going to take advantage of us, we were taught that people were good and kind,

 

Q: What did you do when you disbanded in 1966?

I had put down all the hits, and I had been on the road. And I wanted to go to Broadway; I wanted to do bigger things. I was in the original cast of Hair, I did Cotton Comes To Harlem; the movie, modelling on television, a few commercials, I did a lot of background commercials and I did ĎTwo Gentlemen of Veronaí on Broadway with Clifton Davis and Raul Julia.

After the Crystals, we werenít being booked that much anyway because the music was changing, into disco, so Rock and Roll what up and down. So I started auditioning for plays on Broadway, and I got in the original cast of Hair with Diana Keaton and Mel Brookmore. I really didnít miss the Crystals, I had picked out the biggest hits they had ever had. I didnít feel as though I lost anything. It was a gain for me, because all I ever wanted to do was Broadway.

Q: Do you have good memories of the Crystals?

I loved being in the group, but in those times, it was times changing. Phil stopped recording us at one time, because he started paying attention to the Ronnettes. I donít have a problem with that because Ronnieís a sweetheart. He was paying attention because he wanted her as his girlfriend or whatever, and they ended up being married, so his focus was away from the Crystals, so it was survival. If we carried on recording I would have made another hit with him. It wasnít by choice that the Crystals stopped recording, it was that his direction started switching from us, like him forgetting who made Phil.

Then I got married, and had four children and my mind focussed on life. I was always religious. I just focussed on life, more of a religious life. I always had a balance. Showbiz is beautiful but I always had a balance. I love the fans and I love that they love us, but Iím down to earth. Itís like a 9-5 job. It doesnít take me to be disrespectful or think that Iím better than somebody. When I leave it I leave it, itís not difficult for me to get off stage and close the curtains. Sometimes it is difficult for artists.
 

Q: On the road, did you see a lot of people that went over Ďthatí line?

Sure, you saw a lot of people that was drunk, addicted to sometimes, heroin, marijuana, not that I have anything against that. Itís their business-I donít knock anybody for anything. For me, it was that fear. As a little girl being raised from Gospel, I always was grounded. Even as a seven-year-old I was afraid to do anything bad, in case my mother would punish me, or God would punish me.

I was afraid to come out of my respect. People donít realise that stage is not who I am. Stage is a job, itís not who I am spiritually. I donít take it to that extreme. When Iím off stage, Iím humble, Iím the mom or the friend; Iím totally different.

I know a lot of people like Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, he was only 14, the same age I was, and he went to drugs. Itís only by the grace of God that Iíve been protected. Itís not me, itís a higher power and I canít take the credit for that. When youíre that young, you donít have the mind to say yes or no, you arenít mature enough, there was a protection from my mom and God. Friends Iíve known have died from drugs and drink. Iím just fortunate and grateful to be blessed like that.

Q: Youíve worked with world famous artists. Has there been any that youíve have been star struck about?

Not really, I donít look at a star like that, even the ones that are out now. Maybe because Iíve come before them, and I know what it feels like. So I donít look at them, as Iím in the same category. Iíve been there and done that. Theyíve followed me, rather than me following them. So Destinyís Child were like the Crystals. I never think, oh my goodness I have to meet Beyonce, I have to meet Mary J Blige, I mean I did meet her, and spoke to her for half an hour. She did say that we paved the way for them all, which is true. So I never think about that, because its nonsense. Whoever thinks they are stars like that, itís not real. Once you get that in your head that you are a star and Iím better than someone, thatís when the problems start.

I remember when we were in the Crystals we were on American Bandstand a lot with Dick Clark. I remember one of the neighbours, and I was going to the store one day, and he came up to me, saying it was such a privilege to have me in the neighbourhood.  He said to me ĎI saw you on T.Ví and went to touch my arm. When I was 13, you know you think youíre all that, when he went to touch me, I moved my shoulder like I was so proud. And my mother must have been watching me out of the window, and when I went upstairs, she told me Ďdonít ever think that, as long as you live, you are above anyone else. Because if you ever move your shoulder like youíre better than somebody else, I will take you out [of the group] tomorrow.í I will always remember that. 

 

Q: Youíve gone right back to where you began with those famous songs, do you enjoy them or wish you could push them out?

No, I donít because thatís where I came from. Thatís what made me am today, in terms of the personality I have today. Itís not that I hate doing the songs, its identification. If it makes people smile and happy then thatís what Iím concerned about.

Q: Youíve been in the studio recently and doing other things, is entertainment still your focus?

Yeah. Really, if I had a big education, I would have a 9-5 job. But singing for me, even when some people say singing is sinful in church, when I sing or just hum, itís like a stress release. It releases me. Even when some one would give me a childrenís song, it would be ok for me to sing a nursery rhyme, I would sing it, not pop music, itís all about me releasing stress. I have to have things that release me from the anxiety from whatís going on around with me. Whatever is my destiny, I accept it. I donít say I should be recording this, I wanna work with this person, I donít think like that. I just wanna live as peaceful as possible, in myself.

Q: Did you enjoy Saturday? (Appearance at Soul Charity event in Oldham)

Yes I did, because itís for a cause. Iíve done a lot of charity in America for cancer, animals, leukaemia and children. Thereís a place in New York, called MacDonalds hospital. I did some things there, and all the children there have cancer. Just to see them, I was so grateful, because my grandkids are healthy. And any time they would ask me to go to the hospital to sing a nursery rhyme for the kids, I would go there, because I was so blessed. When I see things like that Iíll go anytime they ask me, and I wanna make sure the kids are happy.

Q: What was it like seeing everybody still enjoying them selves to your music?

I loved it. I find that the English people that Iíve met are very strong, hard people that work everyday, struggle everyday. Their spirits are so high when it comes to humbleness. Their music is their way of life, and I was so shocked with the things that Iíve witnessed, with the music that they hold on to, our music of the 60ís and to see the nostalgia. With America, you donít find that, you are as good as your last record. It was an honour for me to work with them. I must thank Fay Jones [the promoter] it was an honour for her to call me here. English people carry that respect for your music.

Q: What do you think of the industry nowadays?

Thereís a difference. They make much more money than we could have ever made. As far as ríníb music, thatís changed. Itís not the ríníb we were hearing in the 60ís that came from the soul of the person, like the Blues and Gospel, like Muddy Waters. RnB came from struggle. People now, they donít know what it was like to struggle. Like my dad picked cotton. So, naturally they arenít going to sing from struggle, itís going to be commercialised and thousands of dollars worth of money is spent on arrangements and studios.

The only thing that struggle comes from right now in America is hip-hop, with the ghetto and things. Some of it I donít agree with, some of it I enjoy. I might like the beat but not the lyrics. I disagree with calling women bitches, or whores. You donít aquire a certain standard with anger. Anger doesnít solve anything. I can understand them wanting to express themselves, but when you express it in violence, it only leads to more violence. It does bring a separation with races.

When I was in the Crystals, we travelled by bus, not by plane like they do now, sometimes 500 miles across the country. I remember when I was on many of the Dick Clark tours we werenít allowed to stay at the Sheridan Hotel with the white people like Dion and the Belmonts. We, the blacks, had to stay in the motel. But we never really hated the white people. The artists arenít like that; they were different. We were hurt, but not angry. Thatís the difference between music nowadays. There is anger. We never were.

Q: Dreamgirls. Exaggerated? True?

I saw it three times believe it or not. I loved it. It brought me back because I remember the road, because I remember the story. Itís not on point, because people are trying to make sure itís differentiated from Diana Ross so she wonít complain, but there are things in there that I know, with Florence Ballad. People donít realise it because they werenít around the Supremes like I was. I see a Diana Ross in there and I see Beyonce with Destinyís Child. Iím sure sheís a sweetheart though, as Iíve seen her in interviews and she has a good personality. It brought me back to different things though. Florence was very humble.

Words: Karolyn Judge
Photos: Derek Storm - www.derekstorm.com

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For more info on La La Brooks

www.myspace.com/lalabrooksnyc
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