Legendary American pop group The Crystals had as rapid a rise to fame as anyone in showbiz history. But for Dee Dee Kenniebrew, that overnight success has become a lifelong career.
The Crystals had their first hit in 1961 with There’s No Other (Like My Baby), the result of a recording process that would seem laughably unrealistic if you saw it in a feature film.
“There were five of us,” Dee Dee remembers, “and we were put together by our first manager to be a singing group. He trained us for about a year, then he started taking us around New York to see if he could get a recording contract for us. We happened to be up at The Brill Building one evening, singing an original song, and [producer] Phil Spector walked into the room and asked us if we were interested in recording.”
The group recorded their first track with Spector immediately after three of them attended their high school prom; in fact, they were still wearing their prom dresses in the studio.
“We went straight into the studio and made that first record in a matter of three hours. The band was there, we did it all at once and it went straight out the door and made the top 20. And suddenly, there we were in show business! Little did we know what show business even was…”
The girls were about to get a very harsh lesson in exactly what show business was. More hits would follow, as Spector and The Crystals laid down the blueprint that so many girl groups would build on. But for all of their success, they began to get the distinct impression they were being exploited.
“We didn’t know what we were in for, we really did not. We just enjoyed singing together and rehearsing, you know? I was 15, one girl was turning 14, and the other girls were 17. How savvy could we be? How savvy is any 15-year-old? We didn’t know a thing!
“After the first record took three hours, the second record took a week. Phil was like, ‘Well, I’ve got money now…’ He took a week to do the second record, and we didn’t know that we were footing the bill for all of this. It was ridiculous!
“We began to feel like we were being exploited after the second record, when we saw Phil move from a studio apartment with one room to a penthouse over on the Upper East Side. We realised he was making plenty of money, and we weren’t seeing our fair share. Not in the least. That’s when the dissension started.”
The relationship between Spector and the group hit a new low with He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss), a track that was widely seen as an endorsement of domestic violence and was released over the objections of the group (“We hated that song,” Dee Dee remembers, “but we had no control over what we sang”). Things got so bad between Spector and The Crystals that the producer hired Darlene Love and other singers to record tracks like He’s A Rebel and He’s Sure The Boy I Love under their name.
“He did that because there was a lot of dissension and he didn’t want to pay us. He hired some studio girls and he paid them a flat fee. You know how they say money can change you? He really went off the deep end after that.”
Despite the dissension, the group recorded some of their biggest hits with the producer (including back-to-back classics Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me) well after the first cracks appeared in their relationship.
Today, Dee Dee says she doesn’t retain any animosity for Spector, who is currently serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Rather, it sounds like she pities him.
“I’ve learned a lot of things since he killed that girl. A lot of stuff came out that I didn’t know from people that knew him. I feel badly for him, to be honest. I don’t hate him. I feel badly for him.
“I never knew his father committed suicide when he was nine years old. I didn’t know he had tried to sing, and people at his high school had looked at him like he had 10 heads. That had to be horrible. So a lot of things happened to him that were not good things, and I think he developed the attitude that he wanted revenge. He had an ‘I’ll show you’ attitude towards people, which is never good. It’s not good to carry that sort of burden, and I think that was a lot of his motivation.”
Half a century on from their first hit, Dee Dee is the only ‘original’ Crystal keeping the torch alive for the group. She tours the world with new members Patricia Pritchett-Lewis and MelSoulTree, playing to audiences who don’t ever want her to stop.
“The audiences inspire me to keep going. They’re really appreciative, and they always say, ‘Never stop! Please don’t stop!’ They love our music because it reminds them of a specific time in their lives; of people and places from their past. They’re just so appreciative, and that makes a big difference.”
The Crystals play Twin Towns Auditorium in Tweed Heads on Friday 31 July and Kedron Wavell Services Club on Saturday 1 August with The Diamonds’ Dave Somerville and special Australian guests Ray Burgess and The All-Stars.