Song Of The Week: “He’s A Rebel” by The Crystals*

* Sort of.

Over the decades, numerous songs reached #1 with a little deception involved. Groups such as The Hollywood Argyles, The Archies, and Steam didn’t actually exist– they were studio creations which later required the formation of actual bands once the singles released under their names proved shockingly successful. Milli Vanilli topped the charts repeatedly in the 1980’s without any participation from either Milli or Vanilli (AKA Rob and Fab), a duo hired exclusively for their smooth looks and even smoother dance moves. And I dare you to produce a single chipmunk who can sing — let alone three — and in harmony!

But only once in pop history has an established group with previous hits been entirely replaced by another group, who were then passed off as the original group to an unsuspecting public for two singles, before the party of the first part returned as if nothing happened (except that the lead singer demoted herself to backing vocals while a non-original member who wasn’t part of the impostors took over lead vocals).

Confused? Well, prepare to remain that way! Welcome to The Crystals.

In 1961, five teen girls from Brooklyn decided it would be fun to form a singing group. Not long afterwards, through a relative who must have had mighty good connections in the music industry, the high schoolers somehow ended up in front of soon-to-be super-producer and later-to-be psychopath Phil Spector, who signed them to his newly created record label, Philles. In early 1962, their first single, “There’s No Other (Like My Baby),” hit the Top 20, and their second single, “Uptown,” almost reached the Top 10 — both featured lead vocals by Barbara Alston.

Now, music biz folks in those days were constantly on the lookout for potential hits, and in the summer of 1962 Spector procured a demo by singer and songwriter Gene Pitney — already en fuego for having recently written big hits for Bobby Vee and Ricky Nelson — and the super-producer knew this brand new tune would hit the charts running. Upon learning that another artist had cut her own version of the track, titled “He’s A Rebel,” and with a release date imminent, Spector, already in Los Angeles, quickly assembled the top session musicians in town (you may remember The Wrecking Crew, who played on hundreds of hits) to record his own version and get it out first.

Only one small problem. The Crystals were on tour on the East Coast. Phil wanted this record on the radio yesterday. What’s a callous, psychopathic music guy to do?

Spector arranged for Darlene Love and The Blossoms, a top backing group in L.A. — who had already appeared (anonymously) on the #1 hit “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares — to scramble into the studio and sing their hearts out with a song they’d only just learned. Wham bam thank you Blossoms, and the record was rush released.

Unbeknownst to both groups, Spector decided to release “He’s A Rebel” under the banner of the already popular and established Crystals, as opposed to the unknown and hitless-under-their-own-name Blossoms. The single rose to #1 that fall and both groups were simultaneously happy and irritated: the New Yorkers, embarrassingly, had to learn and perform a song they didn’t sing on, but at least it was the top song in the country; meanwhile, the Californians had a smash hit, but no one knew who they were.

This arrangement proved so successful the first time that Spector decided to try for a repeat performance on the next single, “He’s Sure The Boy I Love,” once again not telling either party what he planned to do with the credits. Sure enough, the single was a hit, but this time everybody got angry. Phil wasn’t known for making friends.

The true Crystals would perform the vocals from here on out, albeit with a different lead singer — their unofficial third. Barbara Alston never enjoyed the spotlight during live performances, and she also didn’t have a voice suitable for imitating Darlene Love, so Dolores “LaLa” Brooks, who had joined the group after one of the original girls left, took over lead vocal duties. She would sing the group’s 1963 classics, “Da Doo Run Run” and “Then He Kissed Me.”

So walk down the street and shuffle your feet….with The Crystals…The Blossoms….The Crystals.

Let’s highlight each of the lead singers, beginning with Barbara Alston. When The Crystals recorded their first single it coincided with prom night — they came to the studio straight from the dance and recorded “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” still wearing their taffeta and tulle.

Darlene Love belts out a #1 hit…anonymously.

“LaLa” Brooks sings the opening song from Adventures In Babysitting, the last hit for the group.

7 thoughts on “Song Of The Week: “He’s A Rebel” by The Crystals*

  1. Yes, the psychopath Phil Spector. I just can’t move past that, no matter what talent that man had. It must’ve been a good show dance song though!

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