Behind The Hits: The Crests “16 Candles”
Today we’re taking a dive into the music from the Broadway show Baby It’s You – which tells the story of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]the Shirelles[/lastfm] and their mentor [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Florence Greenberg[/lastfm].
Florence had a professional and personal relationship with songwriter/producer [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Luther Dixon[/lastfm], who co-wrote and produced early Shirelles’ hits. Dixon’s earliest success though was with another act: [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]the Crests[/lastfm].
[lastfm link_type="artist_info"]The Crests[/lastfm] were a Brooklyn/Staten Island doo-wop quartet fronted by the powerful lead singer [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Johnny Maestro[/lastfm] (born Mastrangelo). Formed in the late ’50s they achieved local fame in the New York City area, where they were considered one of the best vocal groups around.
After a debut on the tiny Joyce label with “My Juanita”, they moved to the larger Coed Records, where their first release, “Pretty Little Angel,” was a regional hit. But it wasn’t until two important deejays took a fancy to the B side of their second Coed single that the Crests made it onto the national charts and became established as a major group.
In the early days of rock, a group would often show up in the studio and their label would present them with the songs they were supposed to record. They didn’t have any choice in the matter. In 1958, Coed gave the Crests two songs for their second single. The first was “Beside You,” a standard doo-wop tune that was expected to get radio airplay. “That song was more in tune with what was happening on the radio back then,” Johnny Maestro recalled, “the real rhythm and blues doo-wop stuff. It had more harmonies, I think. It tended to lean more toward what was happening.” The flip side was “16 Candles,” a teen birthday theme that Maestro remembers as “a little classier,” brought in by staff writers Dixon and Allyson Kent.
Although the infamous payola investigations were just around the corner in late 1958, disc jockeys were still obliviously playing whatever they wanted to, independent of playlists. [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Alan Freed[/lastfm] of New York’s WINS and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Dick Clark[/lastfm] on ABC-TV, were two of the most influential deejays in America, and they liked “16 Candles” a lot more than “Beside You.” They both played the song incessantly. Soon other disc jockeys began playing that record, which led teenagers to start buying it, which led to the song becoming #2 in the country. It was a clear-cut chain, beginning with a few important jocks who decided what American kids would want to hear. And that’s the way it happened with many tunes. Today “16 Candles” is considered a classic, but we never would have heard it at all if it hadn’t been for Freed and Clark.
FOR THE RECORD:
The Crests’ luck was great, but not perfect. A quirk of timing kept “16 Candles” from hitting #l. When the record was at its peak at the end of 1958, the Christmas novelty tune, “The Chipmunk Song” was in the process of selling about two million copies. Nothing could’ve knocked it out of #l. “16 Candles” was the Crests’ only Top 10 record, although Maestro was back in the Top 10 in 1968 with a different group, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]The Brooklyn Bridge[/lastfm], singing his first million-seller, “The Worst That Could Happen.”
BABY IT’S YOU! is the original Broadway musical inspired by the true story of Florence Greenberg, a suburban housewife from New Jersey, who discovered one of the greatest girl groups of all time, The Shirelles, and created Scepter Records, becoming the music industry’s first female powerhouse.