By Lloyd Carroll
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is legendary for overlooking deserving artists who clearly deserve enshrinement in its Cleveland museum and bestowing honors on those whose contributions to pop music are questionable.
There is no question that they did the correct thing in 1996 by inducting the Shirelles. Lead singer Shirley Alston and her three close friends from Passaic High School, Micki Harris, Doris Coley and Beverly Lee, became the first successful girl group, and they clearly paved the way for others such as the Ronettes, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and of course, the Supremes.
The Shirelles were discovered by Mary Jane Greenberg, the daughter of Florence Greenberg, a bored Passaic housewife who missed living in New York and who dreamed of working in the music business. “Baby, It’s You” is the new Broadway musical that follows the little-known story about Greenberg, who did the near impossible, getting a record label off the ground (Scepter), that while never a major force in the recording industry did have a good run in the 1960s before teetering in the mid 1970s.
Florence (Beth Leavel) believes so much in the Shirelles that she invests her family’s life savings into pressing their early recordings much to the chagrin of her husband, Bernie (Barry Pearl). As was reflective of the times, Bernie felt that he was the breadwinner and that Florence’s role was being a housewife which he did consider to be work.
Achieving success in the music business at the end of the Eisenhower administration did not require a ton of capital as it would years later but it did involve payoffs to unsavory characters and popular New York disc jockeys as the smooth-talking Jocko Henderson (played to perfection by Geno Henderson who is not related).
Greenberg may not have had a background in music but she did, like Clive Davis, have great eyes and ears for a hit song and talent. She was drawn to a handsome producer and songwriter from Jacksonville, Florida named Luther Dixon (Allan Louis). It was Dixon who was the mastermind behind such baby boomer classics as “Soldier Boy,” “Tonight’s The Night,” “Mama Said,” “Dedicated To The One I Love” and “Foolish Little Girl.”
Right under the cast listing in Playbill is an advisory stating “although this play is inspired by actual events, some material has been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.” A major plot device is the romantic tension between Dixon and Greenberg, something that I had never heard about prior to this show.
The problems of mixing personal and business becomes apparent when the Shirelles’ success wanes just about the time of the JFK assassination. The times are changing and Florence fears that Luther is unwilling to adapt. She is taken with the talents of a young pianist and arranger from Forest Hills named Burt Barcharach who has been working with a talented singer from Newark by the name of Dionne Warwick. Luther feels threatened by Burt (who is unseen in the show) and realizes that he has to leave. Bacharach had previously written “Baby, It’s You” for the Shirelles a year earlier, and the song would be recorded as well by the Beatles.
As is frequently the case with jukebox musicals, the dialog is often corny and contrived, such as the interplay between Florence and her husband. There is also some unfortunate ethnic stereotyping as Bernie Greenberg is portrayed as a nebbish accountant with a whiny nasal voice, while Florence’s trusted assistant, Murray Schwartz (Brandon Uranowitz), is a pushy Sammy Glick type who also has a whiny, nasal voice.
The music, not surprisingly, is top-notch but strangely the Shirelles’ first number one hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” is omitted. My guess is that songwriter Carole King probably wanted too high a price for its inclusion here.
The creators of “Baby, It’s You” admit that they have taken liberties with the facts. At the end of the show, Florence says that she has bought four homes in Passaic for the members of the Shirelles, whose careers were waning. In reality, the Shirelles had to sue Greenberg for royalties. The show’s narrator, Jocko, claimed that Luther Dixon never wrote another hit after leaving Scepter. While he never did enjoy the level of success that he did have there, he did write the Platters’ 1966 comeback hit, “With This Ring,” for Musicor Records.
While I have pointed out some negatives, “Baby, It’s You” will certainly keep you entertained for two hours thanks to great music and a very talented cast. “Jersey Girls” may not be in the same league as “Jersey Boys” but it’s worth seeing.