As much as this song is an example of the great “Girl Groups” tracks released in the 1960’s, the history of this particular song has as much to do about the people involved. Who actually sang the song and how Phil Spector was involved makes this rather involved. Let’s see if we can sort this out.
Musicians on this track include Barney Kessel and Tommy Tedesco on guitar, Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell on piano, and Steve Douglas on saxophone. Douglas was also the contractor for the session, meaning he assembled the musicians. According to Douglas, his sax solo on this song was one of his favorites, but Phil Spector was going to put vocals over it. Douglas convinced him to leave it alone, and it became one of the most famous saxophone solos of the era.
Let’s start with Phil Spector who, at 21 years old, was quickly becoming a major influence in the way records were being produced. This record was one of his initial starts in what was to become famously known as the “Wall Of Sound” technique. Multi-track recording, and stereo, was a way to record different instruments and vocals separately and combine them later into a final track, and was on its beginnings to become the norm for producers. Spector, and incidentally Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, didn’t care much for this technique. They both prefered the sound of mono recording to have the full sound come from both speakers to embellish it. Spector recorded this song at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, packing all the musicians into a room that measured just 19 x 24 feet. Spector was meticulous about microphone placement, especially when it came to the drums. He recorded the song in mono, which meant that every instrument was coming out of both speakers at full force, eschewing the nuance of stereo for the power of a single track.
Spector wasn’t big on editing or post-production, so he spent a lot of his studio time having the musicians run through the track before he would roll tape. Typically, he would have the guitarists play for a while while he worked out the song, then bring in pianos, bass, and drums. Vocals were recorded in an echo chamber located behind the control room at Gold Star.
Add in the personality of Phil Spector to the mix and his “dictatorship” of how he used and controlled the groups he recorded, the story of his life (he was convicted of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson and is currently in prison) makes it remarkable he was able to accomplish as much as he did. He would frequently use a group name, change who the members were, and release records that made it hard to know who sang which one. That leads us to the next part of this records history.
This song was written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector. Barry and Greenwich (later married and divorced) had written several other hits, including (but not only) “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”, “Then He Kissed Me”, “Be My Baby”, “Chapel of Love”, and “River Deep – Mountain High” (also written with Phil Spector); “Leader of the Pack” (written with Shadow Morton); and “Sugar, Sugar”. They also recorded songs as a duo known as The Raindrops, as well as a version of this song.
The song was composed over two days in Spector’s office in New York. The refrain of “Da Doo Ron Ron” came from nonsense syllables they stuck in as filler for lyrics later, but it was exactly what Phil Spector was looking for, since he didn’t want a cerebral lyric getting in the way of his massive production and the tidy boy-meets-girl story line. The rhymes of the opening lines, “I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still … Somebody told me that his name was Bill” was inspired by Bill Walsh, a friend of Spector who happened to visit Spector while the three were writing the song. Sonny Bono, who was also a record producer at the time and was hanging out at the sessions, recalls Spector asking if the song was “dumb enough,” meaning is was accessible to the teenagers who were the target audience. Spector knew he had a hit with this one, telling Bono on playback, “That’s solid gold coming out of that speaker.”
The Crystals were one of the legendary girl groups in music history despite their short career, 1961-1964, and the different line-ups that recorded under the group name. The original Crystals were signed to Phil Spector’s Phillies label during 1961. Barbara Alston, Mary Thomas, Delores Kenniebrew, Patsy Wright, and Mema Girard formed the group in Brooklyn where they came to the attention of Spector. They quickly produced two top 20 hits, “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” and “Uptown.” The Crystals regrouped in 1963 without Mary Thomas and added Dolores “La La” Brooks as lead singer. Meanwhile in California, The Blossoms with Darlene Love also came to the attention of Phil Spector. When it became inconvenient to bring The Crystals to California for a recording session, he used The Blossoms to fill in. The result was the number one hit “He’s A Rebel” and “He’s Sure The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” with the lead vocal by Darlene Love. Upon closer examination, however, it turns out that (as mentioned) “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” weren’t sung by the real Crystals at all, while two other songs (i.e., “Tonight I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “Look in My Eyes”) are generally credited not to the Crystals but to Darlene Love in the case of the first song and the Chantels (a pioneering girl group that had no connection whatsoever with Phil Spector), in the second. Neither song is listed in any Crystals’ discography found, but it’s likely they recorded their own, little known, versions of both. And that likely lets you know just how difficult untangling the true facts can be.
As for “Da Doo Ron Ron”, who actually sang the lead vocals is contested and even the subject of a lawsuit. Darlene Love, who was featured in the 2013 documentary “20 Feet From Stardom”, has said that she was the lead singer on this song, which was recorded at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles. Love sang lead on The Crystals’ previous hits “He’s A Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” because Phil Spector called in her group The Blossoms to record those songs when The Crystals couldn’t make it to Los Angeles. The songs were still credited to The Crystals, and Love claims that she expected her own single release to follow.
Love has given various accounts of her side of the story, telling Katie Couric that she sang lead on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” but backing off that claim in later interviews, saying that her lead vocals were wiped out and replaced by Crystals lead singer Dolores “La La” Brooks in retaliation by Spector when she asked him for an artist’s contract. When the movie “20 Feet From Stardom” – which featured Love – was released in 2013, The New York Times ran a story about the film that claimed Love sang lead on the song. Two weeks later, they ran a correction, stating: “While she did sing, it was as backup, not as the lead.”
Whether she appeared on the song at all is in dispute. The person who can best answer that question is Phil Spector, but since he was in jail when “20 Feet From Stardom” was released, journalists couldn’t use him to fact check Love’s claims. La La Brooks, however, has her own account, which includes a phone call Spector made to his wife, Rachelle, who married him while his trial was going on. Brooks’ friend, Roger L. Chemel, provided an account with a photo of Brooks, Rachelle Spector, and Art Cohen (Brooks’ manager), taken where this conversation took place. Here’s the account:
On August 27, 2012, La La Brooks and Art Cohen, La La’s manager, met with Rachelle Spector after an attendance at the David Letterman Show in New York City. As the three of them joined to have dinner together at a local restaurant, Phil Spector called his wife Rachelle from the prison where he is incarcerated. La La recalls telling Rachelle to say “hi” to Phil. After the conclusion of this telephone call, La La Brooks explained the situation with Darlene Love claiming to have sung the original track of “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
Rachelle Spector tells La La Brooks and Art Cohen that she was flying back to California on August 28, 2012; and that she would explain the situation to Phil Spector. Rachelle Spector flies back to California for her allowed once a month visit on that date, and Rachelle explains to Phil what Darlene Love is saying. Phil Spector tells his wife that Darlene Love did not record a track of DDRR; that Darlene Love never sang background; and that Darlene Love was never a Crystal. Phil told Rachelle that he thought Darlene Love’s voice was too mature and gospely for DDRR and never considered Darlene at all for the song. Rachelle called La La Brooks that day and told her what she found out from Phil Spector.
In an interview with La La Brooks by Songfacts, she talked about recording this song:
When I went to the studio to do ‘Da Doo Ron Ron,’ Phil had taught me the song. When I walked in the studio, all the musicians were there, and after they finished putting down the track, I sat there for hours. Me and Cher went out to get something to eat. We come back, they’re still putting down the track. All of the sudden, when the track is finished, Phil says, ‘La La, go in the booth and put down the song now.’ I went in there, put down the song. I had trouble with (singing) ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I had trouble with that because he liked my ending, because it was my ending in my head, and he said, ‘I want that again.’ I had to double it, and it was hard for me to double it, because I couldn’t get together with the ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and then (in lower voice), ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ It was confusing. He said, ‘La La, try it again.’ And that’s how we recorded it.
La La Brooks also recalled the recording of the song to Mojo magazine November 2011:
I sang Da Doo Ron Ron over and over. Phil was sort of a perfectionist with that one. And I remember being pooped in the studio (laughs). I wanted to run out that door so fast but he kept going over and over. Thirty, 40 takes. I would say, “When are you gonna get it, you know?”
To best sum this all up, Michael H. Little put it well:
In closing, I will reiterate; trying to untangle the incestuous threads that tied the recording histories of the girl groups of the early sixties together is an exercise in frustration, if not outright futility. Producers used band names and considered band members interchangeable, so that I’m still not convinced, for example, that the Crystals ever recorded a version of Darlene Love’s “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry.” Lala Brooks recorded a version; could this be the one credited to the Crystals? I don’t know. What I do know is that in a world where “He’s a Rebel” is still credited as a Crystals’ song, anything is possible. Me, I think the Crystals deserve a hallowed place in the rock pantheon for “Then He Kissed Me” alone. It makes me swoon, and not many songs can do that. As for the rest, I’ll let the serious rock historians ferret out the truth. I simply don’t have the patience.
In 2004, the Crystals’ song was ranked number 114 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. It was, however, removed from the same list in the 2010 update, being the highest-ranked of the 27 songs that were removed. It was listed at number 528 by Q Magazine in their list of “The 1001 Best Songs Ever”, published in 2003. Berlin Media listed the song at number 43 on their list of “The 100 Best Singles of All Time” list published in 1998. It was also recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock”. Billboard named the song #55 on their list of “100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time”. The song has been recorded by many, including but not limited to, Mike Love of the Beach Boys (as well as The Beach Boys themselves), Bette Midler, The Searchers, and bootlegged studio recordings by Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones.