Formed in 1965 by Phil Spector, the short-lived Phi-Dan label did not prove to be one of the legendary producer's more successful ventures, registering just one small chart success. Unlike the more illustrious stars of Spector's Philles logo, the Phi-Dan artists have never been afforded the luxury of having their careers documented. Until now. Thanks to a chain of events that led two of their members to Spectropop, we are pleased to be able to tell the story of one of those acts, the Lovelites.
Not to be confused with the Chicago-based group of the same name, the Phi-Dan Lovelites comprised three teenaged schoolgirls from Brooklyn, New York; Joanna DeClemente, Louise Robbins and Linda Stern. Their first publicity photo is reproduced nearby. "We were pretty cute 37 years ago. Now . . . ha! . . . we are just gorgeous," says Louise. "That's me, the li'l monkey in the middle, the blonde," adds Linda. "Lou is the fiery redhead on top. The bombshell brunette is Jo, our lead, and what a lead she was! We were all the same age, 16 when we recorded '(When) I Get Scared' for Phil Spector, but the photo might have been taken a year earlier."
The friendship of Louise and Linda dates back to their early childhood. "Same block, same kindergarten, same school," says Linda. "Linnie and I have remained friends all these years," adds Louise. "We are a pair in so many ways, our memories filled with happiness and sadness about our days as the Lovelites, of what was and what could have been. She and I are kindred spirits. Our birthdays are just seven days apart. We share similar interests and have had comparable careers."
Both ladies are also from similar Jewish families. "I'm a Brooklyn girl, born in Germany of Jewish extraction," says Linda. "My brother played flute and guitar and studied at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. My sister played the accordion and sang in various non-pro groups. We were quite the performing family, always singing together. My dad was a lover of music whose greatest joy was just sitting under a tree in the Catskills, listening to tapes on his boombox."
Louise: "My father and his sisters sang on the radio in Boston in their youth. Dad played the uke and my brother and I sang when we went to the Catskills in the summertime. I sang in various choruses in school. In fact, I would sing anywhere and for anyone. I did some talent shows at school, but nothing that brought any notoriety. I took piano lessons in the 4th grade and continued until the 7th. Classical, which I really didn't like. We didn't have much money, so my mom and dad stopped the lessons because I didn't practice. I still play, but not very well. My dad tried to get me on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, but it didn't happen. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew that my dad and I could sing."
The girls grew up listening to classic American rock & roll. "I really didn't like the Beatles or Elvis," says Louise. "I preferred Little Richard and the Drifters. My favourites were the male doo wop groups." Linda's tastes were similar: "I love most music but my heart belongs to 50s doo wop, then 60s R & B. I loved the Spaniels, the Students and the Imperials, who were from Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I would play and sing along to strengthen my voice. My favourite all-time group is Arlene Smith and the Chantels."
"Then we grew up a little," adds Linda. "We were at Winthrop Junior High School in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and, at about age 12, we decided to audition girls to be in our group. That's how we met Joanna. We had ourselves one talented, soulful lead singer. Now we were a real group, about to begin what would be the best years of our lives."
"Originally we called ourselves the Jades," says Louise. "But then we found out there was another group of that name." Linda: "So we sat around and tossed names about. We ended up calling ourselves the Lovelites after a song that was out at the time, 'When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes' by the Supremes."
Louise: "Joanna went to Winthrop with us, but switched to Catholic school for her senior years. She lived with her sister, mom, dad and grandmother. Linda and I spent a lot of time at her house because it was big and we could hang out in her basement. We grew up in apartments. Joanna's parents were great. Linda and I were close to them. Joanna had the voice of the times and was quite sexy for a youngster. Linda and I had talent and soulful voices too. We still do. When we performed live we all did lead vocals."
Linda: "A friend introduced us to our manager Larry Tashman. He lived nearby in Brooklyn. Larry hooked us up almost immediately with Doc Pomus and Morty Shuman. We signed two contracts, one with Larry and one with Pomshu Productions. This was 1964."
"My parents were apprehensive," remembers Louise. "But they wanted me to have my chance, so they signed the contracts. My brother loved it that I was in showbiz. He was on duty in Vietnam and used to brag about it to his buddies." Linda: "My parents were not thrilled about it. They were more interested in me doing my schoolwork. We had to use public trains to get to the city to rehearse, all unescorted. They weren't happy about that either. But my sister and brother were great; supportive, excited and involved."
Louise: "Doc Pomus was a wonderful man. We worked with him in the Forest Hotel, around the corner from the Brill Building. He rarely walked in those days and stayed in his hotel room during the week and went home on weekends. He had another singer, Scotty Fagan, helping him with things. We never knew what happened to Scotty. He was born in Jamaica or Bermuda. Maybe he went home. We also worked with Morty Shuman, but not as much as with Doc. He was protective and nurturing as well as demanding and professional about what he wanted from our talents. We'd be in that hotel room for hours rehearsing."
"Doc took us under his wing," says Linda. "We rehearsed with him at the Forest Hotel at 49th and Broadway, all jammed into one small room. We mostly went there after school. Scotty Fagan was his right hand man. Doc was bedridden and rarely got out but I remember him venturing out to see us sing at the 5000 Club one time. He lived with his wife and son in Valley Stream and went home on the weekend." Louise: "We did some backup work for Doc at Bell Sound Studios on West 54th Street as well. I recall rehearsing a song entitled 'Georgie' with him, but I don't think we ever recorded it."
"I remember we were a tremendous hit for a very difficult crowd at the 5000 Club," adds Louise. "This was in the heart of Brooklyn where people really knew their rock & roll. We were backed up by the Vagrants, the house band at the 5000 that weekend. They were well known in Brooklyn and played all the clubs. There was a really handsome guy in the group. I remember them playing Sam The Sham & the Pharaohs' 'Wooly Bully'."
"The Vagrants were actually very good," recalls Linda. "When we performed live, our opening tune was none other than 'Be My Baby', with the 'Bom, Shoo, Bom' intro. Other songs in our act included 'He's So Fine'. 'Chapel Of Love', 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow', 'Not Too Young To Get Married', 'Stand By Me', 'Perfidia', 'Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)' and the Chantels' 'He's Gone'. We did the Miracles' 'Ooh, Baby Baby' too. Louise sang lead on that one. We played at Cerrao's in Brooklyn and at the Café Why Not in the West Village on MacDougal Street, a few doors from the Kettle Of Fish, an old Dylan hangout. We also sang at our school dance at Wingate High, at hospitals during the Christmas holidays and at other charity functions."
Doc Pomus was an early mentor to, and songwriting partner of, Phil Spector. Compositions by the unlikely pair had been recorded by Ben E. King, the Paris Sisters, the Crystals and others. Soon the Lovelites were added to Spector's stable. Louise: "Phil heard us and thought he could do us justice. We just knew this was it, we had arrived. We were 15-years-old, so you can imagine the excitement. We got to know Phil quite well and worked at his studio in his apartment in Manhattan. Phil was a genius in the studio, a perfectionist, for sure. He was demanding, but not abusive, or anything. There are some stories, believe me, which I don't feel comfortable sharing. Let's just say that Phil Spector was a colourful character. We worked with him for about a year and a half." Linda: "Everyone was really excited about us. They said we were white girls with a black sound. There we were, kids, loving music, working with the biggest and the best in the industry. We were fortunate."
Spector placed the Lovelites in the hands of Pete Anders and Vinnie Poncia, colleagues of Doc Pomus and co-writers of hit songs like '(The Best Part Of) Breakin' Up' and 'Do I Love You' for the Ronettes. Linda: "Phil hooked us up with his buddies/associates Anders and Poncia and from then on we spent most of our time with them. We used Associated Studios on 7th Avenue and Bell Sound and, on occasion, Phil's place." Louise: "We often ate dinner at Jack Dempsey's Restaurant next door to the Brill Building, where Peter and Vinnie were known for their antics, writing songs on tablecloths, that kind of thing. They were very talented, wrote great stuff, for us and other groups, and were also as funny as hell."
The first track recorded by the Lovelites appears to have been 'Please Be My Boyfriend', taped in September 1964 at Broadway Recording Studios with Pete Anders and Vinnie Poncia producing. The track was never officially released but crept out on the underground market in Japan a decade ago, along with a version allegedly sung by the Crystals, which shares the same backing track. Louise: "We rehearsed 'Please Be My Boyfriend' but I don't remember ever recording the background vocals. But that IS our Jo singing lead on the Japanese CD and that's (engineer) Jerome Gasper saying 'Take 14'. And if you listen carefully to the end of the Crystals' version, you can hear Jo's voice on that too, underneath."
"Peter and Vinnie wrote and produced '(When) I Get Scared'," says Louise. "They sang with us on the record too. They had distinctive voices and sang very high range. All the vocals were then doubled for that wall of sound effect. I can hear me, but ever so faintly. Phil used his label and his sound and promoted the record. So I believe he co-produced it by virtue of financing the recording, having the last say and allowing his name and sound to be associated with the record and the group." The accredited engineer was Jerome Gasper. "I remember Jerome very well," says Linda. "He was the techman, putting it all in the pot, with a lot of other geniuses asking for a little more of this and a little more of that."
Cassette copies of another Lovelites' recording - 'He's My Eddie Baby', again written and produced by Anders and Poncia - have circulated among girl group collectors for two decades. The group themselves are in possession of the only known copy, a much-loved 7-inch acetate bearing an Associated Recording Studios label. "Phil decided not to release it," recalls Louise. "It's quite possible that 'Eddie' was recorded for Doc Pomus before '(When) I Get Scared'. We did record for Doc with Peter and Vinnie as producers." Linda rates 'He's My Eddie Baby' as "the best thing the Lovelites ever did."
The possibility exists that Linda, Louise and Joanna also sang on some recordings by Anders and Poncia's group the Trade Winds. Louise: "I remember their songs so well. They were so talented and Peter's voice was so lovely. He did all the leads and Norman Marzano did the 'My woody's outside' line on 'New York's A Lonely Town'. I even thought I was the subject of 'The Girl from Greenwich Village' at the time, because I had adopted a hippie look with long hair and no lipstick."
"We were very protected by everyone we worked with," continues Louise. "It was straight into the office until we went to record or it was time to go and eat or go home. We were not friendly with other groups and never got to meet the Ronettes or the Crystals, but we did meet Dion and bumped into the Angels and the Shangri-Las in the elevator at the Brill Building. We were quite close to the Young Rascals at one point. We even sat in on a Spector session with them, or it may have been a day of sound checks. I'm not quite sure how it happened but we were brought in to do back-ups and Phil was there setting up his wall of sound. We got talking to the Rascals and were invited to their Manhattan home one weekend, where we pretty much just partied all day. Jo went there a lot, Linnie and I a few times. Felix Cavaliere really adored Jo and Eddie Brigati had a thing for Linnie. There was always music flying around and I'd be kinda there just playing the organ, which was way too big and too complicated for my skills. We did a lot of partying in those days, young as we were. Then we just stopped hearing from them when their career took off. So what else is new? But Jo kept in touch with Felix for quite some time."
Linda: "We went to the Town & Country Club in Brooklyn to see the Rascals perform. We lived just a few blocks from there on Avenue U. Our back-up group the Vagrants were on the same show. We went backstage to see them and then back with them in a limo to their townhouse in the City. I remember that Felix had the hots for Jo. Little Eddie showed an interest in me but we were never intimate. My impression was that he was a thinker. We shared ideas about philosophy, family history and literature. He suggested I read Par Lazarquist's The Dwarf."
By the time Phil Spector released the Lovelites' '(When) I Get Scared' on his Phi-Dan label January 1966, relations between the group's management and he had begun to cool. "There was a contractual conflict. Phil couldn't get what he wanted, so he stopped everything. The plug was pulled on promoting '(When) I Get Scared' and the other tracks never got finished. I remember it all coming to a screeching halt. 'He's My Eddie Baby' was ready to be pressed and 'Please Be My Boyfriend' needed background voices," says Linda.
"Phil wanted to own the Lovelites' name," Louise elaborates. "That would have given him the right to have others record using our name, the same way he did with the Crystals and the Blossoms. Doc's brother Raoul Felder was our lawyer. He and our manager Larry reviewed the contract and refused to sign. Perhaps too much money was needed to compete with Berry Gordy and the Supremes and Phil's business partner Danny Davis was not going to do that. So that was the end of the Lovelites' recording career and that was the last I knew of Phil Spector. I was just starting to write for myself. I had many songs that could have been recorded but it was not meant to be. Peter and Vinnie were very helpful and felt that I had true writing abilities. I kept in touch with Doc Pomus for a while too, because he wanted me to write."
The Lovelites stayed together for another year before calling it a day. Louise: "Joanna's dad arranged for us to perform at a New Years Party. That's where I met my husband. All our families were there and so was our manager Larry. I fell for the drummer of the band we hired. We married after the Lovelites broke up in 1967, but soon went our separate ways. We had one son who is now 35. He's a bass-player, but only recreational now. He has always loved my singing. His band rehearsed in my basement when he was a teenager and he would always get me to sing '(When) I Get Scared' for his buddies. My husband and I divorced but remain friends. I lived with a well-known jazz percussionist, Clifford Jarvis, for 10 years. I met him at a jazz club called Slugs where I worked as a waitress. Slugs was on the lower east side of Manhattan in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods. I travelled with him until our break-up in 1979. He moved to England and passed away two years ago."
"Joanna married Vinnie Poncia and helped raise Vincent Jr., his small son from his first marriage," says Linda. "They moved to Southern California where Jo pursued an acting career. I last saw her over 20 years ago in Palm Springs. She and Vinnie are no longer married. I don't know where she is or what she's up to now." Louise adds: "I hear Joanna's married to Gerry Greenfield, a music biz high roller from the 70s and 80s."
Linda: "I gained a BA in Early Childhood Education, an MSW from the Hunter School of Social Work and, as a post-graduate, studied Gestalt Therapy. I had a small part-time psychotherapy practice in the 1980s while working in real estate. I married and divorced young. I'm single now but very happily in a longstanding relationship. No children, but a wonderful niece, Nikki. Currently I'm a school social worker for the New York Board of Education, based in an elementary school."
Louise: "I am now a social worker and a registered psychiatric nurse, with a bachelors degree in Industrial Psychology and an associates degree in nursing. I currently work at both professions but at social work fulltime. I live in New England and have a significant other of 12 years."
Sharing reminiscences of their time as the Lovelites has proved an emotional experience for Louise and Linda. Louise: "We were young, hopeful, trusting and ambitious. We had the time of our lives, never to be forgotten. I cried when I heard '(When) I Get Scared' again after so many years. I had forgotten how great we sounded." Linda: "All this new attention and recognition has made my heart swell. Talking about those years has challenged my mind and brought back memories that needed awakening. When I listened to our music again I sobbed. I couldn't calm down for weeks, it was so impactful. We were just kids, passionate about music and with a vision. With determination and discipline we actualised that dream. And that defines accomplishment."
With thanks to Larry Tashman, the late Alan Betrock and, for introducing the Lovelites to Spectropop, Linda's niece Nicole Gordon-Levine.
Presented for Spectropop by Phil Chapman, Mick Patrick and Sheila Burgel