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Reconsidering the Paris Sisters

Paris Sisters 5So now we know that Veronica Bennett was not the first lead singer of a female vocal trio to whom Phil Spector proposed marriage. That would be Priscilla Paris, according to the testimony of her sister Sherrell in the sleeve notes to Always Heavenly, the first proper retrospective of the Paris Sisters’ intriguing career, put together by the Ace label from the group’s recordings for several labels between 1961 and 1968.

The youngest of the Filtzer sisters (as they were born) had a voice to which the adjectives “breathy” and “seductive” hardly did justice. If the lusty, gospel-trained Darlene Love existed at one end of the girl-group spectrum, Priscilla defined the other, establishing a template for Shelley Fabares (“Johnny Angel”), Louise Cordet (“I’m Just a Baby”), and many others. The sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me”, a high-school pop ballad in which Spector lightly updated the formula of the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, was one of the big hits of 1961, and it is remarkable that they never got close to matching its success.

Alec Palao, the erudite and assiduous compiler of this new anthology, demonstrates that the Paris Sisters’ career amounted to more than one hit and one approach. The 25 songs selected here include productions by Terry Melcher, Jack Nitzsche, Nik Venet and Mike Curb as well as Spector, with composer credits that include Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Doc Pomus, P.F. Sloan, David Gates and Jackie DeShannon.

Spector had prefaced the come-hither formula of “I Love How You Love Me” with “Be My Boy” and tried to replicate it with “He Knows I Love Him Too Much”. The later producers — Melcher and Nitzsche in particular — moved the sisters towards the more assertive approach of the Crystals and the Ronettes, and several of these tracks belong among the many homages to Spector’s mature style. This Nitzsche-produced version of Mann and Weil’s epically atmospheric “See That Boy” allows Priscilla to open up and show genuine vocal power and flexibility, the result of a full Gold Star echo-chamber treatment rivalling the original by the Righteous Brothers (who did it as “See That Girl”). Venet’s baion-beat restyling of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” is another delightful example. Others, such as the lilting “When I’m Alone With You”, written by Sloan and Steve Barri, and Gates’s “Greener Days”, edge towards a poppish folk-rock.

Most intriguing of all are Priscilla’s own compositions: always accomplished, demonstrating a real sense of drama, and sometimes venturing beyond the merely idiomatic. While “My Good Friend” is done up by Nitzsche as a very successful Spector pastiche, “I Came a Long Way to Nowhere”, “Why Do I Take It From You” and “I’m Me” show a greater range and contain strong hints of authorial soul-searching. They give the composer a chance to show that she could move beyond the doe-eyed mode to show an impressive strength and an interesting vulnerability.

The strangest track is the Sisters’ last recording with Priscilla, “Stand Naked Clown”, composed by Hal Blair (who wrote songs for Elvis’s movies) and Dean Kay (who co-wrote the Sinatra favourite “That’s Life”). Recorded in 1968, produced by Clancy Grass, the group’s manager (later married to Albeth) and the Wrecking Crew guitarist Don Peake (Priscilla’s boyfriend after the break-up of her marriage), it resembles something that Jacques Brel might have written for the Shangri-Las, with a semi-recitative intro against a bowed bass, abrupt switches between bolero rhythms and rubato passages, sudden crescendos, and a wonderfully melodramatic vocal.

There seems to have been a lot more to Priscilla than most of us could ever have suspected from that first and only hit, recorded when she was 16. She left the group in 1968 to pursue a solo career, first in Los Angeles, then in London, and finally in Paris, where she died after a fall in 2004, aged 59. Ace have a compilation of her solo work that I must now investigate. Albeth, the eldest of the sisters, retired to raise a family and died in 2014; she and Sherrell helped Palao in the assembly of this absorbing, hugely enjoyable and often surprising collection.

* The photograph of (left to right) Priscilla, Sherrell and Albeth Paris was taken at Sunset Sound studio in 1966. It appears in the booklet accompanying Always Heavenly.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Nigel Hall #

    Serendipity or what? I’d just watched the DVD of a 1962 movie called “It’s Trad Dad” (American title “Ring a Ding Rhythm!”) and was about to start some internet research on the bizarre collection of English/American acts featured including the Paris Sisters, when this blog popped up in my inbox! I’d assumed they were some English clone of an Ur-Ronettes – little realising they were actually the real thing. So thanks for a timely contribution. BTW The movie is a real curiosity – it’s Richard Lester’s first feature and is actually just an extended series of pre-MTV type pop videos. However it demonstrates a lot of the visual tropes and surreal humour that he was to develop in “A Hard Day’s Night”. It also captures a moment of transition in postwar Britain – where the “kids” are excited by trad jazz bands and squeaky clean crooners – an innocent world about to experience the tsunami of the Beatles and the 60s cultural revolution.

    January 21, 2016

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