Girl Group Chronicles: The Toys

1964 was a great dividing line in the history of rock, and it was particularly significant for the girl groups. The British Invasion seemed to have a strangle-hold on the charts. Whereas almost any girl group could get a hit before this time, after the Beatles began their musical revolution, only established groups seemed to have any luck at all. An exception to this rule was the Toys, a trio that came to prominence in late 1965, and had one of the biggest hits of the sixties.

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Barbara Harris and Barbara Parritt were both born in North Carolina, but moved to New York at a young age. The two Barbaras enjoyed singing together in high school, and when they met June Monteiro through June’s sister, a singing group was born. Initially called the Charlettes, the foursome consisted of Parritt, Berry, Stokes and either Harris or Monteiro - no one can remember who joined last. But, when it became apparent Stokes wasn’t serious about trying to move beyond singing for fun, was replaced.

The girls were able to perfect their harmonies by doing some back-up work for Barbara Chandler ("It Hurts To Be Sixteen") and Diane Renay ("I Had A Dream") and their own single "The Fight’s Not Over b/w What Ever Happened To Our Love." But they didn’t hit the big time until they were teamed with songwriters Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell. The pair, who met the Charlettes through Renay’s producer Bob Crewe, had been having success with the Four Seasons, and quickly brought the girls into the studio to record a few tracks. Parritt, with her powerful, almost operatic voice was the usual lead singer, but Linzer and Randall thought Harris’ voice was more distinct and commercial, and so she was promoted to lead for most of the group’s recordings.

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The girls cut two tracks that would later appear on their first album, a moody number called "Deserted," and a downtown party anthem called "Backstreet." Either side would have made a great first single, but Linzer and Randell decided to try something a little different. Appropriating a classical minuet by Bach, "A Lover's Concerto," was an astonishing blend of classical structure and contemporary soul rhythm and production. The Motown-influenced song shot up the charts, reaching number two, which it held for three weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. On the Cashbox charts it was number one for six weeks, holding off no less than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley.

The Supremes, who struggling to regain their form at the top of the charts after their streak of five number ones was ended when "Nothing But Heartaches," failed to make the Top Ten even borrowed some of the Toys’ magic for their Number One hit "I Hear A Symphony"! In fact, numerous other artists used the classical-pop fusion in subsequent releases. as Mick Patrick and Malcolm Baumgart note in their compilation, Girls Will Be Girls Vol. 1, the Apollas’ "My Soul Concerto," Renee St. Clair’s "My Hero," "Past, Present and Future," by the Shangri-las and "Groovy Kind Of Love," by Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles among many others were part of this new sub-genre in pop music.

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A certified million-seller, the hit propelled the group to stardom. The name on the label wasn’t that of the Charlettes, however. Manager Vince Marc thought they needed something a little more hip - and the Toys were born. The girls appeared in the beach movie It's A Bikini World, several television programs and began touring the night club circuit.

A strong follow-up, "Attack," rose quickly and landed in the Top 20 and proved the Toys weren’t one-hit wonders. It too was appropriated from a classical song. The song was included in the group's first album, called appropriately, The Toys Sing "A Lover's Concerto" and "Attack." One of the only girl group albums to be critically acclaimed at the time of its original release, its twelve tracks were some of the best songs of the day. The LP also proved that although Harris was the usual lead vocalist, Parritt and Monteiro could each hold her own. With great cuts like "Yesterday," "Hallelujah," and "I Got A Man," it should have been a bigger success than it was. The album charted briefly in 1966 and climbed to number 92 on Billboard’s album chart.

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The group continued releasing singles of a similar vein, but the formula of taking a bit of the past and a bit of the present was starting to wear thin with record buyers. Linzer and Randell reached really far back for the inspiration behind "May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone." Based on a passage in the Old Testament, the single reached number 85. An album track, "Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby," was next up, but it missed the heights of the first releases. Still, a good song is a good song, and over thirty years later the rock group Smash Mouth released a faithful cover that gained a lot of airplay and some chart action.

The Toys quickly returned to hit-making form with "Baby Toys." One of the best produced singles released by any girl group, the song’s lyrics compared a lover’s waning interest to they way we outgrow our baby toys. The song inexplicably failed to go any higher than number 76.

The group, eager to return to the upper half of the charts, jumped at the chance to sign with Phillips Records in 1967. Their first release on the new label, "Ciao Baby," was an up tempo dance floor jive that found the group heading into a more contemporary direction. But when it failed to sell in large quantities, Phillips went back to the tried and true Linzer/Randell classical-pop fusion. As pretty as "My Love Sonata," was, lightening wasn’t about to strike twice for the Toys, and the song kept the group’s fortunes in a tailspin on the charts. As a nightclub act and concert draw, though, the Toys’ name kept cabarets and dance halls filled.

Musicor signed the group for one last try at chart success in 1968. "You Got It Baby," was a spectacular soulful single that put the group firmly back on track. The follow-up in 1968,"Sealed With A Kiss," returned to the R&B Top 50 for the first time since their initial hits. But despite their renewed hit status, the group decided to split up soon afterwards.

Each member worked separately doing session work during the late 60s and 70s. Parritt and Monteiro joined a group touring as the Marvelettes (although the group had no original members or connection to hit-making group at Motown). Harris pursued solo projects, radio jingles, and also fronted a group called Rhythm and Babs.

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In 1986 the original Toys reformed for a series of successful performances in and around the New York area. After the original members went their separate ways again, Harris moved back solo projects. She also joined the popular duo Johnnie and Joe ("Over The Mountain") on the revival circuit. But fans still wanted more Toys, and many encouraged Harris to reform the group again. New members Robin and Cindy joined the line-up while Barbara Harris continued to perform with her other groups. When scheduling conflicts made this heavy work load impossible, Harris suggested Parritt as a temporary sub for a few of Johnnie and Joe’s performances. It was a perfect fit, and the other Barbara has stayed in the act ever since. Also keeping one foot in the music industry, Monteiro went to work making music videos.

Most recently Harris released a well-received solo album, Barbara Now. Produced by husband Kenneth Wiltshire in his home-studio, the project found Harris exploring a wide variety of musical genres. Writing most of the songs herself, she moves effortlessly from soul, to R&B, to gospel and beyond. It’s quite a trip from "A Lover’s Concerto," to Barbara Now, but Harris has definitely proved talent and tenacity can overcome all obstacles.

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Most recently, both the Toys and Johnnie and Joe appeared on a taping for one of PBS’ popular Roots and Rhythm concerts. Scheduled to air sometime in September, 2002, the special titled "Red, White, and Rock" will be a must-see for fans of the group. Although Harris was appearing with the new Toys, the producers coaxed Parritt to sing back-up as a special treat. Since this was a spur of the moment suggestion, it was decided it would be best to keep Parritt’s mic turned off to avoid confusion with Robin and Cindy who had never rehearsed with her. But, listen very carefully and you might just hear two-third of the original Toys enjoying their impromptu reunion!

Special thanks to Barbara Harris for doing some fact-checking : )

Suggested Listening:

The Toys Sing "A Lover's Concerto," and "Attack" - Sundazed Records (1994)

Barbara Harris: Barbara Now - Baheeja Records (1998)

Bob Crewe Presents the Dyno Voice Story: The Label That Had To Happen - Westside (2001)

Video:

It's A Bikini World (1966) (The Toys perform "Attack")

Shindig: Groovy Gals - Rhino Video (1991) (The Toys sing their smash "A Lover's Concerto")

Further Reading:

Clemente, John. Girl Groups Fabulous Females That Rocked The World. Krause Publications: Iola, WI., 2000, pp. 236-239.

Online:

Check out Barbara's Web site at www.barbarastoys.net

The Toys Homepage www.oocities.com/SunsetStrip/Palladium/1306/toys.html 1