LaLa Brooks was just 13 when she joined the Crystals, that quintessential girl group of the 1960s, and she was just 15 when she sang the lead on two of the Crystals' iconic hits, "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me."
Soon after, she set off with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars bus tour, which included a swing through the American South, where the young Brooklyn, N.Y.-born black woman got her first taste of racism. Brooks remembers that "even Diana Ross" couldn't enter the many whites-only restaurants the entertainers encountered en route.
These days Brooks, 66, a grandmother of six almost 50 years past her heyday, still performs and still has a gorgeous voice, which can be heard on a new album, All or Nothing. We talked to her about her early stardom, what inspired her to record these new songs and what's happened in the decades in between.
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The Crystals' sound
"When we started in the group a lot of people [who'd listened to our music on the radio] thought that we were white. We sound white, you know? We didn't have a Motown sound, we weren't soulful like that. We'd arrive at venues where we'd have to play and so many kids would run up to the car and say, 'Oh! They're not white, they're black!' Barbara [Alston] sang before I took the lead, and she had a very soft voice, and it was like a pop sound.
Touring the South
"I came from Brooklyn and to go on tour with Dick Clark into the South — it shocked me. We'd go onstage and they'd go crazy in the audience, in a nice way, and then you'd go offstage and you'd have to go to the colored toilet and not the white. That was kind of a hurtful thing. When you got offstage they would show you where your place was. It was hard, being 13. I couldn't understand. My mother was American Indian and my dad was black, and I'd never witnessed racism — I was never taught that. We always felt very secure that we were just as good as anyone else. So to witness it when I was a teenager, your feelings are more hurt than angry. … But I look back [at that time period] and I love it because I've learned so much. It just made me stronger, not hateful at all, but just strong."
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