On January 30, 1961, The Shirelles became the first African-American girl group to have a No. 1 hit song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Comprised of four teenagers – Shirley Owens, Beverly Lee, Addie “Micki” Harris, and Doris Coley – their popularity with both white and black audiences was viewed by many as an early success for the Civil Rights movement. Moreover, The Shirelles’ chart-topping success paved the way for an influx of girl groups that would help define the 1960s music sound.
The Shirelles had their first on-stage performance in May 1957 at a talent show at Passaic High School in New Jersey. They performed their self-written song, “I Met Him On A Sunday.” Their classmate Mary Jane Greenberg was impressed by the all-girl group’s appeal with the diverse group of students in the audience. Mary Jane eventually convinced the talented songstresses to meet her mother, Florence Greenberg, who had recently started a record label, Tiara Records. Florence was immediately blown away by their sweet, yet powerful vocal harmonies and had them record the song for her label in 1958. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 21, 1958, and stayed on the chart for 10 weeks. Although they released two other well-received songs, “Dedicated To The One I Love” and “Tonight’s The Night,” the Shirelles were still in search of their hit record.
By 1960, The Shirelles had gained enough success that songwriters started to approach them with material. Enter the now-legendary writing team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. The newly-married couple had already submitted close to 50 songs to Don Kirshner, co-owner of the music publishing company Aldon Music. Kirshner asked the couple to think of The Shirelles when they wrote their next song. King wrote the ballad on the piano, while the couple’s six-month-old baby slept in the crib in their small apartment. Moved by his wife’s music, Goffin added the lyrics, including “So tell me now and I won’t ask again/Will you still love me tomorrow?” He decided to write the song from the perspective of a young woman who was about to make love to her boyfriend. He imagined that she would be wondering what would happen the morning after a night of romance.
When The Shirelles first heard the demo, they rejected it. They thought it sounded “too white” and more like a country-western hit. However, their producer and writer, Luther Dixon, urged them to record it anyway. When the girls showed up at the studio, they
were stunned by the soaring string arrangement that was newly added to the song. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” became the hit song for which The Shirelles had been searching. The song first entered the charts on November 21, 1960, and moved to the No. 1 spot on
January 30, 1961, where it remained for two weeks. Although The Shirelles had a total of 26 songs on the Hot 100 from 1958 to 1967, their only other No. 1 hit was “Soldier Boy” in 1962.
As the first African-American girl group with a No. 1 hit, The Shirelles broke new ground for female artists in the 1960s. With their confessional lyrics that indirectly addressed a female audience, The Shirelles opened the door for the 1970s genre popularized by female singer-songwriters like Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. In 2004, when Rolling Stone compiled their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, they ranked “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” in the 126th spot. The Shirelles were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002.