The lure of jump-roping might have prevented Dolores "La La" Brooks from singing on two Top 10 hits by the Crystals in 1963.
Luckily, a piano was playing.
Explains the Brooklyn native, 64 (who is set to perform March 3 in New Brunswick): "I was 12 ½ and went to a junior high school called P.S. 73. I had just arrived in the seventh grade. And (Crystals singer) Dee Dee Kenniebrew's mom was working at the school. My mom used to send us to after-school programs so that we wouldn't be on the street doing any kind of mischief things.
"One day when I went there, there were, like, games you could play or events you could do or jump-rope outside. When I walked into the building, I heard the piano, a man playing. I listened to this piano. I just followed it. And when I followed it, I stood in the door. His name was Leo. I asked, 'Can I sing?' He said, 'Can you?' I said, 'Yeah, I can sing.' And he said, 'Well, come in.' I went in there and I started singing. My voice was so big at that age, plus, it was even bigger because of the hallway — how schools have the echo."
At the time, the Crystals had their first hit and were looking to replace a member.
"Dee Dee's mom heard me," Brooks recalls. "She came walking down the hallway and said, 'Was that you with that big voice?' I said, 'Yeah.' She said, 'Oh my God. You have a beautiful voice.' I said, 'Thank you.' I was a kid. And she said to me, 'This group, they're called the Crystals. They just started.' They only had out, at that particular time, 'There's No Other Like My Baby' (1961). And (Crystals singer) Myrna Girard was pregnant and left. She said, 'Would you like to join and travel?' I said, 'Yeah!' "
Brooks was 13 when she joined the Crystals — the other girls were between 15 and 18, she recalls — and she sang lead on two of their best-loved hits: "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me."
But being so young, Brooks found recording and touring to be physically grueling, and she was unprepared for the segregation she faced in the South.
"A lot of times, I was heartbroken," Brooks says. "I was in the middle of the stage and I had to pick up those big mikes and sing 'Da Doo Ron Ron.' They were heavy for me as a kid. I'd see white on one side and black on the other. I was just crushed. As a teenager, I was crushed.
"But then after, I'd come back to private school, and I had Patty Duke, Bernadette Peters — they were all my friends. So I was confused. 'Why is the North like this and the South like that, when they're all the same color?' So it did have an effect on me as a child. I was devastated a lot of times."
Brooks remembers producer Phil Spector, who recorded the Crystals' hits, as a perfectionist who made her work long hours, during which he fed her little.
"It was sort of taxing on me, because I was a child," she says. "I got tired. But Phil was the type of person that just wanted to get it right. I was afraid. I was afraid to disturb him or be upset. I was getting sleepy, but I would say, 'No, I'll just keep pushing on, because Phil wants this record right.' So going over 'Da Doo Ron Ron' — 30 takes, 40 takes, 45 — that's a lot of takes to keep going over and over, to get exactly what he wanted.
"But then, he gave me the biggest songs ever — 'Da Doo Ron Ron' and 'Then He Kissed Me.' I couldn't have been more thankful to Phil for that. I was 15 when I did that. And today, you can find kids and teenagers — you don't even have to say 'the Crystals.' All you have to say is, 'I made this song': (sings) 'I met him on a Monday ...' 'Oh my God! I know that song!' So it was a blessing in disguise, all of his craziness. I'm blessed."