Early in her career, Shirley Alston Reeves got a piece of advice no singer wants to hear.
The guidance was from legendary songwriter and producer Luther Dixon, responsible for dozens of pop classics. The advice: Don't go out there thinking you've got some fabulous voice.
"He said, 'You're not a great singer, but you have something different. You have a hell of a sound and a sellable sound,'" she recalls during an interview in a Time Square restaurant. "He said, 'Work with that, girl.'"
Reeves' initial reaction was to feel insulted. But she took a breath and soon realized he wasn't trying to take her down a peg. "I sat and I thought about what he said. And he was absolutely right," she says. "I said, 'All right. I'll go out there and do my little thing.'"
Reeve has indeed worked with what he's got. As lead singer of The Shirelles, she's lent her voice to some of the most iconic songs of the 1950s and 1960s and has become an in-demand singer ever since.
This week, her pioneering career takes another turn when she makes her Broadway debut, performing a couple of songs from the old days after performances of the jukebox musical "Baby, It's You!"
For Reeve, 70, the location of the stage may be new, but the appeal of the songs she sang as a member of The Shirelles — including "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Mama Said" and "Soldier Boy" — continues to endure.
"I think if I did this until I was 90, I'd still have an audience," she says. "They love it. They can't get enough of it. And you know what? I don't blame them. It takes you to a different time in your mind."
The appearances promise to be a little surreal: After theatergoers have watched actors tell the true story of record label owner Florence Greenberg discovering and nurturing The Shirelles, a real-life former Shirelle will take the stage to belt out "A Thing of the Past" and "Baby, It's You!"
"We're very fortunate that she agreed to do these couple of songs," says Gregg Maday, executive vice president of Warner Brothers Theater Ventures. "She's charming. She looks wonderful. She sings beautifully. From my perspective, it brings a credibility to the show."
The Shirelles — made up of teenagers Doris Kenner-Jackson, Addie "Micki" Harris, Beverly Lee and Reeves, who lent the group its name — were discovered in 1958 in Passaic, N.J., while singing their own song "I Met Him on Sunday." They're widely credited with creating the girl group sound: They were the first all-female group to have a No. 1 record and the first to sell a million units.
Reeves and Lee are the only surviving members. Harris died of a heart attack after a performance in 1982 in Atlanta, and Kenner-Jackson died of breast cancer in 2002. Lee, who holds the group's trademark, performs across the country as The Shirelles. Reeves left the group in the early 1970s to go solo.
Though the songs they sang back then were good, Reeves says she had no idea they'd become so popular. "Who would think that in 1958 we'd be singing the same songs over and over?" she asks. "No one knew this was going to happen. No one knew it was going to last."
A legal fight almost prevented Reeves from joining the Broadway show. Only hours before opening night in March, Lee and the estates of Harris and Kenner-Jackson sued, alleging the producers of the musical didn't get their permission to portray them on stage. The lawsuit, which also includes Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson, seeks unspecified damages. Warner Brothers declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
Reeves, not party to the lawsuit, stayed away from the show out of respect for her former singing partner. But after being offered the post-show mini concerts, Reeves made a wrenching decision and called Lee.
"I told her, 'You do your thing and I'm doing mine.' She said, 'I wish you all the best.' I said, 'And I wish you all the best, too,'" says Reeves, who still lives in Passaic. "It was a hard thing for me."
Lee was not immediately available for comment.
Now that they have a real-life Shirelle, cast members — including Christina Sajous, who plays Reeves — have begged to pick her brain about the events portrayed in the musical, which stars Beth Leavel as Greenberg. Reeves, who says she wasn't consulted on the story, says the creators enhanced some elements to create a better tale but says she's fine with the result. She adds that looking at Sajous in costume is a little trippy.
"The way she had her makeup and her hair, it reminded me so much of myself back then. I was sitting there in awe looking at her," says Reeves. "She doesn't sound like me at all but she's got a real nice voice."
As for her own voice, Reeves says it has gotten deeper over the years even as she's gained more control. She says the tough-love advice Dixon gave all those years ago has proven valuable.
"It took me years to listen to a whole Shirelles' album. And there are still some I haven't listened to all the way through. I'm my own worst critic. I think, 'I should have done this' or 'I should have done that.' But I can't go back and fix it," she says. "It drives me nuts. Then I say, 'You know what? Somebody must have liked it.'"