Lois Powell hit it big with a 1950s all-girl group — and she’s still sharing her singing talent

By Lynn R. Parks  |  Photograph by Carolyn Watson
From the July 2016 issue

musicmaker R&B Pioneer - Delaware Beach LifeAs the nuns saw it, the liturgical music of the Catholic Church and rhythm and blues were worlds apart. Lois Harris Powell, a 1958 graduate of St. Helena’s High School for Girls in the Bronx, N.Y., remembers Sister Richard Mary telling students that she “couldn’t understand this skip-and-jump music.”

But the kids understood it. Lois listened to R&B and what soon would be called doo-wop every chance she got a radio on in her bedroom. “I had to sneak-listen, because that music wasn’t allowed in our house,” she recalls. 

And Lois and four of her friends took every opportunity they could to get together and sing the new harmonies of the day. 

The girls were all members of the choir at St. Anthony of Padua Church in the Bronx, where they had gone to grade school. “We had choir rehearsal one night a week and afterward, we would stand outside and sing,” Powell says. Their sound was based on the classical training that they had in church, which included Gregorian chant, as well as the music that they heard groups of boys singing on street corners.

“We thought, if they can do it, we can do it,” the Rehoboth Beach-area resident explains. “We also went to each other’s apartments and sang there. We sang stuff that we made up as well as songs that we already knew, that we would jazz up. And we got really good.”

That was the beginning of The Chantels, one of the first female R&B groups — and only the second African-American girl group, behind the Bobbettes — to have success nationwide. The lead singer was Arlene Smith, a classically trained soprano who had soloed at Carnegie Hall at age 12. Along with Powell, the other members were Renee Minus, Jackie Landry and Sonia Goring. 

The girls had several hit songs, including “He’s Gone” and “Maybe,” with the latter going gold with more than a million sales. They toured the country. And today, nearly 60 years after starting out, The Chantels are still performing, with Powell as first soprano. 

“We do a show, and people tell us that we’re wonderful,” she says. “People have traveled from all over the world to hear us sing. It is really very humbling to see how much people enjoy us.”

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