Maybe: The Chantels, The Three Degrees, Janis Joplin

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Maybe. This is one of the great early ‘girl-group’ songs, and the initial recording is a doo-wop classic from the late 50s. We will start with the original version by The Chantels, and then discuss covers of that song by the Three Degrees and Janis Joplin.

The Chantels and Maybe:

The Chantels were one of the very first successful girl groups in rock and roll. Like many of the early girl groups, the Chantels were high school classmates. Five girls from St. Anthony of Padua School in the Bronx initially formed the group.

Here is a photo of the Chantels lineup from 1958. From L: Sonia Gering, Jackie Landry, Arlene Smith, Lois Harris (at piano), and Rene Minus.

Many of the girl groups originated with gospel singers. The Chantels, on the other hand, came to pop music from a background in classical music and their school’s church choir. Their lead singer Arlene Smith had performed at Carnegie Hall as a child.

Smith was not only the lead singer, but she also wrote the early songs and lyrics for the group. Music impresario Richard Barrett discovered the Chantels and landed them a recording contract with End Records.

The Chantels’ second song was Maybe, which was released in December 1957. The songwriting credits are assigned to Richard Barrett, but it is believed that Arlene Smith co-wrote the song.

The lyrics are extremely simple and straightforward. A young woman has lost her love, and wishes to regain his affection. She lists a number of the things that could possibly bring him back to her.

Maybe, if I pray every night
You’ll come back to me
And maybe, if I cry everyday
You’ll come back to stay
Oh, maybe

… I’ve prayed and prayed to the Lord
To send you back, my love
But instead you came to me
Only in my dreams

The song became a big hit, the first girl-group recording to sell a million records. It made it to #15 on the Billboards pop charts, and #2 on the R&B ratings. As a result of their success, the Chantels ‘performed’ on the Dick Clark show. Here is a video of them on Dick Clark.

As is the case with so many artists appearing on Dick Clark, the Chantels are simply lip-synching to the music from their record. However, that doesn’t detract from this terrific song, which Rolling Stone ranks as #199 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Richard Barrett plays the doo-wop piano on this piece. And Arlene Smith really belts out the lyrics. Her powerful voice makes this an unforgettable song. The slow pace of the song emphasizes the pathos of the young woman, with her forlorn hope that ‘maybe’ her actions will result in the return of her lover.

With a hit song under their belt and Arlene Smith’s impressive vocal style, it looked like the Chantels might be headed for stardom. Unfortunately, the group was never able to repeat the success of Maybe. Subsequent releases were disappointing, and they were dropped by their record company in 1959.

Arlene Smith subsequently embarked on a solo career. Although original members Sonia Goring, Jackie Landry and Rene Minus remained with the group through the 1960s, the Chantels then went through a series of personnel changes.

In 1995 the original Chantels (minus Arlene Smith) re-united and began touring on the oldies circuit. In 1999 PBS produced a live TV special from Pittsburgh, called Doo Wop 50. This show featured performers from the earliest days of the “doo-wop” genre.

The three remaining members of the Chantels performed a song at that special, and then Arlene Smith joined them in a live performance of Maybe. That song was dedicated to original member Jackie Landry, who had died in 1997.

The Three Degrees and Maybe:

The Three Degrees were a trio of singers from Philadelphia. They initially formed in 1963. An interesting fact – the Three Degrees were discovered by producer Richard Barrett, the same fellow who first managed The Chantels.

Over the years their lineup has resembled a revolving door – the group has always been a trio, but during the group’s lifetime they have had 15 different members.

The most famous Three Degrees lineup consisted of Fayette Pinkney, Valerie Holiday and Sheila Ferguson. They were together from 1967-1976 when the group scored its biggest hits. Below is a photo of that Three Degrees lineup. From L: Valerie Holiday, Sheila Ferguson and Fayette Pinkney.

The Three Degrees released their cover of The Chantels’ Maybe in 1970. Although Sheila Ferguson was normally their lead singer, Valerie Holiday sang lead on this song.

This cover became the Three Degrees’ first significant hit song, making it to #4 on the US R&B charts. Here is the audio for their version of Maybe.

spotify:track:1KP3JfIj2gpPNQ0Jb2ccfT

The Three Degrees convert the Chantels’ doo-wop song into a substantially faster version, with a vaguely Latin beat.

And here is video of the group’s current lineup (Valerie Holiday, Helen Scott and Freddie Pool) in a live version of Maybe.

This particular version of Maybe originated with a TV video that was filmed in 1970, shortly after the Three Degrees released their single. In that video, the song Maybe is buried at the end of a fairly long (and to me, boring and pointless) story about a woman who rejected a man, and who subsequently regrets her actions.

When she meets the man again, she sings the song Maybe to him, in the hopes of re-kindling their romance. Well, whatever. I would have settled for a lot less verbiage and a lot more singing.

Having said that, once she gets around to singing, Valerie Holiday’s vocals for Maybe are quite impressive. The performance comes from New York’s Iridium Club in 2012.

By far the Three Degrees’ biggest hit was the 1974 release When Will I See You Again. That sweet ballad featured Sheila Ferguson as lead singer. The song reached #1 on the UK pop charts and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. The Three Degrees had significantly greater success in the U.K. than in the U.S.  They scored another six Top 20 hits in the U.K.  And the current lineup of Three Degrees is still performing.

Janis Joplin and Maybe:

We covered Janis Joplin in our blog post on the song Piece of My Heart. Here we will review briefly her career and her impact as an artist.

Janis Joplin was one of the great rock stars of the 60s. She burst out of the West Coast rock scene in 1967, following her breakout performance as lead vocalist with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the ‘Summer of Love’ Monterey Pop Festival.

Here is a photo of Janis Joplin from 1969, which shows her standing next to her psychedelically painted Porsche roadster.

One secret of Janis’ appeal was that she held absolutely nothing back. Her songs often addressed feelings of loneliness, abandonment and despair, expressed in a raw and brutal vocal style. She wailed, screamed and pleaded until her voice gave out.

Unfortunately, Janis had serious issues with both alcohol and drugs, and in particular heroin. She struggled with addictions throughout her career, as these issues had surfaced even before she became famous. However, being stoned apparently released Janis’ inhibitions, and allowed her to reveal such naked emotion in her performances.

Here is Janis Joplin in a live performance of Maybe. This takes place in Frankfurt, Germany in 1969.

This song, with its sense of despair and heartbreak, is a perfect vehicle for Janis. The song is treated as one long, slow wail of pain. In particular, Janis stretches out each repetition of ‘maybe’ as a painful cry for help. And after the cry ‘maybe,’ she then repeats the word three more times.

The organ and the horns provide a great backdrop to this song.  And of course Janis’ vocals are simply electrifying. Her performance seems as immediate and direct today as when it was first recorded over 45 years ago.

In September 1970, Janis and her band Full Tilt Boogie were laying down tracks in L.A. for the album Pearl. Janis was staying at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood during the tapings. Unfortunately, Joplin’s associates, who were making a concerted effort to keep her off drugs during this period, seem not to have realized that the Landmark was a major hangout for heroin dealers.

On Oct. 4, 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead in her hotel room at the Landmark. The cause of death was a heroin overdose, compounded by alcohol.

Janis Joplin’s career was like a shooting star – a sudden brilliant apparition, a blazing trajectory, followed by an equally sudden disappearance. Her untimely death was a tremendous shock to fans of rock and roll.

We had anticipated watching her career unfold over several years. Could she maintain her intensity? Would she transition to other musical genres, or would she stay focused on the blues? Unfortunately, we will never know.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Maybe (the Chantels song)
Wikipedia, The Chantels
Wikipedia, The Three Degrees
Wikipedia, Janis Joplin

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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2 Responses to Maybe: The Chantels, The Three Degrees, Janis Joplin

  1. Pingback: Cry Baby: Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, Janis Joplin, Natalie Cole | Tim's Cover Story

  2. Pingback: Me and Bobby McGee: Roger Miller; Kris Kristofferson; Janis Joplin | Tim's Cover Story

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