Still Singing After All These Years

When Renée Minus White began taking classes at FIT in the early 1960s, she had already performed with the likes of James Brown and Chuck Berry as part of the legendary girl group The Chantels. “I never really publicized that,” she says, when asked whether her fellow students ever recognized her. Now the real estate broker and fashion columnist for the Amsterdam News opens up about her singing life. Her story is further recounted in her book, Maybe: My Memoir.

I was 11 years old when I started singing with The Chantels. The five of us—Jacquelyn Landry, Millicent Sonia Goring, Lois Harris, Arlene Smith, and myself—met singing in the choir at St. Anthony of Padua [Church], in the Bronx. The rock ’n’ roll era was just starting, and we were like groupies. We sang rock ’n’ roll in the schoolyard and went to all the musical shows and waited at the backstage door to get autographs, all dressed alike. We had just seen a show at Radio City Music Hall when Richard Barrett, the lead singer of the Valentines, saw us. He offered to make us stars.

My dad was a jazz pianist and my mom was a jazz singer, but they got other jobs [as a post office worker and a nurse] after getting married and having children. None of my seven siblings did music: They never thought we would become famous.

Our first real gig was at the Apollo Theater. The gowns we had were strapless, but our parents made little straps for us for coverage. We were young girls. No one was allowed in our dressing room. But we would watch the other performers in the wings: Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker.

In 1959, Arlene Smith, our lead singer, decided that she wanted to go on her own and be a solo artist. Plus, we learned that the guy who was handling us was a gambler, and all the money that we made was gambled away. We were always in flux after that. At 18 or 19, I started working at a department store and taking night classes at FIT. Eventually I started working as a comparison shopper at A&S [Abraham & Straus] in Brooklyn, and then a copywriter.

We never [disbanded] The Chantels. The public wouldn’t let us do that. I’m 75 years old and they’re still calling for us. We have a new member, Neomi Ortiz Brink, a young, talented singer, and we are booked way into 2021.