The name Barbara Ann Alston may not ring a bell for younger generations, but she was among the most influential singers in rock and roll music in the ‘60s, according to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Alston – who died Feb. 16 in Charlotte at age 74 – was the lead singer for Phil Spector’s girl group The Crystals, which had a string of hits including “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me.”
Her death comes as part of the nation’s ongoing flu epidemic, family members said. Alston had been in intensive care at a Charlotte hospital for more than two weeks when she became one of 200 North Carolinians to die from the flu this season.
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Her funeral will be 1 p.m. Friday, at A.E. Grier & Sons Chapel on Statesville Avenue in Charlotte, and another Crystals member, Dee Dee Kennibrew, is scheduled to be a speaker. (Kennibrew continued to perform for years in a reconfigured version of The Crystals.)
Many Charlotteans were unaware a member of ‘60s rock royalty lived in the city. Her children said Alston lived quietly, raising a family and working as a title agent and secretary.
By contrast, The Crystals were among the hottest of the ‘60s pop acts, a category that included the Supremes, the Shirelles, the Ronettes and Martha and the Vandellas. Rolling Stone magazine called such groups “a cornerstone of the Sixties,” and music historians credit The Crystals with having some of the genre's most-beloved songs.
Between 1961 and 1963, Billboard magazine reports their hits included: “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)” (1962, No. 20); “Uptown” (1962, No. 13); “He’s A Rebel” (1962, No.1); “Da Doo Ron Ron” (1963, No. 3); “Then He Kissed Me” (1963, No. 6); and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” (1963, No.11). At that time, the group’s members consisted of Alston, Kennibrew, Mary Thomas, Merna Girard and Patsy Wright.
Donielle Prophete, 47, is one of Alston’s three surviving children and she said her mother was not above singing her hits around the house as she cleaned or cooked. Her mother enjoyed continuing to get royalty checks for her hits, Prophete said, but there was never a hint of regret that she gave up performing.
Alston died a happy woman, knitting, cross stitching and tending five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, Prophete says.
“We used to kid her about her past,” said Prophete, who lives in Charlotte. “Diana Ross and the Supremes went with Berry Gordy as a producer and The Crystals went with Phil Spector, and I used to joke that if The Crystals had picked (Motown Records founder) Berry Gordy, Michael Jackson would have been our neighbor. We were always telling mama she ruined everything for us. It would always get her laughing.”
Prophete said she is learning more by the day about her mother’s past, now that she’s digging through boxes of personal possessions that include play bills, letters and countless photos of her mother’s celebrity friends.
“Can you imagine finding out that your mother has fans? That is just so funny!” Prophete said, laughing. “I’m proud of her, but she didn’t talk a lot about what she did.”
As for how a family from Brooklyn, New York, ended up in Charlotte, that’s a funny story, Prophete said.
“My mother married a man who was in the military and they spent some time at Fayetteville (home of Fort Bragg),” she said. “In 1984, we were leaving North Carolina to move to Atlanta, but the car broke down in Charlotte. We stayed in a hotel downtown for a week while it was being fixed and in that time, my mom found a job, so we stayed.”
Alston eventually grew to love Charlotte, except for one heart breaking incident that still haunts the family.
In 2010, her son Tony was shot and killed. “We still don’t now who killed him,” she said.