British girl group The Three Bells – later known as The Satin Bells – were three spunky sisters from Liverpool. Sporting big blond bouffants, they recorded some great white soul and pure pop for a variety of labels in the 1960s. They also proved they could turn their hand to song writing too, penning the highly regarded Someone to love.
The group comprised identical twins Carol and Sue Bell, plus their sister Jean. Because Jean looked very similar to her sisters, people in their home town of Liverpool often assumed that the girls were triplets.
They began performing together as a trio, and when it came to choosing a name for their group, they opted for a factual approach – hence The Three Bells.
The trio signed with the Pye label in 1960, where they cut Steady date that year. Melody of love followed in 1961. Both were rather twee affairs that sank without trace.
Having been dropped by Pye, the sisters continued to perform and were rewarded for their perseverance with the offer of a contract with Columbia in 1964.
Softly in the night – a Gerry Goffin and Carole King composition that had originally been a B-side by US girl group The Cookies – became their first single.
Arranged by Ivor Raymonde, the man behind many of Dusty Springfield’s hits, and issued in November 1964, the record saw the sisters undergo a vocal transformation – dropping their teen stylings for a street-toughness that had more in common with the New York girl groups.
The flip, He doesn’t love me, was another great girl group number. Written by Raymonde and Mike Hawker, it was also recorded by fellow Liverpudlian girl group The Breakaways.
The sisters’ image was given a makeover too, leaving them with matching outfits and peroxide-blond helmet hairdos.
A second Columbia release took them even further away from their roots – to R&B. What’s more surprising is that the A-side, Someone to love, was penned by the girls themselves. Though the song failed to score at the time of its release in July 1965, it has since become a favourite among Mods. (The B-side was the altogether poppier Over and over again.)
Over the next six months or so, they became frequent guests on TV pop programmes such as Stramash! and Gadzooks! It’s all happening. They also made an appearance in the 1966 film The ghost goes gear, a romp starring The Spencer Davis Group and Nicholas Parsons.
However, their increased profile failed – unjustly – to raise much interest in their third single for Columbia, a great version of Ben E King’s Cry no more. The flip, a version of The Secrets’ He doesn’t want you, found the girls in bitchy mode.
With no hits to their credit, the trio were dropped by Columbia. However, it wasn’t long before the girls fought back. After reinventing themselves as The Satin Bells, they landed themselves a contract back at Pye.
The excellent Baby, you’re so right for me, originally recorded by Brenda and the Tabulations, became the group’s first single for the label. Backed with When you’re ready, it was issued in 1968 but it, too, failed to chart.
Desperate measures were called for – the girls’ soul covers weren’t selling, so the decision was taken to have the trio record a version of a track by French star France Gall. However, the magnificent
Da-di-da-da fared no better than their previous attempts and The Satin Bells were soon without a contract again.
A spell at Decca a year later found the sisters back in familiar white soul territory with a cover of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ Sweet darlin’ (see our Motown girls tribute special), backed with a great version of US girl group The Glories’ I stand accused (of loving you).
Their problem was that covering American soul songs brought them little kudos among British R&B fans – the originals were easy enough to find and held in much higher esteem than domestic covers.
Around this time, Scottish singer Barry St John is said to have stood in for one of the sisters temporarily for live appearances.
With the UK seemingly oblivious to their charms, the girls opted to focus on the lucrative continental market, issuing I stand accused (of loving you) in Germany and the Netherlands, Come c’mon in Germany and Toros en Mexico in Spain, all in 1969.
Back in the UK, The power of love – produced by Wayne Bickerton, the man behind much of The Flirtations’ UK material – became the group’s second and final single for Decca, in 1970.
They switched labels again – this time to CBS – for the release of the high-camp The belle telephone song in 1971. It proved their final disc.
They were last seen in feather boas in Oliver in the overworld, part of the children’s TV programme Little big time, in the early 1970s.
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