Though not a household name, Bernadette Carroll is one of the more successful teen vocalists of the girl group era. She charted as a member of the Angels, as a solo act, and as a for-hire backup singer. She performed on at least two #1 hits, selling over a million copies of each. You’ve heard her voice, whether you know it or not.
Born Bernadette Dalia in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Carroll was bitten by the performing bug early on, and made her stage debut at age seven. After her family moved to nearby Linden, Carroll dove headfirst into the life of a reckless teen, sneaking out at night with friends so they could hit the local recording studios. They were a popular destination, apparently. Tom DeCillis, a local disc jockey who had branched out into songwriting and producing, gathered enough teenage girl singers to put together a group, the Ifics, who became the Starlets in 1959. “I met the Starlets in a recording studio in Linden,” said DeCillis. “Two sisters from Orange, New Jersey. They, in turn, talked to the engineer of that studio and he mentioned Bernadette Carroll.” The original line-up consisted of sisters Barbara "Bibs" and Phyllis "Jiggs" Allbut, Lynda Malzone, and Carroll.
DeCillis landed a deal with the Astro label, a jazz outfit looking to make inroads in the developing rock n’ roll market. It released the Starlets’ debut 45, which included the spectral “P.S. I Love You,” b/w “Where Is My Love Tonight?” The single charted at #102 in the U.S. in 1960, and featured Carroll’s first-ever lead vocal performance on the B-side.
The record’s popularity propelled the underage girls on the road to play local sock hops, radio stations, and amusement parks. DeCillis served as their driver. “I was still in school and our appearances and rehearsals were limited,” Carroll recalled. “They could only be on weekends and holidays.” The group’s follow-up single, “Romeo and Juliet” b/w “Listen for a Lonely Tambourine,” didn’t earn the same kind of notice and it wasn’t long before a starstruck DeCillis began to focus on Carroll as a solo act, ditching the Starlets entirely.
He released Carroll’s two debut singles on his Julia Records (named after his mother) in 1962, “My Heart Stood Still” b/w “Sweet Sugar Sweet” and “Laughing on the Outside” b/w “The Humpty Dump.” DeCillis had connections all over the local scene. One was Tommy Falcone, another local producer and the songwriter behind “The Humpty Dump,” an instructional dance track imagined as a competitor to the Twist.
The Falcone connection was fortuitous, as he produced Carroll’s next release. Issued in 1963 on his burgeoning Cleopatra label—which featured a half-toned photo of his wife dressed as the Egyptian queen—“Heavenly” was a maximalist marimba-laden wall of sound. Carroll’s fourth single, for Laurie Records, "Nicky" b/w "All the Way Home I Cried" didn’t chart, but Laurie saw potential. With her next single, they’d have a hit.
“Party Girl” b/w “I Don’t Wanna Know” stomped and clapped its way up the charts in 1964. It plateaued at #47, then hung around at the bottom for six months. Her next three Laurie singles were all met with declining interest.
After Bernadette’s departure, the Starlets reconstituted with a new lineup and a new name that lead them to stardom. In 1961, Peggy Santiglia, formerly of the Delicates, replaced Jansen, and the trio called themselves the Angels. "I was still connected to the Angels as friends, we were like sisters," Carroll said. They often traded harmony vocals on each other’s tracks. In fact, it was the Angels who appear as Carroll’s “friends” on “Party Girl.”
Though she wasn’t officially in the group, Carroll ended up singing harmony on the Angels’ career-making, genre-defining #1 hit single, “My Boyfriend’s Back.” “No one knew what was about to become of that record,” she said. “The rest is history.” It remains one of a small handful of songs that immediately spring to mind when discussing the girl group sound, and the entire era.
She’d also become an in-demand session musician, singing back-up to Connie Francis, Patty Duke, Frankie Lymon, and others. After her final solo single “He's Just a Playboy” b/w “Try Your Luck” flopped in 1965, she joined Denise Ferri and Peggy Santiglia to form Jessica James and the Outlaws, a “bad girl” group. They released singles on the Dyno Voice and Bronco labels in the mid-’60s.
Carroll eventually found her way back to the Angels, who’d retooled their sound to suit the adult-contemporary supper club set. Their fortunes were declining. The classic girl group era was fading by ’68, hopelessly wholesome and out-of-date compared to the emerging subversive sounds of psychedelic soul, funk, and long-haired acid rock. After a short stint with the Serendipity Singers, the former party girl settled down—leaving the music business for good in 1972.
“Laughing on the Outside (Crying on the Inside)” and “Heavenly" have been remastered from the original analog tapes, pressed on high quality German vinyl, and housed in a stock Numero sleeve.
More Bernadette Carroll
The Cleopatra Label
The Girl Group Underground