While many of us were learning how to stomach fractions, Renee Minus White was recording and touring with the legendary singing group The Chantels.
White was only 11 when she joined the four other original members to travel the country and sing with musical legends like James Brown and Duke Ellington.
“Of course to us, he was Mr. Ellington,” White said. “We were little girls and he wanted to hear us sing before we went out on stage. So we sung and he played.”
Today, White is in her mid-70s, and is an associate broker with the Riverdale office of Douglas Elliman. She is the founder of communications company Time to Style, and is a fashion and beauty editor for New York Amsterdam News.
Yet, White hasn’t put The Chantels behind her. She still tours with the group — which now includes Sonia Wilson, Lois Powell and Ami Ortiz, with bookings through next year.
But before they were stars, The Chantels were simply schoolgirls from the Bronx. Arlene Smith, Renee Minus White, Jacqulyn Landry, Sonia Goring and Lois Harris all attended St. Anthony of Padua elementary school in Morrisania. They all lived in the same neighborhood and grew to be very close.
And before there was The Chantels, for White and her friends, it was St. Anthony’s church choir. Back then, White was convinced she was on track to become not a singer, but a nun.
“I really wasn’t expecting anything,” she said.
“I was just happy to be hanging out with older girls. Never did I expect them to get famous like the way we did.”
The late Richie Barrett, a Philadelphia-born music producer and singer, discovered them in the early 1950s, and the girls were almost instantly propelled into lives as starlets.
But education was important, White, said, even on tour as they were always accompanied by a parent or tutor.
Yet, the touring life was not always glamorous — and even as kids, they were not exempt from the dangers some people in the south posed in the 1950s.
“We did encounter the Ku Klux Klan,” White said. “When we were driving, they told us to put our heads down” so they wouldn’t be seen.
“White Only” signs were plastered on most bathrooms and major hotels, so most of the time the girls slept in inns. The racism of the south had even managed to affect their performances.
“On one occasion, we sung for an audience, and on one side half the crowd was white and on the other side the audience was black,” White said.
Despite that, The Chantels would top the charts with songs like “Maybe,” “The Plea” and “He’s Gone.” And like many musical groups, the dynamics of The Chantels eventually changed, with Smith’s departure in 1959 for a solo career.
The Chantels continued with Annette Smith joining them, and by 1962 “Well I Told You” became a top 20 hit. Later, Martin Scorsese included the group’s “Look In My Eyes” in his 1990 mafia film “Goodfellas.”
“It was exciting at that young age,” White said. “We were on tour and got wild applause and rave reviews at 11, 12, 13 years old.”
Yet, even decades later, White feels the group was denied a good portion of their earnings and royalties, which served as the basis for her book “Maybe: My Memoir” a few years ago.
“After I finished the book, I felt free,” White said. “It was hard to finish because of the emotion involved because we got hurt and you get angry at a lot of people because of what happened. Writing kind of released a lot of my anxiety. Now I can really talk about it..”
The Bronx was a different world for White growing up on East 166th Street and Prospect Avenue.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “We felt safe in our neighborhoods and played on our knees in the street. Everyone had a car, and there were candy stores on the corner and guys played stickball.”
Today she tries to pass down her childhood games like double Dutch and yo-yo slinging to her granddaughters.
White and her fellow Chantels eventually moved on to other things, settling down to something more normal than recording and touring. White went to the Fashion Institute of Technology, later meeting a “fabulous” Wall Street lawyer from Costa Rica. She married Javier White in 1975, and the couple had two children.
When Javier died, White’s life stopped for a moment.
“He was a tremendous family man,” she said. “I never knew him outside of the house, but after he passed away, I learned how he contributed to the world and the community. My son looks just like him.”
She went back to school and worked her way into real estate “because I had to put two kids through school,” White said. And 25 years later, she still wears her ring.
“It was one of my better times in life,” White said.
Outside of the resurrected Chantels, White also finds other ways to share her voice as member of Christ Episcopal Church’s choir. Her love for music has not changed, especially now that she can tour with her old group again.
“We have great harmony, we sing well together,” White said. “There are three originals right now, and it is as great as it ever was. We had numerous lead singers, but the harmony always stayed together.”
After every performance, even to this very day, The Chantels can’t leave stage without signing “Maybe” at least twice.
“It was fabulous then, and it’s fabulous now,” White said.
“It’s like someone sprinkles magic dust on us and we’re all princesses again.”