Sandra Bears
Courtesy of Montpelier Arts Center

Sixty-two years ago, Sandra Bears was a teenager at Roosevelt High School singing in glee club with Margie Clarke, Grace Ruffin, and Carrie Mingo. Bears, Ruffin, and Mingo also sang together at Trinity AME Zion Church on 16th Street NW, while Clarke attended another church. The four high school harmonizers would eventually become known as the Jewels, have their song “Opportunity” reach No. 64 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, and, with a few membership changes, sing together on and off for decades until Clarke’s death in 2019. But the Jewels started out as the Impalas in 1961, recording R&B girl group songs at rock pioneer Bo Diddley’s basement studio on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Diddley, who recorded for Chicago’s Chess label, helped get them their first contract with a Chess subsidiary. Bears says Diddley was impressed that they could harmonize in a powerful low pitch like male doo-wop singers. The success of “Opportunity” earned them a gig at New York City’s legendary Apollo Theater, where James Brown saw them and was impressed. In 1966 and 1967, they toured with and backed Brown and sang backup vocals on his single “Don’t Be a Drop-Out.” They returned to D.C. in ’67 and got government jobs but still sang together on occasion at night. In 2012, they were the subject of Beverly Lindsay-Johnson’s documentary The Jewels: The Divas of DC Doo-Wop. Years later, Bears, sometimes performing solo as Sandra Love, continues to sing Jewels songs and tunes by other ’60s R&B icons, accompanied by members of the Brothers Plus One band, with that same strong voice that Diddley once admired. Sandra Bears plays at 12 p.m. on May 18 at the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel. $12.