After The Bodysnatchers broke up, guitarists Stella Barker and Sarah-Jane Owen, saxophonist Miranda Joyce, keyboardist Penny Leyton, and drummer Judy Parsons decided to form a new band, recruiting bass player Lesley Shone and lead vocalist Jennie Matthias (also known as Jenny McKeown and Jenny Bellestar). Their first performance was on Christmas Day, 1980, before they had chosen a name.
Within a short time, the group became well known around London, notably appearing on the front cover of Sounds magazine early in 1981. Shortly thereafter, they were signed by Stiff Records, then highly successful due to its star act, Madness.
The band’s debut single, “Hiawatha” was released in the late spring of 1981, produced by Madness producers Clive Langer & Alan Winstanley. The band promoted the single by playing support for ska acts The Beat and Madness. However, the single failed to chart, despite continuing media attention.
The same production team was responsible for “Slick Trick”, the second single. It too failed to chart. Keyboard player Penny Leyton left the band late in the year, to be replaced on saxophone andkeyboards by Clare Hirst. Leyton later joined The Deltones.
When the third single, the radio friendly “Another Latin Love Song” again failed to break into the charts, the band tried cover versions instead, with some success. “Iko Iko“, a cover of The Dixie Cups‘ 1965 hit (later featured in the 1988 movie Rain Man), was The Belle Stars’ long-hoped-for UK Singles Chart debut, peaking at a modest number 35 in June 1982. The Belle Stars furthered this with “The Clapping Song” (their first top 20 hit), a remake of the 1965 Shirley Ellis hit, and then “Mockingbird”, a hit for Inez and Charlie Foxx in 1969 and James Taylor and Carly Simon in 1974.
In January 1983 the Belle Stars released what would be their signature single, “Sign of the Times”, peaking at number three, and a chart success throughout Europe. The song’s music video, showing the Belle Stars in tuxedos, was also played frequently by MTV in the United States. The song went on to become the 30th best selling single of 1983 in the UK.
It was followed a month later by the band’s eponymous debut album, which reached number 15 on the UK Albums Chart. As with the band’s singles, it was a mix of original songs and cover versions, including Bob and Earl‘s “Harlem Shuffle” (covered three years later by the Rolling Stones on Dirty Work) and Al Wilson‘s “The Snake”.
However, “Sign of the Times” proved to be the peak of the band’s success. Each follow-up single was less successful than its predecessor: “Sweet Memory”, reached number 22 in the charts in April 1983; “Indian Summer” number 52 in August; whilst “The Entertainer” did not chart. It took another year before the band had a minor hit, “80’s Romance”, which made number 71 in August 1984 before it dropped out after a week. Despite this, the band continued to tour throughout Europe. However, the lack of success took its toll, and McKeown left the band, followed by others, until the band was down to Owen, Joyce, and Shone.
By 1984, Stiff Records was ailing, and it merged with Island Records; in July 1985 it was liquidated and bought by ZTT, the label owned by the husband and wife team of producer Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair. Under Horn’s supervision, the three remaining members recorded a new Belle Stars album with the 4th & Broadway production team in New York City. However, the only tracks to be released were the single “World Domination”, a flop in Britain but peaked at number two for two weeks on the Billboard Dancefloor charts in the U.S. Following this release the band broke up.
However, in 1989, the Belle Stars finally had a big U.S. chart hit, when “Iko Iko” reached number 14 on the Billboard Top 100 in March, after it was included on the soundtrack of the film Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. The song had been a favourite of Hoffman’s. Matthias toured the U.S. to promote the song.
Leyton went on to join the all girl ska band The Deltones in 1984, and they released an album on Unicorn Records in 1989. Matthias has recently guested on the 1973 and Decadent albums by Skaville UK, and has more recently formed a new ska band with Lee Thompson from Madness called The Dance Brigade, and is currently performing in her new band 1-Stop-Experience, with Skip McDonald, Paget King and Chico Chigas.
- Jennie Matthias: lead vocals
- Sarah Jane Owen: lead guitar
- Stella Barker : rhythm guitar
- Penny Leyton: keyboards (1981–1982)
- Miranda Joyce (born 26 July 1962): alto saxophone
- Clare Hirst: tenor saxophone, keyboards (1982–1984)
- Lesley Shone: bass
- Judy Parsons: drums
- “Hiawatha” (Stiff Records) 1981 – UK
- “Slick Trick” (Stiff Records) 1981 – UK
- “Another Latin Love Song EP” (Stiff Records) 1982 – UK
- “Iko Iko” (Stiff Records) 1982 – UK #35, 1989 US #14
- “The Clapping Song” (Stiff Records) 1982 – UK #11, AUS #4
- “Mockingbird” (Stiff Records) 1982 – UK #51
- “Sign of the Times” (Stiff Records) 1983 – UK #3, AUS #45, US #75
- “Sweet Memory” (Stiff Records) 1983 – UK #22
- “Indian Summer” (Stiff Records) 1983 – UK #52
- “The Entertainer” (Stiff Records) 1983 -UK #95
- “80’s Romance” (Stiff Records) 1984 – UK #71
- “World Domination” (Stiff Records) 1986 – US Dance #2
- “Iko Iko” (Stiff Records) 1989 – US #14, AUS #7, UK #98