Of all the genres of rock and roll, girl group rock (“group” is merely a convention — the operative word is “girl”) is the warmest, and probably the most affecting. The style flourished between 1958 and 1965, “bad” years of rock and roll; it went into eclipse when the Beatles invalidated its premises of contrivance and manipulation and the soul beat invalidated its sound. These days the soul beat is worn out and contrivance, never absent, has resurfaced; so has the style. The Three Degrees, who first attracted attention in 1970 with a remake of the original girl group hit, the Chantels. “Maybe,” took over the charts last year with their traditionally submissive, pining, lovely “When Will I See You Again?” Bette Midler led cheers for the Shangri-las and the Crystals; Bonnie Raitt unearthed the Sensations’ “Let Me In.” David Johansen pledged his love to the Shangri-las, the Angels, the Cookies, and the Toys. Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, notable 13 years ago for making the worst of all girl group records, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” held on and grew up to become a good womans group. Barry White offered Love Unlimited. Bruce Springsteen swallowed the style whole and produced his magnificent anthem, the soon-to-be-released “Born to Run.” And the hit of the summer, the Beach Boys’ 1967 “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” is classic girl group rock if anything is. The style is stretching, and as happened 15 years ago, all of rock is more lively because of it.
Girl group rock does not, of course, take in all female rock and roll singers. Big Mama Thornton does not fit. Neither do Dionne Warwick, Jackie DeShannon, Aretha Franklin, Betty Wright, Jean Knight, Mary Wells, or even the Supremes. These singers are either too mature, too sophisticated, too assertive, or too classy; they lack the innocence, the inability to comprehend disaster and the need to replace disaster with paradise, that is the essence of the style. Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” fits, not because it is part of this world view, but because it was very self-consciously an instance of girl group rock in rebellion against itself.
Which meant a producer playing tricks with the genre. This music is, first and foremost, producer’s music: He wrote or commissioned the songs and created the sound; all the lead singer had to do was win your heart. Almost none of the singers celebrated below prospered outside of the care of the one producer who developed their talents in the first place — the relationship was that dependent. Darlene Love, the finest, now earns a living backing up Sonny Bono. The astonishing Arlene Smith had more natural talent than any of them, yet she failed after leaving George Goldner; not even Phil Spector, who should have been perfect for her, could get Arlene the right sound. Girl group records were based in the relationship of a young girl and an older man (white, until Berry Gordy) who put her on a pedestal and held her in thrall; out of that relationship came some of the most urgent and intense rock and roll ever made.
The songs most often celebrated a shadowy male of wondrous attractiveness, and on a superficial level, such figures surely represented the producer’s or the lyricist’s fantasy of himself. (Girl group writers Carole King and Ellie Greenwich handled melodies, not words.) But the male hero was, on paper, a little too much. Without the passion of the girl singer to make him real, the boy became (as in Shadow Morton’s witless “The Boy,” which the Shangri-Las sang as if they were near death from boredom) a silly, overblown joke on the man who fantasized him — and not a hit, either. The boy came to life only if the girl singer breathed life into him. In the end, he was her creation, not the writer’s. The fantasy became not self-serving, but utopian.
In the early ’60s, tough male singers were in decline. Their replacements were as sensitive as they were unexciting; they made no demands because they spent all their time begging girls for sympathy. And so, in these years, not only were girl groups the most powerful female singers on the radio, they created the most powerful male figures in rock: the subjects of their songs. The fine, fine boy, the boy who’ll love walking in the rain, the leader of the pack, the angel baby. Eve’s ribs, every one of them.
Except in a couple of vaguely social protest Crystals lyrics, where we find the hero poor and downtrodden (a type who reappears in “Leader of the Pack” and is stood on his head in “The Boy From New York City” — where he he has grown up to be a pimp), the male of this vision simply is. He is so mythical that when the Crystals meet him in “Da Doo Ron Ron,” even though “he makes her heart stand still,” somebody else has to tell her “that his name was Bill” — he’s too cool to talk. Hair color, height, clothes, walk, and other conventional pop details are almost always missing — to the point where the following dialogue crops up in the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”: “What color are his eyes?/I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.”
I suppose it represents some kind of death of innocence in the genre that “The Boy From New York City” is replete with the minutiae the other songs omit — on this disc we find out about everything right down to the contents of his wallet. Here, one might think, the girl has given up on the image of the boy and finally has to get down to business: survival in the urban Jungle.
Otherwise, the lyrics do little more than vary the Search for Perfect Love and the Attempt to Bring It Home to Meet Mom and Dad. Beyond this attractive and timeless theme, what were girl group records? Beautiful construction, rich immediate sound, unbelievable expressions of desire, and a staggering demand for life — all riding on the voice of a single girl driven by the voices or her sisters in the chorus.
Here, then, is the best of girl group rock:
THE CHANTELS: “I Love You So” and “If You Try”
(1958 — “I Love You So” reached number 42 on the Billboard charts; “If You Try” was a cut from “The Chantels,” their LP on End) They were five young black girls from New York City, lead singer Arlene Smith was 14 years old. Their producer was George Goldner, who began his career in rock ‘n’ roll with the Crows’ “Gee” in 1954, and later made a pile off Frankie Lymon. Every record cut by Phil Spector goes straight back to him: “Without George Goldner,” Spector said. “there would have been no rock ‘n’ roll.” An exaggeration, but not by much. Goldner was the archetypal cigar-smoking Jewish businessman who took black singers off the street, hustled, bought, stole, pleaded, and hyped to put their records across and then left them behind. He died only a few years after Frankie Lymon; he died poor, still looking for one more hit.
He was a magnificent record producer The sound he and arranger Richard Barrett worked out for the Chantels was simple: one very steady drum beat; rolling piano triplets climbing up and falling away, over and over again; a little guitar; a virtually inaudible bass. In the nave, a pleading choir from four Chantels; at the pulpit, Arlene. And somehow, the sound was huge, overpowering, like Judgment Day.
Goldner drove Arlene mercilessly. She would sing the songs he gave her and he would curse; she would sing again and he would scream and order her out of the studio. He kept at it until the tears were coming, until she was ready to do anything to get away from this terrible man, and then Goldner, fully aware that he had before him the greatest voice in rock ‘n’ roll, would turn his back, shrug his shoulders, and let her sing it one last time. And that was the take he was reaching for. Arlene, just a little girl really, scared, agonized, would sing for her life.
On “I Love You So,” the massed voices of the girls speak the title softly, fading the sound into the entry of an unbelievably full voice that repeats those four words with a power that is beyond any possible expectation. Arlene dives headlong into the song, cries, weeps, struggles, and finds herself. As the song levels out, somewhere between heaven and earth, Arlene half-sings, half-talks her way through one of the most erotic passages in rock ‘n’ roll, and she is sure of herself now: “Well, you know … how much I love you …” But the listener has never known anything like this. She envelops you, smothers you, hits an ending, drops down, and then flies all the way up again. The record fades and Arlene just has time to make her last class at junior high.
“If You Try” was her masterpiece. Again, an intro, this time with a piano really driving forward, Arlene catches the song when it’s already in flight and never lets go, calling out her message to all those lovers who might, if she can get through to them, avoid the mistake that has wrecked her life. By the time she reaches for and sails past the high note that forms the center of the song, she is singing her soul as she never will again. The Chantels are flowing, nothing can stop them, Arlene goes higher, and higher, and she’s gone.
ROSIE & THE ORIGINALS: “Angel Baby”
(1960 — Number 5.) Formed in 1955, they came and they went. This one freak remake of “Earth Angel” took them to the top and that was enough to keep them going for five more years, when they finally gave up. Rosie had an eerie little-girl voice: she sounded as if at the age of eight she really had seen all there was to see. If she was ridiculous, she was ghostly, too. It worked — that pristine guitar intro, the famous off-key sax break that never really turns into a solo. Rosie pleading, Rosie loving, Rosie in a dream world all her own. Girls used to sing it at high school dances and everyone in the room instantly fell in love. “Angel Baby” still sounds like a visit from another planet.
THE SHIRELLES: “Tonight’s the Night”
(1960 — Number 39.) They were the real class of the girl groups. I once played “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” eight hours straight and the song just kept getting better; this too is a more than perfect record, perhaps the sexiest ever made. All you need is the title and some vague memory of the rise and fall of Shirley Allston’s singing to know what happens here. “I don’t know … well, I don’t know right now … well, I love him so …” One big question mark. Strings up, strings down, a faintly latin rhythm led by a few cracks on the guitar, stops, pauses, and you linger, waiting for Shirley to give in. Does she? It doesn’t matter.
CLAUDINE CLARK: “Party Lights”
(1962 — Number 5.) There’s nothing at all to this record after the first five seconds or so, but those five seconds have enough emotion packed into them to last the average rock ‘n’ roller a whole career (which is what they did for Claudine — she never made the chart again). That beginning is The Party — house busting wide open, music sailing out the window, bottles and bodies and Buicks on the lawn, the good times rollin’ like they never did, and our girl is stuck right next door, imprisoned by her evil mother. “But mama, everybody in the Crowd is there!” Peeking through her window she can see that “they’re doing the Twist … the Mashed Potatoes!” (Must be her favorite.) Well, it doesn’t matter: she’s not getting out. But the way she wails in those first few moments is all that counts: “I see the party lights!”
THE MARVELETTES: “Beachwood 4- 5789”
(1962 — Number 17.) Unlike the Supremes, this Motown group never made history, just a few wonderful records. This was the best: “Beachwood (note acute current surf music reference — that sold records) 4-5789, You can call me up and have a date, any old time.” Which is to say that Berry Gordy made a record that told any lonely boy what he dreamed was true — that there were girls out there who could be had for the asking. All over the country girls and boys picked up their phones and dialed, just to see what would happen, and what happened was that a lot of people had to get their numbers changed. That’s my idea of a rock and roll culture, if you can call it an idea.
THE CRYSTALS: “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”
(1962 — Number 11.) A dramatic fanfare. One long note on a saxophone, then a completely confident female voice announcing over the rumble of too many drums: “I always dreamed the boy I loved would come along, and he’d be tall and handsome, rich and strong. Well, now that boy has come to me — but he sure ain’t the way I thought he’d be!” And so, the saga of Phil Spector began. In one swoop, pianos, more drums, more sax, the full assault, and, holding on to the explosion, the leader Darlene Love, so proud of herself and her boy she can’t hold back anything at all. No excuses, no regrets, all he’s got are unemployment checks, but she loves him, and you’d better believe it. The Crystals tossed out lines and Darlene threw them back with a smile that stretched all over America in 1962.
THE CRYSTALS: “Da Doo Ron Ron”
(1963 — Number 3.) Nothing like it anywhere. Spector’s sound was meant to obliterate everything in its path, to insure that nothing — not a headache, or bad breaks. or bad brakes — could compete with his record. This was not merely commercial, this was Spector’s aesthetic: he had created something beautiful and he wanted it to get the attention 1t deserved.
The hookline on “Da Doo Ron Ron” — more like a battering ram — has never been touched. A sax blares out a single note three times as the pressure builds, and then all is lost in an absolute cataclysm of sound and emotion. The record is three minutes of pure force; there is so much love in this record it sings all around you. Spector once said that some people — old rock ‘n’ roll singers — cut records; other people — like the Beatles — cut ideas. But “Da Doo Ron Ron,” he said, was both He added, with typical humility, that those artists who could make records and ideas would rule the world: making noise like this must have felt like that.
THE CHIFFONS: “One Fine Day”
(1963 — Number 5.) A hit at the same time as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and played one after the other they still make the best twosome in rock and roll. Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote “One Fine Day”: you can hear King’s phrasing in every nuance of the singing. She might also be responsible for the stunning piano notes that kick the song off, disappear, and return to break the disc in half and carry it off. The piano on “One Fine Day” is life at its best, that’s all. And the theme is so simple: One fine day, everything will come true, and the girl who’s singing might even believe it, for a moment.
THE RONETTES: “Be My Baby” and “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”
(1963 — Number 2 and Number 39.) “Be My Baby” is all momentum. You can hear where Dylan got the feel of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “One of Us Must Know.” Ronnie wasn’t the singer Darlene Love was (who is?), and the production is dominant, finally making Ronnie’s need all but superhuman. Brian Wilson’s favorite record, for any who still think “Pet Sounds” sprung full-blown from his head.
“(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” is all Ronnie: she’s saucy, teasing (she pauses in the middle of her plea to seduce her boyfriend) and her voice snaps like a whip. No heartbroken need-nymph this time, she knows how good she is; this girl is in complete control, because she knows the best part of breaking up is … what else?
DARLENE LOVE: “A Fine, Fine Boy”
(1963 — number 53.) Not a well known Spector record, but his best. Darlene never sounded more pleased with herself; there isn’t a hint of pain or longing anywhere on this disc. She’s got what she wants and she knows what it’s worth; after about 10 seconds, so do you, and you’ll never forget it. The verses sum up everything Spector wanted to say about life (“He even takes me places and buys me things/But love is more important than a diamond ring”), but it’s the chorus that puts you away. The already fast tune picks up speed, churchbells ring (no metaphor), the whole record seems to physically jump. Darlene shouts out the cues and merges with the Crystals for the response:
“Oh, he’s got a sweet kiss and a true heart/And something tells me that we’ll never part/He’s got a sweet sweet kiss and true heart/And he’s fine, fine, fine/I know he’s — fine fine fine/ Let me tell you he’s — fine fine fine/ And he’s a — fine fine boy.” What could be better than having someone sing about you like that — unless it was having someone like that to sing about?
LESLEY GORE: “You Don’t Own Me”
(1963 — Number 2). The opening, very dramatic: the Last Fight Between Boy and Girl. No compromising. Lesley lost her boy in “It’s My Party” and got him back with “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” but now, the final question: Is he worth it? Lesley did this number in the TAMI Show; these days when on screen Lesley is about to begin this song, just a hint of the melody, not a word, is enough to set the audience screaming, not just because it’s a feminist manifesto years before its time, but also because the crowd recognizes it as a truly great song. It’s not certain Lesley does — the movie version is sung with an uncertain little smirk (Don’t take this too seriously, boys, of course I’m yours), but she doesn’t drag it down. All those fine lines (“Don’t put me on display …” ), her last surge for youth and freedom as she speeds off into the night, tough enough to break her date if that’s what it takes, made it a harbinger of things to come, but no one has matched it yet.
DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: “Wishin’ and Hopin'”
(1964 — Number 6). Complete submission — the other side of the girl group persona taken to its logical extreme. Wear your hair just for him; change your walk, talk, clothes, and whatever else you can think of; become a slave; you’ll love it. Dusty’s singing is very delicate, as if she’s afraid she’ll break; like Arlene, she’ll never get another chance; and she just wants to save us from her mistakes.
THE RONETTES: “Walking in the Rain”
(1964 — Number 23). What a gorgeous record. We learn a little more about The Boy — he needs more than a touch of sentiment; he must be strong enough not to be embarrassed by romance. The lyric offers one of the great rock subversions of grammar: “Johnny? No, he’ll never do/Bobby? No, it isn’t him too.” It won Spector his only Grammy — for the thunderclaps.
DARLENE LOVE: “Christmas (Baby Please Corne Home)”
(1964 — from the LP, “A Christmas Gift for You from Phillies Records”.) All those songs of girls pining for Their Boy or The Boy were mere warm-ups for this astonishingly powerful record. As with “Da Doo Ron Ron,” Spector gives us not a moment’s peace; he crashes an entire orchestra into the very first notes,, then pulls it away for three stately bass patterns. The orchestra begins its charge back, and Darlene grabs the mike and screams, “CHRISTMAS!” like she’s announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The intensity is overwhelming: she’ll die if her boy doesn’t make it home in time. She does everything she can do to make you believe her; there’s a sax break, and you need it to catch your breath; and then Darlene is pleading with even greater urgency, demanding, insisting, begging, and the Crystals are right with her: “PLEASE (please) PLEASE! (please) PLEEEEEEEEZEBABY PLEASE COME HOME!” And he never does and the record is over.
Is there something that will wrap up the social, political, and sexual meaning of a girl group rock? I’m not sure there is. Every time I try to draw a lesson from these wonderful records, it seems to defraud them, to be beside the point. At least, my points are beside theirs. What do they all come to? I don’t know.
But I do know this. If you listen to the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Any more,” cut in 1965, you will find that the lead singer’s voice, from its tone to its phrasing, exactly matches, down to the most subtle inflection, the voice of Patty Hearst on the tapes she made with the SLA. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 17, 2020