Listening Parties May 2020: The “Girl Groups”

The decline of early Rock & Roll began in the late 1950’s with the tragic loss of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper,” on February 3, 1959.  Until the “British Invasion” in 1964, American Rock & Roll went into a bit of a slump:  Elvis was in the army, and Jerry Lee Lewis lost fans when he married his 13 year-old cousin.  The new stars in music were cozy, and well-groomed, like Ricky Nelson, and Pat Boone.  However, during these same years, there arose a significant sub-genre of American pop music, and it was notable for being urban, African-American, and female.  Apart from Detroit, most of the Girl Groups came from New Jersey, Harlem, and the Bronx.  Their mix of black doo-wop, Rock & Roll, and white pop, had a natural appeal to teenagers, and the success of their records began to significantly blur differences between race and class for that generation.  Of course, there were groups of female singers before and after those identified with this brief period, and many of them were vastly more successful.  But the Girl Groups, 1958-1963, along with the songwriters, and producers who recorded them, essentially codified a sound and style that forever evokes the period.  As I attempt to show, artists of every decade following have at times consciously imitated, adapted, referenced, or retrofitted their own music as an inspired tribute to the unmistakable Girl Group sound. 

Here is the complete playlist for this discussion:

1.  It’s generally agreed that the first Girl Group hit was in 1958, when “Maybe,” by the Chantels, reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 in the Billboard R&B chart.  Rolling Stone ranks it No. 199 on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

2.  The Shirelles are usually considered the first Girl Group to achieve repeated success.  They just barely entered the Billboard Top 40 (#39) with their very first single, “Tonight’s the Night” in 1960.  However they made history in 1961, with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”  Not only was it a particularly memorable and poignant song, written by Gerry Goffin (words) and Carole King (music), it was the first song by a black all-girl group to reach number one in the United States.

3.  “Baby It’s You,” originally recorded by The Shirelles, has an interesting legacy.  The Shirelles’ single was so popular when it was released in 1961, they used the title for their 1962 album.

At the same time, a band of four boys, little-known outside of their local scene in the north of England, were huge fans of American Girl Groups.  The Beatles played “Baby It’s You” as a standard part of their show for two years.  When it came time to record their first album, they included it.

The Beatles’ rendition is mostly a respectful recreation of the Shirelles’ record:

The next chapter of “Baby It’s You” takes place seven years later in 1969, when a group from California, named Smith, released it as their first single.  Their arrangement takes almost nothing from the previous versions except the words and tune.  Instead, they tear the song down to a quiet, minimal,  groove, building it up over time, to an explosive crescendo.  What makes the record so compelling is Gayle McCormick’s vocal,  starting from only a smolder, and ending like a house on fire.  No one had heard a woman sing like this before.  Of course, there was Janis Joplin, and Tina Turner, but Gayle McCormick was much more relatable.  She wasn’t showy, or outrageously flamboyant.  She looked like one of the cool girls you might have known in high school; perhaps unattainable, but not totally unreal.  Near the conclusion, it’s like the girl you once thought of as “nice and quiet” is having an emotional breakdown.  Her vulnerability explodes into desperation, and the hurt lashes out as anger.   It’s a stunning performance, and the band was rewarded with sales of over a million copies in only a few months, far surpassing sales of either the Shirelle’s, or The Beatles’ records.  However, they faded from the scene rather quickly, and entered the “one hit wonder” status soon afterward.  Gayle made a couple of solo albums in the 70’s that didn’t go anywhere.  She retired from music and moved to Hawaii.  She passed away a few years ago at age 67.

Smith was never truly forgotten.  Almost 40 years later, Quentin Tarrentino put their version of “Baby It’s You” on the soundtrack of his film, “Death Proof.”

The story of “Baby It’s You” has one final chapter.  A musical about The Shirelles called Baby It’s You! opened on Broadway in 2011.  The Broadway show is the story of Florence Greenberg, a suburban housewife from New Jersey who discovered the all-girl group and created Scepter Records.  The show’s producers failed to ask permission to use the identities or likenesses of anyone in the group.  A lawsuit was filed, accusing the producers of “cashing in on plaintiffs’ stories and successes, while using plaintiffs’ names, likenesses and biographical information without their consent and in violation of the law.”  Their lawyer said the  timing of the suit on the eve of opening night was purely a coincidence.

4.  As mentioned, The Beatles were enormous fans of American Girl Groups.  Although they covered Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly often in their live sets, songs by The Shirelles, the Donays, the Marvelettes, the Cookies, the Crystals, and many others were performed live  and recorded by the band.  This is perhaps the most distinguishing and overlooked contrast between the divergent paths taken by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  The Stones were absolute connoisseurs of Chicago Blues during their formative years.  Whereas, The Beatles, who also loved the Blues, were devoted students of the Girl Groups, as they were attracted to the catchy melodies combined with the energy and rhythm of early Rock & Roll.   

On their 1964 tour the UK, The Ronnettes attended a party where they met the Beatles.   After meeting, Ronnie and John became good friends until Lennon’s death. In August 1966, the Ronettes teamed up with the Beatles for a 14-city tour across America.

Of all the Beatles, John was the one most enamored of the Girl Groups.  John said “Angel Baby” by Rosie Hamlin of Rosie and the Originals, was one of his all-time favorite songs, citing Rosie as one of his all-time favorite singers. The Originals’ 1960 # 5 hit featured the distinctive high-pitched vocals of the 15-year-old Rosie:

The Beatles covered “Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes, which was the first # 1 hit for Motown Records in 1961. Gladys Horton’s gritty vocals were directly imitated by Lennon:

In a 1980 interview, Lennon described Tell Me Why, as a “Black, New York, Girl Group song.”

After the breakup of The Beatles, “My Sweet Lord” from George Harrison’s album “All Things Must Pass,” was the first # 1 single by an ex-Beatle.  However, Harrison was sued for copyright infringement due to its similarity to He’s So Fine,” a 1963 hit for the New York Girl Group the Chiffons.  During the litigation, the Beatles former manager, Allen Klein, bought the production company that released “He’s So Fine“ for $587,000, thus making himself the plaintiff.  In a slick move, he then sold the company to Harrison for the same amount, breaking even, and resolving the issue.

5. The Supremes, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”  The Supremes recorded this song in the summer of 1966.  It was released as a single that fall, and Rolling Stone later named it #339 of the “500 Best Songs of All Time.”

A year later, the song received a surprising makeover by the Vanilla Fudge.  They slowed down the tempo, and singer Mark Stein got inside the lyrics, revealing the pain underneath.  The result is an epic rendition – and it was recorded in one take!

6.  Blondie, “In The Flesh.”  Written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, this song from their first album was released as a single in 1976.  It was intended to evoke the Girl Group sound of the 60’s.

Blondie specifically asked Richard Gottehrer to produce their first album.  Who was Gottehrer, and why would they want him to be their producer?  He wrote and produced “My Boyfriend’s Back,” a classic Girl Group anthem by The Angels, in 1963:

7. Only a few years later in 1979, another up and coming New Wave band, the B 52’s, made reference to the Girl Group style in their original song, “Dance This Mess Around.”  The spoken word introduction is very much in the spirit of the early 60’s, and early on in the lyrics there is a direct quote from The Supremes’ “Stop!  In The Name of Love.”

Critics have remarked that other songs by the band, such as “Rock Lobster,” and “Planet Claire,” are perhaps more fun, but “Dance This Mess Around” helped give the B 52’s their distinctive personality.  Although Cindy Wilson’s vocal performance is intentionally ridiculous and “over the top,” and the lyrics are surreal, there is a surprising poignancy underneath it all.

7. “He Was Really Saying Something.”  In 1982, this song was a #5 hit single in the UK for Bananarama, a female singing trio, and the Girl Group of the 80’s.  It was originally recorded in 1964 by Girl Group, the Velvelettes:

Bananarama went on to become the top-selling Girl Group of all time.

8.  Meanwhile, up in Manchester, a couple of young men were forming the nucleus of what would become one of most important indie bands of the 80’s.  Guitarist Johnny Marr invited Stephen Patrick Morrissey to collaborate on songwriting, with the goal of forming a band.  Marr and Morrissey bonded immediately over a shared love of ’60s Girl Groups like the Shirelles, and the Shangri-Las.

Marr said, “There was so much yearning in those records.  They had a great sound, there was a real magic and exuberance about them, these mini-symphonies sung by teenagers in Brooklyn and Queens, and each one made a statement. It meant more to me than whatever tired stuff was going around in the U.K. in 1982.”

When the two first met to talk about music and listen to records, Marr played the B-side of a 1966 single by the Marvelettes, called “You’re The One”:

What do you notice in this song by The Smiths, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” that is reminiscent of the Girl Group sound?   Consider the lyrics, the melody, the subject, and the overall feel of the song.

9.  At almost the same time Marr and Morrissey were incubating The Smiths, over in Scotland a pair of brothers had the idea of combining German noise rock, the chilled out vibe of The Velvet Underground, and the nostalgic, melodic style of the Girl Groups.  The very first track of the debut album by The Jesus and Mary Chain begins with a drum part directly lifted from “Be My Baby” by the The Ronettes.

10.  It’s interesting that during the 80’s and 90’s, the Girl Group sound seemed to be adopted in the UK, while being abandoned stateside.  One of the more obscure examples is British singer Anthony Adverse, who covered the Shangri-Las‘ song “Give Him A Great Big Kiss,” but for whatever reason re-titled it, “L.U.V.”

11.  Several tracks on Foxbase Alpha (1991), the debut album by Saint Etienne, were clearly informed by a deep love and knowledge of Girl Group records.  It’s no coincidence that member Bob Stanley eventually wrote one of the definitive books on Pop music, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé, which totals over 600 pages.

12.  After 2000, British singers Duffy, and Amy Winehouse were both very close to mimicking the familiar sound of the early 60’s.  But in 2006, a British Girl Group called The Pipettes, emerged that explicitly derived their inspiration from the sound and style:

13.  In 2008, Dee Dee Penny, of Dum Dum Girls, followed the example Blondie set 22 years earlier, when she hired Richard Gottehrer to produce their first album:

14.  In 2011, the first album by Cults is pervasively influenced by the Girl Group sound:

15.  Singer / songwriter Kali Uchis is like a musical sponge, drawing influences from the whole history of recorded Pop music.  She has a natural affinity to the Girl Group sound, most obvious in “Killer,” from her 2018 album, Isolation:

16.  Finally, from just last year (2019), the title track of the album, Heartbreak, by the band Unloved, absolutely drips with everything “Girl Group,” from the style of recording, to the instrumentation, the production qualities, the melody, harmony, and lyrics.  But it’s not simply a pastiche; it’s a great song, performed with heartfelt sincerity, and more than a hint of that poignant hurt that is so reminiscent of the best Girl Group songs.  You may have heard this, as Unloved provides music for the t.v. series Killing Eve.

Pop music is constantly reinventing itself, and very often imitating itself.  It’s incredible to think that 60 years after the brief life of the Girl Groups trend, a band like Unloved can write and record a song completely inspired by, and invested in the style, which feels relevant and timeless today.

To end with some fun facts:

  • 750 distinct Girl Groups had singles that reached the US and UK charts from 1960 to 1966 (and those were just the ones who charted!). 
  • That’s an average of 10 different, unique girl groups on the charts every month – for 6 years!  
  • The Supremes alone held 12 number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 during the height of the wave and throughout most of the 1960’s.  In fact, The Supremes were the only other group on record to rival the Beatles in popularity. 


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