“Chapel of Love” wasn’t supposed to be a hit for The Dixie Cups. Phil Spector had claimed the Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich composition for The Ronettes, who did record the original as album filler. Indeed, the song’s single-minded declaration of girlish devotion is of a piece with hits like “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You”. The Ronettes record also benefits from Ronnie Spector’s distinctive voice, which makes up for any lyrical slightness (the entire song can be summed up by “Gee, I really love you, and we’re going to get married”) through the power of her delivery.
Barry and Greenwich, sensing the song’s hit potential, shopped “Chapel of Love” around before producing it themselves. (Leiber and Stoller are officially credited, but general agreement is that their contributions were nominal.) They settled on The Dixie Cups, a mostly unknown group from New Orleans. While The Dixie Cups were certainly fine singers, there was no standout in the group a la Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love, whose own version of “Chapel of Love” adds a more confident, adult edge. As a result, their version isn’t quite as compelling as either of the Spector-prodced recordings. Still, the pleasantly catchy melody and The Dixie Cups’ agreeable vocals are enough to carry the day. The lyrics, though narrow in focus, are also direct enough to develop a kind of universality, as demonstrated by the song’s continued ubiquity in films and at wedding receptions. And while The Dixie Cups never became stars on the level of The Ronettes, they did manage a few more hits, including one that better played to their strengths: the much-covered New Orleans anthem “Iko Iko.” 7
Hit #1 on June 6, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
110 of 983 #1’s reviewed; 11.19% through the Hot 100
It’s not surprising that one of the first crop of girl groups was called The Angels. After all, the genre’s style (at least in the early years) was built on sweet, pure voices singing about innocent love. “My Boyfriend’s Back” is perhaps the ultimate distillation of what a girl group named “The Angels” should sound like. In fact, if the group hadn’t had a hit with “Til” two years earlier, it would seem like the group’s name was coined expressly to tie in with the 1963 single’s subject matter. After all, “My Boyfriend’s Back” is a statement of chastity and fidelity. When the titular boyfriend leaves for unexplained reasons, our narrator isn’t even tempted by her suitor’s nightly advances. Her moral fortitude endures, even after the rejected suitor spreads lies about her conduct. She may not be St. Catherine, but her sullied reputation makes her the closest thing to a modern-day high school martyr. “Angel” though she may be, our narrator nevertheless relishes the comeuppance soon to be inflicted on her aggressor. Our narrator and her boyfriend’s faith in each other is unshakable, and his righteous vengeance is just. Yet, all the while, these heavy themes are buoyed along on the back on a tune so light and frothy that it could be a toothpaste jingle. Which, of course, is the cardinal rule of successful pop: sing anything you want, just as long as it’s catchy. “My Boyfriend’s Back” could have been overwrought and self-pitying; instead, it’s got a sense of humor, a dance-worthy beat and lyrics that beg to be sassed-along with. 7
Hit #1 on August 31, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
97 of 977 #1’s reviewed; 9.93% through the Hot 100
While I may have a near-blind love of the girl group genre, I can understand why people may not go for Lesley Gore. Her voice is much weaker and limper than that of her contemporaries, with a peevish quality that suggests a child on the brink of a temper tantrum. Her choice of material often plays into this image. Rarely do you find Gore singing a love song in the vein of “Be My Baby” or “I Will Follow Him.” Instead, her best-known songs (“It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” “You Don’t Own Me”) all star her in reactionary poses, railing against cheating boyfriends and frenemies and controlling people who’ve stirred her ire. Put together, it can come across as all too self-pitying: the privileged teenager sniveling over some slight.
Yet this same quality of teenage petulance works in spades when deployed in the right manner. Not many other singers could so convincingly portray the victim of an entire Seventeen advice column’s worth of angst. “It’s My Party” also works because it’s essentially the flip side of “I Will Follow Him.” Just as the adolescent love in Peggy March’s song is cosmically intense – the greatest thing that happened to anyone, ever – the adolescent lost love of “It’s My Party” is a tragedy of Sophoclean proportions. That Gore’s character is rejected at her own birthday party is just the crap icing on her cake of humiliation. The irony in calling Gore’s catalog self-pitying is that “It’s My Party” depicts some seriously harsh treatment. You probably would cry too if it happened to you. 7
Hit #1 on June 1, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
91 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.32% through the Hot 100
When browsing through YouTube for the clip above, I came across a live performance of “I Will Follow Him” from 2002. Peggy March was singing as part as one of those oldies nostalgia revues that air on public television during pledge drives. Despite having the past 40 years and an entire career defined by this one track, March is an enthusiastic performer. She’s clearly had vocal lessons in the intervening decades, as she sings with an assured, polished voice quite unlike the one that graced the original recording. Of course, it’s difficult – and rarely desirable – to retain the same vocal qualities you had when you were 15 (although Brenda Lee managed it). Nevertheless, I still felt a vague sense of disappointment. March had traded her distinctive voice for one that was generic, albeit ostensibly better.
I only remark on March’s voice because it is one of the two great things about the original recording of “I Will Follow Him.” Although she had an innate sense of pitch and melody, her voice hadn’t yet had all the rawness buffed out of it yet. March, much like Ronnie Spector, has the knack of sounding both vulnerable and assertive – exactly how an adolescent should. The other terrific aspect of the song is its arrangement. The music, co-composed by Paul Mauriat and Franck Pourcel, is so absurdly dramatic as to make “He’s a Rebel” look meek and pedestrian. Yet this too matches the spirit of the song. This is music that can part oceans and knock down mountains, if that’s what it takes for our heroine to reach her destiny. Subtlety is unheard of and every emotion is cranked up to 11 – which is a lot like how it feels to be a teenager. 7
Hit #1 on April 27, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
89 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.12% through the Hot 100
For all the grumbling I’ve done about the pop music in the years between the first wave of rock and roll and the advent of The Beatles, we’ve actually hit a pretty nice stretch of chart here. I’m almost feeling guilty about the number of 7s and 8s (and even a 9
) that I’ve either handed out lately or will be handing out soon. Not that I think my overall grades should chart as a perfect bell curve. While you don’t need to go further than this very blog to recognize that popularity doesn’t always equal quality, the sheer number of roadblocks and gatekeepers on the path to #1 ensures that few records reach the top without at least a modicum of merit. (Note: I may recant this position when we reach the ’70s.) That the grades skew high is not just something I expect to happen, it’s something I want
to happen – partly to restore my faith in the record-buying public, partly so I don’t have to spend a good chunk of my free time listening to terrible music and partly so I don’t get burned out writing one negative review after another.
Of course, it’s also possible to get a little burned out writing nothing but positive reviews. It’s not as if I can express relief that, finally, here’s some good music – “He’s So Fine” is like an oasis in a tropical rainforest. I’ve already expressed my love for girl groups, so it’s no surprise that the song’s a big hit with me (unless you were expecting a “Soldier Boy
“-like upset, which would be foolishness). And, frankly, how can anyone listen to “He’s So Fine” and not love it? It’s got endearing girlish harmonies (oh yeah)! Romantic yet non-flowery lyrics (“sooner or later – I hope it’s not later”)! The most memorable backing vocals in the whole genre (doo lang doo lang doo lang)! I dare you not to be hypnotized by the continuously ascending melody, suggesting that our heroine’s love for her wavy-haired boy has brought her closer to her sweet Lord. Plus, it breezes past with the economy and commitment to purpose of a Ramones song. Forget tedious deliberation on technical details and waffling about pros and cons and the blah blah blah. I can’t deny that “He’s So Fine” is a great song – even if it does skew my averages. 8
Hit #1 on March 30, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
88 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.02% through the Hot 100
“He’s a Rebel” is not my favorite Phil Spector record. I prefer The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” which peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and thus will not be discussed in depth here. But “He’s a Rebel” – recorded by The Blossoms but released under the Crystals nameplate, much to the surprise of The Crystals – is the ultimate girl group record. Condensed into this one song is everything the genre had stood for so far – adolescent love stories, harmonies both playful and powerful, striking (though not always technically proficient) lead vocalists – as well as a blueprint that would set the tone for the rest of the decade. “He’s a Rebel” may not have been the first song about a good girl in love with a bad boy, but it made that the de facto girl group relationship. Of course he’s never really a bad boy, that’s just what “they” say because of how he dresses and rejects society’s norms. But Darlene Love (and all the singers following in her wake) knows the truth: “He’s always good to me, always treats me tenderly / ‘Cause he’s not a rebel … to me.”
And yes, there’s that Wall of Sound. Spector may have employed the first stirrings of his densely layered soundscapes on “To Know Him is to Love Him
,” but it was here that his production techniques flowered into the defining sound of early ’60s pop. Spector’s sound was ripped off by everyone from fly-by-night cash-in labels to Brian Wilson, and for good reason. The Wall of Sound is perhaps the preeminent example of the capacity music has to make us empathize on a visceral level. Not only does the record sound beautiful as a piece of musical art, but the orchestral swirl makes the banal subject matter – nothing that wouldn’t appear as filler on a Miley Cyrus album – sound like the most important thing on the planet. The struggle between our teenage lovers and those nay-saying “them” is epic. The romance, like the tune, feels like one for the ages. 9
Hit #1 on November 3, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
80 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.20% through the Hot 100
On the surface, there’s not much difference between “The Loco-Motion” and “The Twist.” Both are pop songs promoting previously non-existent dances, with lyrics that devoted to detailing (albeit vaguely) the requisite motions. But what makes “The Loco-Motion” so superior to “The Twist” is the fact that it is the better song. “The Twist” starts with a basic 12-bar blues form and doesn’t do much with it. There’s no middle eight, no instrumental break, no clever lyrics – nothing to distract from the song’s repetitiousness. But while “The Loco-Motion” uses a standard pop song format as its launching point, note how Gerry Goffin and Carole King toss in a few tweaks. After the drums that kick off the track, the first sound on the record is a weird, flat drone, courtesy of some brass instrument. The drone doesn’t call much attention to itself, but it lays down the foundation for Goffin’s layered production. There’s the unexpected chord changes that bridge the more straightforward verse and chorus (“Do it nice and easy, now, don’t do it slow/A little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul”), and the exaggerated syncopation (“come on, come on – DO the loco-motion with me”). On top of that, so many interesting parts – the backup singers, the handclaps, the horn break – click into place.
But perhaps the most charming element of the song is Little Eva herself. The old story goes that Goffin and King recruited their babysitter to record “The Loco-Motion” as a demo meant for an established artist, but the label liked her take so much that they released it as is. In actuality, the songwriters were already aware of Little Eva’s singing voice before they hired her. Nevertheless, it’s her raw phrasing, with its imprecise enunciation and distinct lack of professional sheen, that catches the ear. While the girl group genre had its share of strong, pure-toned vocalists like Shirley Owens and Darlene Love, much of its appeal stemmed from the idea that these singers could be your life. These are teenage girls, singing about the same problems that you have, who sound like just like you (only better). It’s the imperfections and vulnerabilities in their voices that make them believable. When Little Eva sings, you can trust that she knows the newest dance – even if it doesn’t really exist. 8
Hit #1 on August 25, 1962; total of 1 week at #1
76 of 975 #1’s reviewed;7.79% through the Hot 100