Tag Archives: girl groups

89) Little Peggy March – “I Will Follow Him”

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

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Filed under 07, 1963

88) The Chiffons – “He’s So Fine”

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

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Filed under 08, 1963

80) The Crystals – “He’s a Rebel”

“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

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Filed under 09, 1962

76) Little Eva – “The Loco-Motion”

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

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Filed under 08, 1962

70) The Shirelles – “Soldier Boy”

One of the problems I have writing this blog is that of objectivity.  Of course, the question of whether or not a record is any good is oftentimes subjective; I know from reading the statistics on my blog that many people stumble upon this blog via Googling songs that they clearly like a lot more than I do.  Even what I’d write off as a “bad song” has its fans, many of whom also have personal attachments to the song that go beyond the question of taste.  Nevertheless, I listen to each song at least a dozen times before writing about it (unless it’s so truly awful that it’s painful to listen to), and try to analyze it as fairly as possible.  There have been several cases where I’ve changed my mind about a record between hearing it for the first time and polishing off the final draft.  No huge changes, at least yet, but a few points in either direction on the ratings scale, in an attempt to be as fair as possible to the musicians, songwriters, producers and fans. All of which makes me conscious of the musical prejudices I know I carry into this.  Even a brief glance over the ratings I’ve given so far in this blog make it obvious that I, for example, prefer rockabilly and R&B to teen idols and easy listening.

If there’s one genre that I feel particularly self-conscious writing about, though, its girl groups.  I’ve listened to hundreds of tracks in this genre (which isn’t strictly limited to actual girl groups, but also includes solo girl singers and groups with male members that follow the girl group template), and the number of records I didn’t derive at least some enjoyment from I can count on one, maybe two, hands.  So when a girl group single tops the Hot 100, I’ll give it a high rating, to the surprise of no one.  And when a pop song tops the chart that isn’t girl group, well, then I’ll compare it unfavorably with the girl group sound (as I did with “Johnny Angel“).  I confess it’s a thoroughly myopic look at a genre, as annoying as those reviewers on IMDb who give top marks to all sci fi movies and zeroes to romantic comedies.  But I genuinely think that this music was among the greatest pop music ever recorded, and given the musical heavyweights who have adopted elements of this sound (The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and The Ramones, for starters), I feel somewhat validated.

But when there is that rare girl group single that I don’t favor, well, there’s a good chance that it is genuinely, unequivocally bad.  And that goes double when it’s by a group that I otherwise adore.  In this case, it’s The Shirelles, who previously struck gold with the inarguable classic and first ever girl group number-one, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”  Give The Shirelles a top-notch Goffin and King composition, and they virtually create a market for girl group recordings.  Give them a mediocre song sung cloyingly and, well, they still have a #1 hit (albeit their last big hit, bar “Foolish Little Girl” a year later).  Their second and final number one, “Soldier Boy,” doesn’t just pale in comparison to that epoch-making single; it also pales next to their previous Top 10 hit, the slinky yet soulful “Baby It’s You,” and next to a good deal of the non-girl group pop of the era.  Even the always-dependable Shirley Owens sounds bored on the record, as if she recognizes that her talents are being wasted, her voice lacking its usual warmth and engagement.  The lyrics express an admirable sentiment (girl tells boy that she’ll be faithful while he’s in the army), but are dull, while the melody is too jaunty and trite to fit the subject matter.  The arrangement as a whole is pedestrian and doesn’t play to The Shirelles’ strengths.  Which is perhaps the record’s biggest crime: making The Shirelles sound like a generic girl group thrown together to cash in on a trend, rather than originators and leading lights of the genre. 4

Hit #1 on May 5, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
70 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 7.22% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 04, 1962

68) Shelley Fabares – “Johnny Angel”

Generations, in the over-arching cultural sense, are roughly delineated in 20-year segments.  But in pop music, the passage of time is accelerated.  Never was this truer than in the 1960s, when “revolutions per minute” could refer not only to a lone record on a turntable, but to pop radio as a whole.  Connie Francis may have been only 23 years old when her final #1 hit topped the charts, but she felt like a relic of an older time.  Indeed, while her fanbase in the late ‘50s stretched across the generations, Francis would primarily pursue the adult pop market for the rest of her career.  The common culture shared by adults and adolescents had begun to splinter around the birth of rock and roll, and was well on its way to becoming a full-on generation gap.  Francis, born in 1938, predated the Baby Boom; her successor to the top of the Hot 100, born in 1944, was a product of it.  This new generation wanted music that spoke (or, rather, sang) explicitly to the experience of being young – and the nascent girl group explosion, made by teenagers for teenagers, had exactly the right sound.

Thus when the producers of The Donna Reed Show decided to have their teenage star Shelley Fabares record a tie-in single, they took a bog standard, fill-in-the-blanks teen pop song and dressed it up with the backing vocals of The Blossoms.  While The Blossoms weren’t a household name, the tight harmonies of Darlene Love and her fellow group members added a jolt of relevancy to the pop-by-numbers “Johnny Angel.”  Nevertheless, the result isn’t a very convincing.  Fabares, firmly an actress and not a singer, was reportedly unenthusiastic about recording a single and felt intimidated by The Blossoms’ vocal chops.  Her voice is fine here, actually; if anything, it presages the girlish vocals of Lesley Gore and Mary Weiss that would form the white counterparts to the girl groups produced by Motown and Phil Spector.  But the vocals of Fabares and The Blossoms never meld in a way that sounds organic.  The bulk of the successful girl groups had, in some form or another, been singing together for years, in high schools and churches, before they cut their first singles.  Here, Fabares’s voice floats out limply in front of the backing singers.  Further, “Johnny Angel” is, if possible, too pop to be real girl group material.  The genuine girl group hits drew to varying degrees from other genres, whether they be R&B/soul, rock and roll, gospel, or even country. This cross-genre pollination led to more complex and exciting singles, which attracted listeners outside of the teenage girl market and, in turn, influenced the genres the girl groups had originally borrowed from (e.g., The Beatles covering The Shirelles, The Marvelettes and The Cookies).  “Johnny Angel,” however, owes strictly to the limpid, syrupy pop of Frankie Avalon and teen idols who followed in his wake.  Essentially, this is “Venus,” but from a female POV – and one just as dull and vacuous. 3

Liner Notes:

  • The Blossoms would again top the Hot 100 just a few months later – albeit with a single falsely credited to another girl group.

Hit #1 on April 7, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
68 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 7.01% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 03, 1962

62) The Marvelettes – “Please Mr. Postman”

While Motown Records gets the credit of being the first African American label (in terms of the owner and the majority of the talent) to crossover into the mainstream, that’s not exactly true.  Ernie K-Doe had already hit the top of the Hot 100 with “Mother-in-Law,” written and produced by Allen Toussaint and released on Joe Banashak’s Minit Records.  Nevertheless, neither Minit nor any other R&B label that came before could compete with the cultural juggernaut that Motown would become.

The label had its first hit in 1959 with Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” released just a few months after the label’s founding in January.  “Money” may have may have been a little blusier than the “Motown sound” that would define the 1960s,  but compare it with contemporary “race music” – including John Lee Hooker’s nearly identical “I Need Some Money” – and it’s clear that Berry Gordy and co. were already on their way toward perfecting the balance between R&B swing and mainstream (white) rock/pop.  As a result, Motown would appeal to wider strata of the American listening public than all but a few black acts had before.  [The Beatles, who similarly rode the integration of popular music to legendary status, covered both “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Please Mr. Postman” on With the Beatles in 1963.]

No one could have been surprised that Motown would eventually have a Hot 100 hit – Gordy’s pop sensibilities and strict quality control had made sure of that.  Likewise, the public’s burgeoning infatuation with girl groups granted the label an easy “in” for the pop charts.  But Gordy’s version of the girl group sound was markedly different from what was beginning to make radio inroads.  The Shirelles and other black girl groups were essentially putting a gospel/soul spin on traditional pop songs, written by white songwriters (usually based in the Brill Building) and recorded by white producers (most importantly, Phil Spector).  “Please Mr. Postman,” on the other hand, started life as a blues song, rearranged and rewritten several times along the way until it mutated into the form that became a hit.  Instead of an orchestral Wall of Sound, the girls were backed by the loose-limbed and quick-witted Funk Brothers (including Marvin Gaye on guitar).  Most importantly, though, “Please Mr. Postman” was fun.  While doo wop had its share of novelties (cf. “Blue Moon”), the girls in taffeta had so far stayed serious.  Far from  Spector’s “little symphonies for the kiddies” or the fragmented soap operas that would define Shadow Morton’s work a few years later, producers Brian Holland (of Holland-Dozier-Holland) and Robert Bateman let The Marvelettes sound natural and relaxed.  The arrangement complements lead singer Gladys Horton, who doesn’t quite have the distinctive pipes of a Shirley Owens but has plenty of spunk to make up for it.  Like all Motown songs of this era, however, beneath the breezy melodies and loose harmonies is a record just as tight and professionally executed as anything released by a major label.

Sadly, The Marvelettes wouldn’t have another #1, despite releasing a number of quality singles. Yet their success paved the way for Motown to become one of the top innovators in the girl group genre – which, in turn, launched the label into stratospheric heights and made soul one of the dominant genres in the pop charts. 8

Hit #1 on December 11, 1961; total of 1 week at #1
62 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 6.39% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 08, 1961

44) The Shirelles – “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”

This is the inauguration of the girl group age.  Sure, The Chantels had scored a #15 hit in 1958 with “Maybe,” but it was The Shirelles whom everyone copied.  Sub out the vocals in “Maybe” for those of a male doo-wop group and the record’s more or less the same.  But listen to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and you hear the birth of a new genre.  Lead singer Shirley Owens derided it for being “too country,” but it’s not exactly “El Paso.”  The guitar and drums feel like rock and roll, the strings echo classic pop and the vocals are a tamer descendant of R&B.  It’s this mix that would become the classic girl group sound, enlushened by Jack Nitzsche and Phil Spector and copied by any fly-by-night producer with a quartet of starry-eyed high school singers.

But “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” wasn’t just revolutionary sonically.  The lyrics describe a common teenage dilemma rarely talked about, at least in early ’60s pop songs: does this guy really love you, or does he just want to sleep with you?  “Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure?” may not be explicit lyrics, but there’s no question as to what they refer. But it’s the song’s light touch, devoid of moralizing, that makes the lyrics so honest.

I wasn’t alive when “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was released, so I don’t know how controversial it was on its release.  The Shirelles’ prom-dress elegance and the conflicted nature of the song’s lyrics must have gone a long way toward gaining mainstream acceptance.  But I think it was the innovative fusion of musical styles and the resonance of the subject matter that made the song a #1 hit and all-time classic. 9

Liner Notes

  • “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was the first #1 hit by Brill Building songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

Hit #1 on January 30, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
44 of 967 #1’s reviewed; 4.55% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1961