The lockdown officially started in France on St. Paddy’s Day and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. Unlike the United States, the government here is taking this thing very seriously. If I want to go anywhere I have to carry a signed form, the Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, describing the purpose of my travel. I can only go out for two reasons: to get needed supplies (thankfully they classified les tabacs as essential businesses) or for exercise within a one-kilometer radius of my home one hour per day. I am not allowed to visit my parents (Dad flew back from the States a couple of weeks ago after he watched a Trump press conference and decided he needed to get the hell out ASAP). The government has drones flying about to make sure people are following the rules (I haven’t seen one yet, probably because I don’t get out much). As I write this, the city issued a pronouncement that all Niçoise are required to wear masks outside; Mayor Estrosi said they’re going to distribute masks to every citizen in Nice.
Several of our clients have suspended consulting work to take care of their own, so we’re only working a few hours a day. This means I’ve got nothing to do but fuck, listen to music and watch classic baseball games (and a stray movie here and there). Under normal circumstances, I’d say, “Life is good.” But it’s not.
More and more people are getting sick and dying. My partner’s brother—the guy who scored the weed for us during the Psychedelic Series—came down with the virus, but it looks like he’s going to be okay. Still, his parents and siblings can’t visit him in the hospital, and many have died without ever seeing their loved ones again. He’s in Spain, where it’s pretty bad, and I’m about twenty kilometers from the Italian border, where it’s catastrophic.
I love The Twilight Zone, but I never wanted to live in a Twilight Zone episode. It’s creepy and depressing.
I grew up in a city and I’ve only lived in cities. Having lots of people around is my normal. I love the energy and spontaneity of street life. I love going out to dinner and hitting the bars and cafés where live music is played. The dead quiet of a city once filled with human movement and the buzz of human voices is intensely distressing for me, as I’m sure it is to all lifelong city-dwellers. But my low-level discomfort is nothing compared to the relentless anxiety of the people working in hospitals, markets and public services, so after a few minutes of wallowing in self-pity, I remind myself this is a battle for survival. If that means being cooped up in the house for a while, suck it up, girl.
I do have my daily routines to give me some sense of normal. The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is head for the sound system and turn on some music. Usually I just shuffle songs and take my chances, but whether I was motivated by a forgotten dream or had received a coded message from the astral plane, on this particular day I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to A Love Supreme. And instead of following my usual M. O. of leaving the room and starting the coffee, I sat down in front of the speakers for the next thirty-three minutes, closed my eyes and let Coltrane’s beautiful music penetrate my soul. After the performance ended, I sat there for a while, feeling calmer and more grounded than I had in weeks. When I opened my eyes, I saw my partner sitting cross-legged on the floor a few feet away, eyes closed, breathing yoga-style, a faint smile on her lips. I scooted over and we held each other for a while, whispering to each other, “It’s going to be okay.”
From that day forward, we have started every morning with A Love Supreme.
A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s spiritual manifesto, presented in a suite consisting of four sections: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” As Lewis Porter describes it in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the organization of the four sections “suggest a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which the pilgrim acknowledges the divine, resolves to pursue it, searches and, eventually, celebrates what has been attained in song.” Given that model, most listeners can grasp Coltrane’s intent and follow the musical progression, but it’s equally important to understand how Coltrane connected spirituality with music:
My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is just part of the whole thing . . . My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being . . . When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity to free itself from its hangups. I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.
—Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 232
While you may not have thought of music in that way, “to help humanity to free itself from its hangups” is at the core of most “anti-Establishment” music. When you belt out the lyrics to “Cretin Hop,” you’re helping to free yourself from the hangup of judgmental stereotypes; when you sing “It’s late and I want love—love that’s going to break me in two,” you’re ridding yourself of latent puritanism that infects most of the human species. One could argue that great music is “music that helps a person to clean out the noise and inauthenticity of modern life” (or, in a more pithy fashion, “clean out the bullshit”). The role of lyrics is more prominent in rock, blues or folk, but even if you’ve limited yourself to the more lyrical genres, you can relate to the largely instrumental orientation of jazz by recalling the feeling of liberation inspired by a Duane Allman guitar solo, or the playfully ominous licks of Muddy Waters, or the magical fingerpicking of Richard Thompson. The traditionally religious have understood the connection between music and spirituality for centuries; for me, listening to great music is a spiritual experience, whether I’m listening to the New York Dolls or Johann Sebastian Bach.
Porter’s study of Coltrane devotes an entire chapter to A Love Supreme, primarily focusing on the technical aspects of the composition: the dominance of the pentatonic scale and Coltrane’s variations on those scales; his use of overlapping disjunct and conjunct fourths; Coltrane’s techniques for building and releasing tension; the dominant rhythmic figures within the composition; and the wordless recitation of the psalm in the final section. His analysis is brilliant, insightful and impressive—to pull off the feat, he had to listen to the suite carefully and repeatedly, as Coltrane’s written instructions to his collaborators looked like this:
Coltrane provided the structure but not the details. He trusted his fellow musicians to fill in the blanks.
While I appreciate Porter’s effort and found it highly educational, he is a jazz scholar, and his narrative only makes sense to the few people left on the planet who know how to read music; for everyone else, it’s gibberish. Ted Gioia is one of the few musicologists who recognized this challenge; in the opening chapter of How to Listen to Jazz, he shares a parable of a “young scholar who decides to devote his life to the study of African rhythms.” The scholar spent ten years in Africa immersed in his quest, but when he returned to the States and tried to teach some of his students how to play the Dagomba drums, ” . . . they ask him the simplest question of all: ‘How do I know when to enter? When do I start playing?’ In Western music, there is an easy answer. The conductor waves a baton, or a bandleader counts off the beat, or the musical score provides a cue.” The scholar finds himself unable to meet their apparently simple request. “No amount of analysis or rule-making solves his problem. Finally, he realizes that the obstacle can be overcome only by moving away from analysis and entering into the realm of feeling. ‘The only way to begin correctly,’ he eventually discovers, ‘was to listen a moment and then start right in.'” Gioia wraps up the parable with the valuable lesson learned:
Listen a moment and then start right in. There has to be more, no? A decade of apprenticeship, and this is the takeaway? Yet this was the solution, beguiling in its apparent simplicity.
For those who devote the better part of a lifetime to the study of music, stories like this one are humbling. They testify to a magical element in the music, especially in its rhythmic essence, that eludes intellectualization. This aspect of the music must be felt, and if it isn’t felt, academic dissection is futile. The scholar must become more than a scholar to grasp it, and the student determined to follow on the same path must be willing to leave pedagogy behind and embrace something so elusive that, at times, it can hardly be described.
. . . In our parable, hearing trumps analysis. And if this superiority of the ear over the brain humbles the trained musicologist, it also should give a dose of encouragement to the outsider who doesn’t know the terminology and codified procedures of the aural arts. Listening, not jargon, is the path into the heart of music. And if we listen at a deep enough level, we enter into the magic of the song—no degrees or formal credentials required.
Gioia, Ted (2016-05-16T23:58:59). How to Listen to Jazz . Basic Books. Kindle Edition. (underlined emphasis added)
In keeping with that spirit, this review will focus more on the spirit than the details. I’ll refer to the technical stuff when I think it may be helpful.
Coltrane’s acknowledgment of the existence of a higher power is a musical expression of spiritual awakening the mirrors the experience of physical awakening. The gentle gong that opens the suite feels like the moment when we wake from sleep; Elvin Jones’s cymbal washes meld with McCoy Tyner’s piano to create a sound that would make for a glorious accompaniment to a sunrise. Over that background, Coltrane’s tenor sax salvo sounds like the tentative engagement with consciousness we experience as we move from dream state to reality, perhaps accompanied by a nice long stretch after a good night’s sleep. As the notes fly from his sax and a pattern emerges, I’m reminded of those moments when I haven’t played in a while and I just randomly apply fingers to flute or piano without thinking about it or worrying about what might come out. The difference between my approach and Coltrane’s (beyond the vast difference in skill level) is that he views his instrument as a means of connecting with the higher power while I’m just trying to connect fingers to brain. If you heard my opening salvo, you’d say, “Oh, Ari is just warming up,” whereas with Coltrane’s you sense clarity and intent. As Porter points out, the segment serves as a lead-in to the suite, with the music based on E acting as the leading tone to the basic pentatonic F scale of the suite, solid evidence of a compositional objective.
Coltrane fades into background while Tyner and Jones build a mini-crescendo that fades with Jones providing a rapid-fire flourish on the cymbal bell. This cues Jimmy Garrison to enter with the bass ostinato that forms the suite’s dominant motif: a four-note pattern consisting of F, Ab, F, Bb in syncopated 4/4 time. This simple pattern serves as the foundation for a hip-engaging groove that might qualify as sinful in some churches but not in Coltrane’s. Tyner plays a dual role here—the chords he chooses to play anticipate Coltrane’s melody, but he also strengthens the groove to establish what Gioia describes as “rhythmic cohesion,” the defining characteristic of successful jazz. “In the great jazz bands, you can hear the individual members lock together rhythmically in a pleasing way that involves an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition,” and as the suite moves forward, you appreciate just how much Coltrane trusted his supporting cast to supply that cohesion.
I hear Coltrane’s solo as his expression of engagement with the higher power, with emotions that range from reassuring calm to nearly inexpressible joy. The moments when he goes altissimo—pushing to the highest ranges of the tenor sax—feel like intense bursts of feeling that combine bottomless gratitude and genuine cherishment of the spiritual connection. As Porter notes, there are times when Coltrane drifts away from the base key as if he has entered a trance-like state, requiring Tyner and Garrison to improvise in kind. Having established his connection to the divine, Coltrane returns to the essential message contained in that four-note motif, transposing it to each of the twelve keys common to Western music, varying the register as he goes. Porter considers this transition “puzzling at first,” but what he means is that it’s puzzling in musical terms; it all becomes clear when we hear John Coltrane chanting the words “a love supreme,” and we realize that “Coltrane’s music is not abstract but is dictated in part by the messages he wishes to convey.” Theme resolved, Coltrane steps back while the music shifts to a soothing rhythm as Tyner then Jones exit the scene, leaving Jimmy Garrison to finish the piece. After repeating the motif a few times, he varies his run and ends his part with an almost classical flourish—a rare honor given to a double bass player and a satisfying conclusion that never fails to elicit a smile. In the process, Garrison changes keys to Eb, which will serve as the key for the second section.
As befits the title, this section is played with greater intensity and resolve; now that the pilgrim has experienced the eternal truth, he solidifies his intent to live his life in devotion to the higher power. “Resolution” is a classic modern jazz composition with Coltrane taking two extended solos and Tyner one. In the first solo, Coltrane defines the dominant motif with its memorable two-note starting point (really the only thing it shares in common with the slower and bluesier “While My Lady Sleeps,” one of Coltrane’s early compositions that some believe is the original source), then proceeds to fly with utter confidence over the full-kit attack of Elvin Jones and comp chords from Tyner. The dynamics soften a bit when Coltrane hands off to Tyner, who knocks it out of the park with an amazing combination of bright chords and astonishingly clear runs that sometimes combine to create what I’ll call an “internal dialogue expressed in call-and-response mode,” where it seems like Tyner’s left hand makes a suggestion while the right hand responds to the challenge. Coltrane wakes Tyner from his trance by easing himself back into the picture and riffing off some of Tyner’s ideas before closing the piece with a return to the dominant theme. Porter notes that the improvisations are more free-form than tied to a particular scale and rely “similarly on much chromaticism and dissonance,” a feature that magnifies the tension evident in the sheer force of the piece.
Takeaway: Resolution is the emotional commitment that precedes the action; as such, the music to “Resolution” is intense, filled with the piss and vinegar that characterizes the vitality of intent.
As we all eventually figure out after the usual bumps and bruises, life isn’t always kind to those with resolve. “What else ya got?” yawns Life in response to our passionate certainty that we have found the answer. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad experienced much in the way of smooth sailing following their enlightenment, for when they actually started to act on their commitment to a higher truth, they wound up pissing off a whole lot of people with more mundane priorities and greater earthly power.
The omnipresent tension in “Resolution” climbs to a peak in “Pursuance,” an even more intense barrage played (mostly) at lightning speed. The piece kicks off with Elvin Jones soloing like a bat out of hell in no particular meter for ninety seconds when suddenly Coltrane steps in with a clarifying riff, which serves as a cue for Tyner and Garrison to join in. The new arrivals spend a few seconds feeling each other out before cohesion arrives in the form of an extended Tyner solo, where Garrison takes a couple of measures to sync with Jones but once he finds the groove, feels comfortable enough to throw in a few departures of his own. While the percussion section proper rides the high-speed wave, Tyner fills in the gaps with an assertive performance that combines velocity with soul-tingling clarity. When Coltrane returns a bit after the four-minute mark, he ignites a different level of passion with a quick burst of tonal clarity, earning a moment of thumping encouragement from Elvin Jones. Coltrane then dominates the scene for about three minutes, returning occasionally to altissimo as if attempting to reconnect with his original awakening. In the context of the pilgrimage described in A Love Supreme, “Pursuance” is the musical moment when the pilgrim’s ideals are challenged by the earthier noise of modern material existence; Coltrane’s exuberant journey here tells me he was up to the challenge.
One of my favorite passages in Porter’s book involves the analysis of the key of this section as defined as opposed to the key as manifested. Whenever I listen to an album I’m about to review, one of the first things I do is identify the key, and in 99% of the rock/pop music I’ve reviewed I can figure it out in about twenty seconds. I love it when I turn out to be wrong and have to dig deeper to figure it out. In this case, Coltrane didn’t give Porter much help, referring to the song as a minor blues in Bb. What Porter realized through deep listening is that while Coltrane used the notes in the Bb minor scale, he launched his solo from the starting point of C, using “the same scale in a different tonal framework.” Coltrane essentially took advantage of Charlie Parker’s discovery that any of the twelve notes that make up the chromatic scale can potentially take you melodically to any key, giving the soloist greater freedom in oscillating between consonance and dissonance. Translating all that into something more useful and connecting it to the substance of Coltrane’s extended solo, what I hear are the musical equivalents of laughter, of puzzlement, of reconnection with one’s mission, of the liberating, healing qualities of music. And though chromaticism can take you anywhere, Coltrane employs good compositional sense by resolving to Bb.
Interestingly enough, Coltrane chose to bookend this section with the percussionists, giving Garrison an extended solo at the end to complement Jones’ extended intro. Garrison’s bass solo is a bit longer than the drum solo and covers more ground, including a hint of the dominant four-note motif, a clearer expression of the blues scale and some marvelous departures from that scale. This feels to me like a segment highlighting both the existential loneliness of the journey (the double bass can be quite a melancholy instrument) and the firm belief that loneliness is merely a condition of material existence that will vanish once the connection to the higher spirit is complete.
Coltrane claims in the liner notes that his awakening occurred in 1957; as noted in my review of Giant Steps, I hear evidence of that awakening on that album, which came out in 1960; A Love Supreme was released in late 1964. By this time he had finally a way to express his experience; “Psalm” is essentially the outcome of his spiritual journey, a celebration of the higher power and the essential unity enabled by that power.
Porter refers to “Psalm” as a “relatively calm postlude” in which Coltrane delivers a “wordless recitation” of the poem that appears in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. Thankfully, Porter inserts the sheet music with the lyrics to the first lines of the poem to demonstrate how this works; the listener can take it from there.
What’s amazing about “Psalm” is how beautifully it flows without “a recurrent chord progression . . . not even a steady beat.” Even without those listening aids, a person hearing “Psalm” for the first time will notice echoes of the blues and gospel music, a feature that Porter was able to connect to the arched shape of each segment (“an ascending phrase, a recitation on one tone, and a descending phrase”). While this may or may not represent a deliberate attempt on Coltrane’s part to mimic the melodically-tinged sermons of African-American preachers, I do agree with Porter’s observation that Coltrane’s focus was to express the meaning of every word in the psalm through music (“serene on the word ‘beautiful,’ shouting out ‘He will always be'”). You hear a range of moods in his “voice,” but the entire recitation reflects a passionate sincerity tempered by humility. You get the feeling that Coltrane wants all of us to have this kind of awakening, to share in his joy, to revel in the essential unity of all things.
His fellow musicians allow Coltrane to have his moment, filling the background with cymbal splashes, timpani, basic and contrasting piano chords and soft bass lines that never distract the listener from the sheer beauty—the sheer humanity—of Coltrane’s recitation. I find “Psalm” a remarkably soothing and reassuring piece, a perfect ending to the story of an authentic spiritual journey.
And I do believe his journey was authentic and real, despite my discomfort with his references to “God” in the poem and his classification of “God” as masculine. I relate far more easily to the language contained in the mission of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco: “To paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth, and knowledge of the one true living God.” And I really identify with the sentiments expressed in their coronavirus message explaining the suspension of weekly church services: “It has never been more crucial for humanity to attain to the blessed state of Coltrane Consciousness, and indeed the struggle continues!”
I don’t know if the pandemic will teach us to appreciate the wonder of life and draw closer to each other or will be exploited by those in power to further divide us. I could see it going either way—either the virus will expose current power structures as inefficient, wasteful and fraudulent, or the people in power will capitalize on our fears to hasten our self-destruction. All I know for certain is that we will be listening to A Love Supreme every morning long after the restrictions have been lifted to remind us that we are all of the same spirit.
You might run across a few opinions here and there that attribute the demise of The Shirelles to the British Invasion. You might respond to that assertion by muttering to yourself, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
As soon as that utterance escapes your lips, I will appear out of nowhere and nail your ass. I will slap you silly and enjoy every minute of it. I will force you to fall to your knees and make you beg for mercy, which I will only grant if you agree to never say something that stupid again.
The problem with the theory is that it doesn’t make any sense:
- It doesn’t make sense because in February 1964, Beatlemaniacs were desperate for more Beatles than Capitol Records was willing to dish out. Despite the efforts of the Capitol legal team, the cash-strapped Vee-Jay label managed to release Introducing . . . The Beatles (a truncated, modified version of Please Please Me) at roughly the same time as Capitol was peddling Meet the Beatles (a truncated, modified version of With the Beatles). While Capitol held on to the #1 spot, little Vee-Jay’s entry remained at #2 for nine consecutive weeks. On that album, The Beatles covered not one, but two songs by The Shirelles (“Baby, It’s You” and “Boys”). Any profit-making organization in the universe would kill to get that kind of endorsement.
- It doesn’t make any sense because four months after the invasion began, another girl group topped the charts in the USA with “Chapel of Love.” A couple of months later—at the height of the British Invasion—The Dixie Cups were followed by The Supremes in locking down the #1 spot. Martha and the Vandellas and The Shangri-Las also made appearances at or near the top. Translation: there was still a healthy market for girl groups in the USA in 1964.
Nope, The Shirelles faded from public consciousness for two reasons: one, their songwriting contributor and collaborator (Luther Dixon) went elsewhere and management failed to supply them with solid material; and two, during the year of the Invasion, they found themselves in the middle of lawsuit hell with their record company (a company run by their manager) around a trust fund set up for the girls that mysteriously ran out of money. Members came and went (eventually Dionne Warwick joined the group for a spell), and though The Shirelles continued to deliver their wares with due professionalism, the material just wasn’t up to snuff.
But during their peak years from 1960-1963, The Shirelles firmly established themselves as a musical force, the girl group whose influence extended far beyond that limiting label. What makes their influence even more impressive is that unlike The Beatles, who wanted to “get to the toppermost of the poppermost,” or Charlie Parker, who aimed to take jazz to levels far beyond what any of the swing bands had in mind, the girls who would eventually form The Shirelles had no such ambitions; they sang together for the fun of it all. A teacher encouraged the girls to audition for the annual talent show and they agreed, calling themselves The Poquellos and performing an original composition they had created for the occasion. A classmate who attended the show encouraged the girls to meet with her small-time record executive mother, who had entered the music business because being a housewife bored the crap out of her. They told their new superfan they had no interest in going commercial and went on with their lives in Passaic, New Jersey. After months of pleading, the girls gave in, changed their name to The Shirelles and released the talent show single to modest acclaim. At that point, record executive mom sold her little record company and The Shirelles’ contract to Decca (while continuing to act as their manager). After two follow-up singles bombed, Decca dismissed them as “one-hit wonders” and gave The Shirelles back to mom along with $4000. Mom (Florence Greenberg) then formed a new record company (Scepter Records), hired a music marketing pro and a gent by the name of Luther Dixon to serve as A&R man. The Shirelles then released “Tonight’s the Night,” and the rest is music history.
The challenge of breaking into the Top 20 had nothing to do with the quality of the performers: the original lineup of Shirley Owens, Beverly Lee, Addie Harris and Doris Coley blended together beautifully and exhibited professionalism far beyond their years. While The Shirelles made the usual concessions to capitalism, they never really went all-in for the commercial aspect; their main concern remained the quality of the music. Though still in their late teens and early twenties, they demonstrated a healthy amount of assertiveness in the recording process, insisting on involvement in song selection and modification. While most artists in the lean post-Buddy Holly period targeted the white teen market, The Shirelles pushed back on songs that sounded “too white,” and even had the gumption to adjust a Carole King-Gerry Goffin song to broaden its reach. Their best and most famous songs deal with the real-world quandaries of teenage girls, and they sang those songs with genuine, heartfelt empathy. In those pre-Pill, proto-feminist, grow-up-and-become-a housewife days, music that revealed an understanding of the challenges faced by young girls growing up in a society that viewed them as inferior, second-class citizens was deeply appreciated by the teen girl population.
This collection is fairly faithful to the chronology, allowing the listener to experience the thrilling rise as well as the sad and avoidable decline of The Shirelles. So, without further ado . . .
“I Met Him on a Sunday (Ronde Ronde)”: This was their talent show song, a group composition recorded and released in 1958. It almost qualifies as a novelty song, describing the day-by-day progression of a teenage romance. Things are going well until the guy doesn’t show up on Friday; when he arrives on Saturday to pick up his date for an evening of (fill-in-the blank: movie, bowling, malt shop dancing, putt-putt golf), the girl says “Bye, Bye Baby” in an unintended tribute to legendary Giants announcer Russ Hodges. While the song isn’t particularly impressive, you have to give the girls credit for creating a performance piece that was a perfect match for the occasion: the story was easy to follow and the punch line guaranteed to draw a few laughs from a crowd yearning for a distraction to take their minds off those horrid, cold metal folding seats. What is impressive is the vocal presentation, with shared lead vocal lines each followed by doo-wop harmonic lines covering the range from contralto to soprano and executed with remarkable precision. “Geez, these gals sure can sing!” I hear someone say. “All they need is one great song and by golly, they’ll be on Ed Sullivan lickety-split!”
“Dedicated to the One I Love”: Well! Here’s a great song for you . . . what? It died at #83? What kind of alternative timeline is this?
Sorry, it’s not an alternative timeline. One of the most iconic songs of the era pretty much bombed in its initial release. The common explanation is that Decca didn’t know how to market a black girl group. My question is this: did Decca know how to do anything right in the 1960s? They dumped The Shirelles (American Decca) and passed on The Beatles (British Decca). Well, they did sign The Stones in the spirit of the old phrase “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” Fortunately for history, the new-and-improved Scepter Records re-released The Shirelles’ version as a follow-up to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” et voila! Success!
“Dedicated to the One I Love” was originally recorded and released by The “5” Royales, a jump blues/doo-wop band who contributed mightily to the origins of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’50s. Their version hit the shelves in 1957 and made it to #13 on the R&B charts. The Shirelles take on the song is pretty close to the original, and their desire to model that record may have manifested itself in the decision to give Doris Coley the lead vocal rather than Shirley Owens, who would sing lead on most of their hits. Doris has a big, brassy voice not unlike Eugene Tanner’s of The “5” Royales, though there are significant differences in phrasing and attitude. The first thing you notice when comparing the two is that Doris knew how to dial it down at the right spots while Eugene didn’t. The second noticeable difference is Doris had greater command of her vibrato, especially where you don’t expect it (like on the exiting vowel sound in the un-euphonious word “little”). Doris could also exit her path for a split-second, shift to conversational (“This is dedicated”) and glide right back into the melody. The tempo of The Shirelles version is a tad slower than the original, allowing the listener to savor Doris’ magnificent performance as well as the equally impressive contributions of the other girls in background and call-and-response modes. Of the three popular versions, The Shirelles’ take best captures the sound and feel of a teenage girl calling her favorite radio DJ and recording a dedicatory snippet addressed to this week’s crush.
The third version, of course, comes from The Mamas & The Papas and is absolute C-R-A-P. White bread overproduced insincere bullshit.
“Look A Here Baby”: This was the B-Side of “Dedicated,” a snappy little number again featuring shared lead vocal lines with heavy doses of tight doo-wop harmonies. The background harmonies in the bridge are particularly delightful, and while the song doesn’t have a strong enough chorus to qualify for the hit parade, it’s a damn fine B-side in an era known for really awful B-sides.
“Tonight’s the Night”: Great story behind the creation of this one, courtesy of BSN Pubs’ “The Scepter/Wand Story”. “(Luther) Dixon began rehearsing The Shirelles and working with them on songs. Before a recording session in 1960, Florence told them they needed another song, and to go write something. Shirley Owens asked, ‘When?’ When Greenberg answered, ‘Tonight,’ Owens replied, ‘Well, I guess tonight’s the night.’ She and Dixon worked on a song using that title, and it was ready for the next day’s session.”
The story behind the song isn’t so great: teenage pregnancy was at its peak in the USA in the late 50s/early 60s. It’s not difficult to understand why: The Pill was years away, sex education virtually non-existent, guys hadn’t adopted the habit of keeping a condom in their wallets and abortion was a back alley horror. Teenage hormones were oblivious to those limitations, leading to a dangerous situation in which the desperate cries of the dick and the clit, combined with relative ignorance, emotional immaturity and naïvete regarding the responsibilities of pregnancy, increased the likelihood of a girl getting “knocked up” and daddy reaching for his shotgun to consummate a face-saving marriage.
“Tonight’s the Night” pretty much captures the ambivalence from the female’s perspective; the only thing missing is hearing the guy ramp up the pressure by saying, “If you really loved me . . . ” She is reasonably concerned that her emotional motivations might lead to ruin and ridicule:
You say you’re gonna make me (tonight, tonight)
Turn the lights down low (tonight, tonight)
You said you’re gonna make me (tonight, tonight)
Feel all aglow (tonight, tonight)
Well I don’t know
I don’t know right now
I might love you so (tonight, tonight)I might love you so much
You may break my heart
I may want you so much
And all my dreams may be torn apart
Apparently, she decides to go for it, though her optimism about the outcome is countered by a troubled soul:
Let’s take a chance (tonight, tonight)
It’s gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Feel it in my heart now (tonight, tonight)
It’s gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Upsettin’ my soul (tonight, tonight)
Gonna be a great romance (tonight, tonight)
Let’s take this chance
The song has the strangest intro to any pop song ever—a weird, disconnected fragment of clunky bass, thin violin and drums. The duple meter rhythm borrowed from Baião was a risky but effective choice by Luther Dixon, anticipating the craving for Brazilian rhythms that peaked a few years later with Getz/Gilberto. Shirley Owens is marvelous in the lead role, supported by her always-on colleagues. “Tonight’s the Night” is a masterpiece of pop, combining danceable rhythm, a hummable melody and a meaningful story in less than two minutes.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”: Their first #1 hit (and the first by any African-American girl group) continued the exploration of teen sex, this time focusing on the trust angle. Their initial reaction to this Goffin-King creation was less than enthusiastic, as noted on The Shirelles’ fan website: “When Dixon received the song, he was overly excited about it. However, the girls were not. They felt that Tomorrow appealed to white audiences alone and did not cut across all divides of race. For instance, they felt it was too country for them.” The girls agreed to do the song only after Luther Dixon consented to their suggestion to add a string arrangement—but even with the added violins, none of the Shirelles believed they had a hit on their hands.
Supported by the strings another marvelously arranged and perfectly executed background vocal arrangement, Shirley Owens delivered a lead vocal that comes as close to perfection as any lead vocal can get. Playing the role of a more assertive and uncertain girl than we heard in “Tonight’s the Night,” Shirley sings with a palpable measure of detachment, as if she’s having the conversation with her suitor at arm’s length. As such, she tempers her emotions so that the emotional impact will land on the listener, which is as it should be. The lyrics themselves are a bit awkward from a metrical standpoint, but Shirley covers for them so well we don’t even notice. Her phrasing on certain lines—“Can I believe the magic in your sighs,” “You say that I’m the only one,” and the unwieldy “Is a love I can be sure of”—is exquisite. And though I usually abhor the Mantovani-Mancini strings of the early ’60s, the string arrangement here is restrained and highly complementary.
It doesn’t surprise me (though I wish it did surprise me) that the song was banned by some radio stations in the U.S. and U.K. for its “sexual content” and “description of a one-night stand.” Yeah. Like ignoring the issue and pretending it doesn’t exist will stop teenagers from having sex. Got it.
The thing that troubles me about both “Tonight’s the Night” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is the implication that the responsibility to stop the proceedings before they go too far lands solely on the girl. Whether it’s teenage hanky-panky or rape, the broad always gets the blame. I’ll also admit that when I hear the line, “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes,” I want to scream, “That’s not love, that’s testosterone! Run for your life!”
“Boys”: I’ll say up front that I love the version by The Beatles. I love Ringo’s energetic vocal and I even love George’s post-modernist guitar solo. It’s an absolute gas! I will point out that the Wikipedia contributor who wrote the piece on this song is off-the-mark when he describes The Beatles’ cover as one that “bears many similarities between Ray Charles’s hit ‘What’d I Say’, particularly during the chorus verses.” Beyond the inappropriate use of the word “between” by failing to specify the comparative, the truth is that Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell used the same chord progression as “What’d I Say” and The Shirelles’ take is far more similar to the Ray Charles classic because of the omnipresence of piano. The Shirelles’ version is classic proto-soul grounded in R&B while The Beatles’ rendition was pure rock and roll designed to blow the walls off The Cavern. One could argue that the growling sax solo from King Curtis gives The Shirelles the edge, but really, both recordings are keepers.
The one “defect” in the Fab Four presentation is the half-hearted attempt at gender-bending. McCartney offered a suitable explanation in a 2005 Rolling Stone interview: “Any one of us could hold the audience. Ringo would do ‘Boys’, which was a fan favourite with the crowd. And it was great — though if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song. I think that’s one of the things about youth — you just don’t give a shit. I love the innocence of those days.”
“Mama Said”: And the hits just keep on coming! The Shirelles are on top of their game in this Luther Dixon-Willie Denson number that features another superb lead vocal from Shirley and the soulful precision The Shirelles always brought to their background vocals. The intro featuring the girls harmonizing with the horns is one of their strongest openers and mama’s message is spot-on. The Shirelles lived in an age when the primary mission of a young woman was to get married and crank up the baby assembly line ASAP. When Shirley sings, “Chapel bells are callin’ for everyone but me,” she’s expressing the pervasive fear among girls of the era that if they stayed on the market too long, they’d hit some kind of expiration date and earn the label “old maid” (something they were reminded of every time they played the old Victorian card game where you learned to avoid “getting stuck with the old maid”). Although the girl has the hots for a guy named Billie Joe, mama urges caution and dismisses the “need” for a girl to marry young as utter nonsense:
And then she said someone will look at me
Like I’m looking at you one day
Then I might find
I don’t want it any old way
You go, mama!
“What a Sweet Thing That Was”: This was actually the B-side of the next song on the album, and is fully deserving of B-side status. The production is seriously over the top and Shirley’s phrasing is unusually stiff as she tries to navigate the equally stiff Latin-esque rhythms. Unfortunately . . .
“A Thing of the Past”: The A-side isn’t that much better and suffers the same problems of poor rhythmic flow and ridiculously lush production. The single feels like management was attempting to expand The Shirelles reach into the easy listening market, as evidenced by the roughly simultaneous release of an album entitled The Shirelles Sing to Trumpets and Strings.
No, no, no and no!
“Big John (Ain’t You Gonna Marry Me?)”: I have no idea how or why two “Big John” songs were released in September 1961. Neither had anything to do with JFK and my research yielded no evidence supporting the theory that Americans had become enamored with larger toilets. Whatever the cause, the winner of the competition was Jimmy Dean, whose “Big Bad John” went all the way to #1 while The Shirelles “Big John (Ain’t You Gonna Marry Me?)” hit #21 on the Billboard Pop Charts and #2 on the R&B side.
“Big John” features a rollicking beat, an odd choice for a song where the girl is left waiting at the altar. The lyrics don’t reveal if the girl has something cooking in the oven, but the lines “My folks know you’ve jilted me/I’m ashamed to show my face” imply that the façade enabled by the girl not showing yet is about to collapse. Shirley adds some oomph to her vocal during the stop time passages but something tells me that The Shirelles were more comfortable and at their best with the slower numbers.
“Baby, It’s You”: Luther Dixon used a pseudonym for his co-writing credit here, perhaps because he was nervous that working with Burt Bacharach and Hal David might damage his R&B cred. Whatever, dude.
While the song doesn’t have the more complex jazz-oriented chords that mark many a Bacharach composition, Burt does go off-script by starting the verse with the IV chord (Eb) instead of the root (Bb) and compromising resolution by refusing to stay on the root at the end of the verse, quickly shifting to the complementary minor chord (Gm). The emphasis on the minor chords in the transition lines gives the song a melancholy, bluesy feel and the expansive melody offers a tremendous opportunity for a singer willing to go for it. Shirley Owens does just that, giving a highly varied and remarkably nuanced vocal loaded with dynamic shifts ranging from conversational asides to belt-out mode. Though the album tells you to expect twenty-five songs, there are actually twenty-six tracks: the compilers included both a mono and stereo version of “Baby, It’s You.” If you really want to appreciate Shirley’s vocal, listen to the stereo version, which gives her an open playing field on the right channel. Though I think the mono mix works better in comparison, the clarity assigned to Shirley’s voice in the stereo mix serves as an exceedingly pleasant form of education in vocal phrasing, controlled dynamics and that elusive quality known as command.
“Baby, It’s You” is obviously a great slow-dance number, but I do resent the intrusion of male background singers burying The Shirelles. One note of caution regarding the stereo mix: turn the volume down a few notches when the song nears the organ solo. That sucker is loud.
“The Things I Want to Hear (Pretty Words)“: Uh-oh. Syrupy strings always trigger my internal alarm bells, and in this case, the alarm bells are more than justified. The Shirelles were simply not designed to do Jerome Kern.
“Soldier Boy”: In 1962 the number of those in active military service on behalf of the USA (not counting reserves) stood at 2.8 million. Given the numbers of WWII and Korean veterans, it was pretty likely that everyone in America knew someone who was in the service, had left the service or was praying that they wouldn’t get the call from the draft board.
All that data meant that a sentimental song about missing one’s beloved while he was in the service would likely do very well in what had become a very pro-military country. The Shirelles played the part of the ever-faithful chick keeping the home fires burning for her man in uniform and played the part so well that the song became their second #1 hit.
Congratulations on the success, girls, but this is probably my least favorite track on the album. The music is rudimentary, like the first song written by a fifth-grader who has taken three piano lessons. The rhythm is so clop-along-little-dogie that I’m stunned that the girls didn’t reject it as being too country-western. The harmonies and unison singing are nice but the song structure forces the girls into a rhythmic straitjacket, turning the vocals into something you might hear from the fifth-grade choir. In the middle of the song is what Tom Breihan of Stereogum called “a plinky-plonk go-nowhere guitar solo” that could have been played by a fifth-grader who heard Duane Eddy three times. “Soldier Boy” doesn’t seem to be a song worthy of The Shirelles’ talent, but they did it, it went to the top of the charts and what the hell do I know anyway.
Another thing that pisses me off about “Soldier Boy” is that none of The Shirelles received songwriting credit despite making THE major contribution to the song. The original was a collaborative effort by manager/executive Florence Greenberg and lead songwriter Luther Dixon titled, “I’ll Be True to You.” They gave the song to The Shirelles, who made one teeny weeny change: they turned the song into a story about a girl missing a soldier.
Yes, that’s right. The original “Soldier Boy” mentions no soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines. No hussars, Red Army, Wehrmacht or confederate rebels. Not even a mention of the followers of popular golfer Arnold Palmer, a group known as “Arnie’s Army.”
If you think a fifth-grade song about missing some unidentified loser boyfriend would have shot to the top of the charts, let me sell you a bottle of my coronavirus cure. Without the soldier, you’ve got bupkis! The Shirelles should have received songwriting credit and the fattest royalty check in history!
“Welcome Home, Baby”: The follow-up to “Soldier Boy” made it into the Top 30, not bad for a follow-up. The music is classic early 60s slow-dance, displaying a strumming pattern similar to that presented by the girl-group-influenced Beatles in “This Boy.” The song features a far more interesting chord progression than “Soldier Boy,” and the girls sound great, tackling the more complex harmonies with ease and grace. The song opens with two turns of the girls harmonizing “There is no place like home,” then goes on to describe a particularly dull day in the life of a housewife:
Well, at ten o’clock
I was lonely and blue
At twelve o’clock
I thought of nothing but you
From two o’clock
Till a quarter of four
I waited patiently
To hear your footsteps at the door
It is very tempting to interpret this song as a pointed protest of female repression, but there are two obstacles to getting there. First, the song was written by a man (dear old Luther) who also co-wrote “Soldier Boy,” a tribute to those women who faithfully wait. Second, instead of reaming the bastard who has given her such a meaningful life, she welcomes him home with open arms. Still, there is something in the tone of The Shirelles that hints they might have been playing dumb . . . but I think that’s probably wishful thinking on my part. All the supplementary evidence indicates that the phenomenon of the “bored housewife” gobbling down drugs to retain her sanity came to light years later in a variety of psychological studies and The Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.”
But then there’s that line about “That little stain on your lips/Where honey drips.” Was the guy dipping in another woman’s honeypot? Nah. Can’t be.
“Stop the Music”: Stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere . . . girl has party . . . invites her guy . . . her guy winds up with another girl . . . girl is devastated. If that sounds like Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” well, you’re right! It’s also the plot behind “Stop the Music.” The Shirelles’ busted party song came out a year before Lesley’s, but even with that edge, Lesley’s tale is musically superior. The difference is obvious: Quincy Jones produced “It’s My Party” and I don’t really care who produced “Stop the Music” but they should be jailed for musical manslaughter. The ridiculous strings and absurd piano crescendos will serve as Exhibits 1 and 2.
“It’s Love That Really Counts (In the Long Run)“: The B-side of “Stop the Music” is another Bacharach-David composition sharing some of the same production flaws of the A-side but to a lesser degree. The bright spot here is the quality of the harmonies, falling like a welcome, gentle rain and blending beautifully with the lead vocal.
It was roughly at this point in 1962 timeline that Scepter owner (and still Shirelles manager) Florence Greenberg found her shiny new thing in the form of Dionne Warwick, who had provided the lead vocal on one of Bacharach’s demos. Greenberg signed her to a contract and rushed her first single to the market in August 1962 (“Don’t Make Me Over”). Warwick’s debut almost broke into the Top 20, but more relevant to the story is that it outperformed “Stop the Music,” which stalled at #36. The Shirelles now had competition for management care and feeding.
“Everybody Loves a Lover”: Luther Dixon took Doris Day’s more swing-oriented hit and used Barbara George’s “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” as a rhythmic template to push The Shirelles back into the Top 20. Doris Coley returns to the lead vocal spot, delivering a spirited vocal I’ll describe as “secular gospel.” An unfortunate switch to group vocals following the sax solo weakens the song’s soulful feel, but on balance, it’s a pretty solid number.
Though he did some pre-production work for their next single (and earned half-credit for production), this was Luther Dixon’s farewell to Scepter Records and The Shirelles. Dixon’s departure and Florence Greenberg’s fascination with Dionne Warwick would soon result in a noticeable drop in the quality of material sent their way . . . but first, The Shirelles had one last fling with chart success.
“Foolish Little Girl”: The Shirelles’ last trip to the Top 10 is a morality tale from Brill Building pros Helen Miller and Howard Greenfield that begins with a spoken word introduction from Doris Coley:
You broke his heart and made him cry,
And he’s been blue since then.
Now he’s found somebody new,
And you want him back again.
What follows is a mini-play featuring three roles: The Voice of Wisdom (played by Shirley Owens), The Foolish Little Girl (portrayed by Barbara Lee) and The Greek Chorus (obviously a group effort minus Barbara). The casting is perfect, as Shirley’s confident and commanding Voice of Wisdom contrasts beautifully with the childlike voice of Barbara Lee playing the sadistic dingbat. The Greek Chorus appears from time to time to call bullshit when The Foolish Little Girl attempts to offer a defense for her ultimately cruel behavior:
The Voice of Wisdom: Foolish little girl, fickle little girl, you didn’t want him when he wanted you. He’s found another love, it’s her he’s dreaming of and there’s not a single thing that you can do.
Foolish Little Girl: But I love him.
Greek Chorus: No you don’t it’s just your pride that’s hurt.
Foolish Little Girl: I still love him.
Greek Chorus: If you got him back again you’d go right out and do him dirt.
Not exactly Shakespeare, but surprisingly effective . . . and it sounds like the girls had a lot of fun with the theatrics. The music is quite advanced for the time, with repeated use of a minor seventh chord combination that serves to enhance the tragi-comic quality of the mini-play. The spoken word intro would soon become a staple of the girl group genre, and prove particularly effective in songs by the “tough girl” ensembles like The Angels and Shangri-Las.
Their performance on “Foolish Little Girl” showed that The Shirelles still had it and that not only could they handle more complex material but that they seem more engaged doing it. Instead of throwing them challenges, management began tossing them a few crumbs—second-rate songs made worse by substandard production. The last seven songs in the collection are both unmemorable and frustrating—frustrating because you get flashes of unrequited potential that prove The Shirelles were capable of so much more. These include Shirley Owens’ let-it-rip vocal on “What Does a Girl Do?”, the sensitive background vocals on “His Lips Get in the Way” and the energetic call-and-response featured in “Maybe Tonight.” The problem wasn’t the performances, it was the dated, stilted, limiting material. The chart pattern beginning with “Foolish Little Girl” in early 1963 and ending with “Maybe Tonight” in late 1964 demonstrates the effect of gross mismanagement: 4-26-53-57-69-63-88. To add insult to injury, their release of the Oscar-nominated title song from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—a terrible mismatch for their talents—peaked at #92.
One can only imagine what The Shirelles might have achieved had they not become victims of mismanagement and comparative neglect. It’s healthier to focus on what they managed to achieve the triumph of overcoming the many obstacles they faced. In Jacqueline Warwick’s fabulous study Girl Groups, Girl Culture, the author points out that one of the most significant but generally unacknowledged obstacles facing the girl groups was the label itself—“girl group” implies something soft, cuddly and inconsequential. Warwick argues that The Shirelles and the other young female vocal groups of the era managed to overcome that stigma and generate an impact that still resonates to this day: “The well-known girl groups of the 1960s are clearly archetypes of girlness set to music, so much so that their musical vocabulary, choreographed moves, and matching outfits, as well as many of their actual songs, have transcended their initial social and historical context and continue to be significant forty years after their original moment.”