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.”
I would love to live in a world where Annette Peacock was honored and celebrated as one of the greatest artists of our time. Sadly, the current state of affairs was captured in the title used for the re-release of one of her earlier efforts: I Belong to a World That’s Destroying Itself.
As I write this, the hands on the Doomsday clock have moved to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest we’ve ever been to self-destruction.
We arrived at this point because our world is now controlled by authoritarians who tear up treaties, replace fact with misinformation and prey upon a host of human fears: fear of people who are “different,” fear of change, fear of learning anything outside one’s comfort zone. Authoritarian leaders exploit those self-destructive tendencies, for the weaker we are, the stronger they get. The irony is that history tells us authoritarian leaders are as self-destructive as their followers. Self-destruction is grounded in the fear of losing control, so self-destructive leaders want to control everything and everyone, an impossible task. Eventually, karma catches up with them, but not before they make the world miserable for everyone else.
These leaders know that the human Achilles heel has been and will always be our fetish with familiarity, as manifested in the twin desires to resist change and surround ourselves with people who are “like us.” This fetish represents the height of stupidity from an evolutionary standpoint. Species who fail to adapt to changing circumstances die, period. Authoritarian leaders focus the attention of the populace on the unchangeable past, encouraging them to view life through the gauze of nostalgia—a perspective that accelerates the process of self-destruction.
Most relevant to the subject of this week’s essay is the sad truth that people hell-bent on self-destruction have no interest in the arts beyond its commercial value (see Goering, Hermann, noted art collector and authoritarian toady). The arts represent the highest form of human endeavor, the quest for originality, the search for truth/beauty. Great art makes you think, feel and question. Authoritarians don’t want people to think, feel and question, so they create distractions to keep the populace in line—distractions that represent the lowest forms of human endeavor. War. Patriotism. Demonization. Fear. Superstition.
Self-destructive dynamics wreak havoc on all of us, but they are particularly problematic for the artist. While dysfunctional societies and inhuman behavior provide the artist with plenty of interesting material (and the opportunity to enlighten the populace about their suicidal tendencies), society’s quest for conformity devalues and demeans the artistic quest for original self-expression. While some artists have been punished for the crime of original thought, the more common response is the cold indifference grounded in the self-destructive society’s lack of curiosity. John Doran’s interview with Annette Peacock for The Quietus opened by describing her as a “stone-cold original,” then succinctly explains why she continues to toil in relative obscurity:
There’s often no prize for coming first in music. The preternaturally talented composer, ear-boggling singer, intuitive multi-instrumentalist, vocal manipulation innovator and pioneering synthesizer early adopter, Annette Peacock knows this more than most. During an interview she tells me that every time she makes an album she feels like it’s the right statement for the time but it turns out never to be the right statement for the market of the time. Markets are big amorphous, slow moving bodies that perhaps don’t always respond well to mercurial outlier innovation in music. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing at the right time but then it turns out I’ve been 20 to 40 years too early”, she says laughing.
That laugh may mask some disappointment, but as you read Annette’s responses in the interview, it becomes obvious that truth and artistic freedom are “sacrosanct” to her. Every artist seeks some form of validation, but the true artist refuses to allow creation to become dependent on validation.
The twisting road that eventually led to X-Dreams defies everything you thought you learned in The Byrds’ classic “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Annette had released the album I’m the One back in 1972, an amazing, innovative record that the record-buying audience largely ignored but caught the attention of an RCA labelmate by the name of David Bowie. Bowie invited Annette to join the Aladdin Sane tour, a golden opportunity that she politely declined. Accepting the rebuff, Bowie arranged to have her sign with his management company, who placed her on the far back burner but gave her unlimited studio time she could use whenever inspiration struck. She described the recording process (if one can call it that) in a later interview with The Quietus:
The publisher provided free studio time and I began to use it. I’d brought a tape of a song ‘My Mother Never Taught Me How To Cook’ and I called Mick Ronson to overdub some guitar angst. A lot of musicians in London had heard that there were going to be sessions and just showed up. There ended up being 22 musicians in total on X-Dreams. Most of them had never played together, and all the tracks were first takes. It was very exciting.
Jeez—talk about ballsy! The guys on Kind of Blue had at least played together when Miles Davis challenged them with modality, and Miles did allow multiple takes. What she didn’t mention is that the recording and mixing sessions took place over a period of four years. 99 out of 100 producers would have labeled her approach “a complete waste of valuable studio time” and filed her away in the manila folder marked “Nutcase.”
But you know what? The album is damned exciting. The number of recording glitches is much smaller than one would expect in a series of first takes, and the level of musicianship is outstanding. Despite the lengthy, choppy recording “process,” the gestalt is one of unity, of shared inspiration. X-Dreams is a remarkably engaging record, a full-on aesthetic experience that confirms Annette Peacock’s stone-cold original status.
I’ve read several reviews of X-Dreams, some okay, some bloody awful and a few that cross the line into horny male obliviousness. What none of the critics (all male, by the way) seem to notice is that pesky little “X” in the album’s title. Now, I know this is going to hurt, but just for a minute, think back to your years in secondary education and try to remember a class called “Biology.” Somewhere in those unpleasant memories of Petri dishes, microscopes and flunking the weekly quiz there might be a scrap of an engram in your brain labeled “Mendel.” Yeah, yeah—the pea plant guy. Good! Now, do you remember how those pea plants led to at least one lecture on something called “Genetics?” That’s right—X’s and Y’s! You are obviously a biology rockstar! Now, what do the X’s and Y’s mean? “Something about which kind of baby it is?” Yes, that’s right. And when the baby has two X chromosomes, what kind of baby is going to pop out of mommy?
No, not a boy. It’s sad, really. Girls have matching chromosomes X + X. That’s why girls are perfect. Boys don’t match, they’re X + Y. That’s why boys are defective and never match their socks with their shirts or their belts with their shoes. We should feel sorry for boys, and we would if they weren’t the authoritarian assholes mentioned above who are determined to send us all to early oblivion.
X-Dreams is an exploration of the dynamics in male-female relationships from a heterosexual woman’s point of view. From a lyrical standpoint, X-Dreams is a quest for understanding, an attempt to resolve the opposing drives (attraction/repulsion, love/cruelty, together/apart) that make the female-male relationship endlessly alluring and frustrating. “The idea with X-Dreams was to approach the LP as a single, like each side was one piece. Side A very hard and aggressive and Side B very romantic and kind of sweet, really,” asserted Annette, and while that may be true for the prevailing musical mood on each side, the lyrical content is consistently ambivalent, dichotomous, uncertain, unresolved . . . and beautifully truthful.
The lyrics certainly deepened my appreciation of the album, but it was the music that immediately grabbed my attention. X-Dreams is often categorized as “jazz fusion,” an ill-defined genre if there ever was one (I don’t know how anyone can listen to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Blood, Sweat & Tears and tell me they’re two peas in a pod). The best fusion albums combine the improvisational freedom of jazz with the libido-tingling stylings of rock and R&B, and by that definition, X-Dreams qualifies. To really pull off fusion, you need instrumentalists who combine deep knowledge and appreciation of musical foundations and who know how to “play,” both literally and figuratively. Annette managed to attract some of the best musicians on the planet, a seemingly motley crew of different styles and strengths who left their egos in the reception area and devoted themselves to the creation of great music. The credits include “name” players like Bill Bruford and Mick Ronson and superb session men like Ray Warleigh and Chris Spedding. You put top-flight musicians together with a versatile, commanding and distinctive vocalist/composer like Annette Peacock, and baby, you have a jazz-rock fusion masterpiece.
X-Dreams kicks off with “My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook,” a low-simmer blues/funk piece that represents a statement of defiance and liberation on multiple levels. The song has no discernible structure in the traditional sense; the “verses” vary in length and form and there is nothing that even resembles a chorus. Annette’s phrasing is largely off-beat; she rarely bothers to hit the notes in the “right” places but instead goes wherever her musical and emotional instincts lead her, confident that the boys in the band will hold things together. The delivery is a combination of understated alto, soaring soprano and street talk punctuated with pregnant pauses that invariably lead to double entendres. The outcome is one of the most unusual coming-of-age stories you will ever hear—unusual because her description of growing up follows neither convention nor linearity, resulting in a story that is more true-to-life than the classic coming-of-age assertion that everyone goes through the same stages of development at roughly the same time.
That her mother never taught her how to cook or clean tells us she wasn’t raised to be June Cleaver. As she moves to the influence of the men in the family, she leaves us with a trail of bread crumbs that hints at possible sexual abuse by either brother, father or both:
My mama never taught me how to cook
But my brother, now, my brother he taught me how to . . . eat
Daddy never taught me to s-s-suck-seed (succeed)
That’s why it’s so crazy, crazy, crazy
Daddy never taught me how to succeed
That’s why I’m so unselfish
Nice little dig at capitalism there, reinforced by her admission that she was “not good at the wheeling not much better at the dealing.” She then asserts, “But I’m a fantastic ride,” and whether that’s a comment on the validation she received from the men in the family or an embrace of her sexuality is for the listener to decide. After the equally ambiguous line, “Yeah, my daddy never taught me how to succeed but my brother taught me how to turn the other cheek,” the band slows the tempo for a few bars to give the listener time to take it all in. When the foundational beat returns, Annette shifts tone and delivery, emphasizing the recurring phrase “That’s why” in soprano to frame her explanation of how she became the woman she is.
Never had no one to believe in me
And that’s why I’m not so sentimental
Never had no one to say, “Yeah, you’re right, you’re beautiful and free, it gets me high to see you fly, to fulfill yourself, and I’m behind you, I’m there even though it’s not me that’s satisfying you and I’m not afraid that I’ll lose you to your own freedom”
That’s why I’ll never be tame
I’m not rational and secure don’t have that confident assure that I’m cosmic in the touching
Never had no one to believe in me
Even though you know my brother gave me a head . . . start
Even though you know my brother gave me a head . . . start
The guitar in that passage (I’m guessing it’s Ronson) expresses more tension than relief, a combination of sweetness and dissonance that mirrors both the enlightenment and the experience of a dysfunctional family. The passage ends with another downtempo shift marked by a terribly sexy guitar and the culmination of Annette’s coming of age. Free from the noise from the family of origin, Annette has arrived at a space where she is impervious to the bullshit of classic male mating ritual behavior:
And I’ve had men say, “Hey babe, your love is the greatest show on earth, and hey baby, I’m your man with the perfect plan and I’ll give you everything your heart desires, I want you, and I’ll give you everything you dream, everything you need, just let me get close to you, I want you, hey baby, I want to suck your honey, I wanna cop your conception, take your energy, absorb your vibe, preach your philosophy, I wanna become you, I want you and I want you to die so I can be you. Hey, come over here and give your sweet vampire some love. I’m your man. Come over here and pay your landlord some dues. And hey babe that’s what I call love and that’s what I call a relationship—-now do you want to get it on?”
And I say, “Hey man, my destiny’s not to serve. I’m a woman. My destiny is to create.”
Man, I’d wish I’d written those lines. I think I could use another tat.
I’m pretty convinced that the critics who have commented on “Real and Defined Androgens” didn’t really listen to the lyrics. Here are some selected shorts from one of the more enthusiastic responses: “One of the sexiest songs ever written . . . low slung dangerous funk that would just as soon knife you as fuck you . . . Peacock flaunts her vast range, mostly reciting detachedly erotic lyrics . . .”
I won’t name the source to avoid embarrassing the poor bastard, but just calmly point out that “one of the sexiest songs ever written” describes (in excruciating detail) a guy masturbating to a porn mag:
He makes the scene . . . Vaseline
Sometimes conscious and packaged androgen
Perhaps he finds a kind of purity, preferring not to wait, her petals flowering too hot
Refusing her garden, betraying his home
And oiling his machine he works it . . . hard . . .
Rides himself to foam . . .
A magazine in the other hand betrays the airbrushed dream of perfection
A connection which demands that the soul of femininity
Supplant itself into the shell which offers itself to the fancy
But man betrays himself with the seductiveness of media . . . distortion becomes a thrill . . .
Impervious, he ponders his seed of no destiny . . .
He half-dreams her, reams her taut, rotten body
Caught at the wrists
The twisting thrusts to the rhythmic beats like the sound of a whip drowning in the waves of sensation
Abandoning himself to the abstract contact takes him closer to his senses
Further from defenses to the absolute surrender he craves
The lyrics—especially that last passage—use intensely erotic imagery to underscore the emptiness of the fantasy. There’s no contact, no closeness, no merging, just a fucking fantasy based on “abstract contact.” The music is superficially sexy, just like the airbrushed babe in the foldout.
Androgens, by the way, are mistakenly identified as “male hormones.” The truth is androgens (like testosterone) exist in both men and women. I think what Annette is driving at here is there are natural causes for triggering testosterone (real) and culturally-sanctioned catalysts (defined), and those culturally-sanctioned catalysts are the ones we need to worry about. Men are under tremendous pressure to “stand up and act like a man,” which usually translates to “be tough” or “be aggressive in your pursuits.” Because many men have been trained to view women as objects, property or pieces of ass, dehumanization is a socially-acceptable stance for the male half of the species. Jacking off to a porn mag dramatizes the dehumanization, taking it to another level entirely.
When I tell you that “Real and Defined Androgens” features a grand total of two chords alternating back and forth for eleven minutes, you might conclude that the music is the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture. Au contraire! The music is frigging brilliant! There are few songs that build tension as magnificently as “Real and Defined Androgens,” and the impact is similar to a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The basic pattern is F-F# and back again and again and again. Half-step moves always express tension by their very nature, but the scales in use are blues scales, adding a double serving of tension through their flatted notes. As the song progresses, the band increases the volume one decibel at a time (or so it seems); as the volume increases, the players gradually move from modest riffs and understatement to more intricate solos and counterpoints—screaming sax, thrusting power chords, bashing drums, flying piano. Occasionally the musicians play tricks with your ears by shifting the emphasis of the note in a given “chord” away from the root to the third or fifth, making the descending move sound like the elevator’s going up and the ascending move like the elevator’s going down. The ultimate act of tension creation comes from Annette herself, who remains largely cool and calm while all this drama is building up around her, keeping her flights of soprano to a bare minimum and delivering her narrative in a voice marked by detached curiosity. “Real and Defined Androgens” is pure and simply a masterpiece of musicianship and the testimony to the immense potential of improvisational musical collaboration.
Side A ends with “Dear Bela,” an expansion of the metaphor used in “My Mama Never Taught Me How to Cook,” namely, “Hey, come over here and give your sweet vampire some love.” The depiction of male-as-vampire here is based on 18th and 19th-century tales of vampires seducing and despoiling maidens, one of the most curious inventions of the human mind. “A vampire stole my baby” is just a more imaginative display of the same emotions expressed in many rock and country songs from the mid-20th century (“Bye Bye Love” is a good intersectional example). “‘Isn’t love the greatest gift?’ the vampire thinks before he sucks the juice,'” Annette wails in the final verse, having already challenged that supposition in the chorus:
And is it love you feel at all?
Or is it the fear that makes you so mean to me baby?
Or is it the hate that gets you off?
Toxic masculinity has an infinite number of mutations.
The music is somewhere between small-combo Harlem jazz of the 1930’s and Charles Mingus, with tight harmonies (Harlem) and the integration/reinterpretation of early jazz and blues (Mingus). There is a touch of the diva in Annette’s vocal, reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s my-man-has-done-me-wrong numbers.
The music on Side B is “kind of sweet,” as Annette put it. And while it is more “romantic,” she explores her own conflicting feelings about love while not entirely ignoring the challenges presented by insecure men trying to “be real men.” In the definitely romantic “This Feel Within,” her vocal oscillates between half-whispered spoken word and melody, frequently within the same musical line. The delivery and the lyrics communicate doubt about her ability to hold such powerful feelings for a man:
Is the distance harder than this closeness closing in on me
I’m lost in your love and can’t begin to show or to hold this feel within
So I thought I might fuse the beauty that I see in you, the melody in that . . .
It’d tell you better than I could how much you mean to me
Since you play the song, chew on the heart, tell me what I really feel
I fall apart when he’s for real
The feel of the music is swank night club, with a shimmery synthesizer providing a satiny background for outstanding contributions on piano, flute and guitar. The liner notes don’t attach the players to specific songs, but whoever is playing that guitar is the guy I want in my band—the oscillating sustains melt me every time I hear them.
“Too Much in the Skies” explores the expectation-defying experience of an intimate relationship with a creative type. True creatives have no tangible connection with time or convention, so you can’t expect such a person to meet you at the corner espresso stand Wednesday at 12:30 . . . or show up on time for your flight to Vegas . . . or return your phone calls within a week. When a true creative is in the zone, there is nothing you can do to shake them out of it—the guilt trips you throw their way bounce off like their auras are made of plexiglass. According to the wisdom found on dating sites, creatives make terrible partners because they are inherently unreliable and deceptive.
Annette struggles with those stereotypical projections but is also capable of perceiving the potential advantages:
My love has a soul of a poet
I’m losing control and I know it
My dreams have come true, I won’t change him
One change might undo or estrange him
His promise is all he can promise . . .
And all I need do is to love him and let it be me whom he’s dreaming
This is sweet, romantic and perfectly pragmatic. How can you truly love someone if you can’t allow them to be who they are? The music is soft funk emphasizing piano, bass and faintly Latin drums; the chord pattern is similar to something you might hear in mid-period Steely Dan. Annette’s vocal alternates between breathiness and her gorgeous deep tones, eschewing the occasional bursts of soprano. At first listen, this is about as close as Annette gets to “adult pop,” but the nine-syllable lines she sings defy standard meter (and no, they’re not anapestic trimeter). In any case, the result is the most purely beautiful song on the album.
Annette’s version of Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” is a complete reconstruction that bears little resemblance to the Elvis original and the “rhythmic insistence” of the stutter-step boogie-woogie beat featuring Bill Black on double bass and the “bop-bops” of The Jordanaires. The beat here is still syncopated but smoother, and the rhythm takes several turns away from the main beat as the song progresses. The Elvis version featured the classic major, minor and seventh chords used in 99% of rock songs; the reconstruction substitutes major seventh and minor seventh chords for the expected fourths and fifths. The melody undergoes a complete overhaul, in part due to the change in chord structure but primarily because Annette follows her emotional and musical instincts to leap octaves or tone it down to a low-register whisper-in-the-ear sex kitten purr. The arrangement features an outstanding growling sax solo tinged with greater jazz sensibilities, and Mick Ronson (confirmed) absolutely kills it in the fade with a solo designed to put even a celibate in the mood to get down and dirty.
The words are pretty much the same with two important differences. Annette dispenses with the “let’s walk to the preacher” verse; when I try to imagine her delivering that verse in the context of the album, it just doesn’t ring true. All the other lyrics remain intact but take on a completely different meaning when sung by a woman, particularly in the context of a record that (in part) explores the cruelty of the male half of the species. When Elvis sang “don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true,” he only had to fear rejection, not getting the shit beaten out of him. Though it sounds like Annette is having the time of her life with this piece, the sentiments of “Dear Bela” linger in the background. Intentional or not, the effect is rather chilling.
X-Dreams closes appropriately with a song called “Questions.” We all go into relationships with baggage, largely in the form of insecurities. When that special someone assures us that they will love us forever, we may experience momentary relief but those insecurities ensure the relief is of a transient nature. Annette refers to “the silent past to which I’m bound still holding me,” likely the many disappointments she has experienced (that we’ve all experienced). The questions she poses, though, cast doubt on not only the partner’s ability to “be true,” but her own depth of commitment:
If I could love you more than I do
What could I give you to make me true?
If you believed me
What would you say?
How would you leave me?
What would I be?
The song is in the form of a waltz, giving the music a cast of romantic nostalgia. Annette’s “sweet” tone glides beautifully through the expansive melody, and the last sound we hear is the fade of that lovely voice.
The fact that much of Annette Peacock’s work over a period of nearly forty years is hard to come by is a crime against humanity. Her oeuvre is expansive and diverse, and I’ve never been bored by an Annette Peacock album. Some are exciting, some are deep and some (like An Acrobat’s Heart) a perfect complement to a grey Sunday afternoon. X-Dreams is definitely one of her best, a tour de force that represents two qualities we could use in bulk during this self-destructive phase: artistic integrity and creative spontaneity.