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.”
If you want to hear truly great music from 1959 to 1963, forget about rock ‘n’ roll. Head over to the jazz section instead.
While jazz gave us masterworks like Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, Time Out, Mingus Ah Um, Free Jazz, Sketches of Spain, The Bridge and more, rock ‘n’ roll limped along on life support. While there were some promising developments on the R&B side of life, rock ‘n’ roll had become watered down, maddeningly predictable and dreadfully safe.
The primary virtue of the popular music during this period is that it stands up pretty well when compared to today’s over-produced, over-marketed, over-technologized shit that dominates the airwaves and video channels. The artists seemed more genuine, humble and less full of themselves, largely because few of them could get rich in an era of artist-unfriendly royalty and session payments and a touring system that made it challenging for many artists to break even. I’d take any of these folks over greedy, egomaniac losers like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry . . . even Brian Hyland and his Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.
My father’s collection during this period was a triumph of quantity over quality. Since there are few lawns to mow in San Francisco and no kid in his right mind would take a paper route that forced you to ride your bike over steep hills through freezing fogs, dad was lucky to have a father with a construction business, enabling him to earn the princely wage of a fifty cents an hour on Saturdays and five days a week during the cold summer months in The City. He spent nearly all his earnings on records, baseball gear and, later in his teens, concerts. The sheer quantity of sides is mind-boggling when you consider that he didn’t start buying his own records until November 1961; the records before that date were either inherited from his brother or the result of sometimes shrewd trading. The best of the bunch are covered here and in my reviews of The Beach Boys‘ Sounds of Summer, Dion and the Belmonts’ Greatest Hits, the Smokey Robinson segment in the Motown Series and in Roy Orbison’s Playlist.
But jeez maneez, there was a lot of crap in that pile! Sugary, sappy Elvis singles. Loads of forgettable dance hits. Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” Jimmy Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” Neil Fucking Sedaka. “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” by Charlie Drake. “Johnny Angel” by Shelly Fabares AND “My Dad” by Paul Petersen. “Hey Paula” by Paul and Paula. The Lettermen, for fuck’s sake.
And no less than four Brian Hyland 45’s, INCLUDING “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.” And he traded for it!
I’m thinking of having that senseless act engraved on his tombstone.
Of the twenty-eight 45’s I selected, only two, maybe three, qualify as rock ‘n’ roll. The best of the rest come from girl singers, girl groups and African-American artists (also heavily represented in the girl singer and girl group categories). Soul was clearly moving into its prime—you can draw a straight line from the music of this era to the golden period of Motown, Stax and Atlantic. On the flip side, if someone had told you back in 1962 that rock ‘n’ roll would soon be rescued from oblivion by four guys from Liverpool, you would have immediately concluded that the guy had a screw loose somewhere. No one—especially no one in the United States—could see The Beatles coming. All the signs pointed to an early demise for rock ‘n’ roll, and none of the artists of this period came close to reigniting its smoldering ruins.
Then again, everyone assumed that JFK would be president for eight years before turning the reins over to Bobby. No one could foresee that America would piss away its resources, its moral standing and more than 50,000 young men in an Asian jungle . . . but we’re getting way ahead of our story. Let’s return to 1959, to the waning days of the Eisenhower administration when Vietnam was a tiny zit on America’s ass and the U. S. A. was a happy, benevolent and generally peaceful place where everything went according to plan (thanks to the C. I. A.) and the future would be one of endless progress as long as those durned Negroes didn’t stir up too much trouble.
“What’d I Say Parts 1 and 2,” Ray Charles, July 1959: The experience of listening to this 45 felt like I’d stepped back into the age of The Flintstones, when Fred had to power his stone-wheeled car with his feet. Because the seven-and-a-half minute recording exceeded the 3-minute max rule imposed by radio, the producers decided to split it up into two parts on two separate sides, whacking a few “shake that thing” passages in a vain attempt to cool down the heat generated by Ray and The Raelettes. Maybe if I had been born in the 50’s I wouldn’t have thought it a hassle to get my ass out of the seat and turn the record over to hear the rest of the song, but this girl found the experience intensely annoying and worthy of the heartfelt “oh, for fuck’s sake” I flung into the ether. The experience was like having a guy bang me with all his might only to suddenly pull out for a minute to trim his toenails.
Tip: Don’t fuck with the 45. Get the full version and have a great fuck.
From the electric piano intro to the visceral sounds of the call-and-response between Ray and The Raylettes, “What I’d Say” works on two levels. For the technical connoisseur, “What I’d Say” is the blessed marriage between gospel and R&B that spawned a new genre called soul music. For the person who seeks enjoyment through music and couldn’t give a damn about origins, influences or classifications, “What I’d Say” is a ringing endorsement of more open sexual expression in music. As Ray famously said, “I’m not one to interpret my own songs, but if you can’t figure out ‘What I’d Say’, then something’s wrong. Either that, or you’re not accustomed to the sweet sounds of love.” The exchange of pre-orgasmic vocalizations punctuated by Ray’s screams of delight express far more sexuality than the clever euphemisms permissible in the era. “What I’d Say” is sexual heat turned into music, and given my active libido, it should come as no surprise to my readers that I fucking love this song.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Connie Francis, August 1959: Concetta Franconero was the girl all the girls wanted to be, thanks in part to the name change that turned her into the more WASP-ish Connie Francis. Like Patsy Cline and Ruth Brown, she entered the public eye after recording a song she couldn’t stand, “Who’s Sorry Now?” She followed that monster hit with a couple of clunkers, then turned to Neil Sedaka for “Stupid Cupid,” a vacuous piece of tripe that cracked the Top 20 and made her the darling of the squeaky clean rock ‘n’ roll set. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was supposed to be her follow-up hit to the perfectly silly “Lipstick on Your Collar,” but it never charted higher than the low 30’s. Well, screw that! This is my favorite Connie Francis song! Possessing one of the most purely beautiful voices to ever grace the recording studio, what makes “You’re Gonna Miss Me” stand out is her phrasing, full of marvelous off-rhythm lines and subtle pauses that lend a palpable sincerity to her performance. Her repetition of “miss me” in the song’s climax sounds like a woman fighting the pain of rejection with all her might while begging the guy who kicked her to the side of the road to feel some regret about losing her. An exquisite performance!
“Poison Ivy,” The Coasters, August 1959: I’m not a huge fan of The Coasters, as I think most of their stuff crosses the line into novelty. My dad has a few of their 45’s, and I chose this Leiber-Stoller number because it was the least “cute.” I do like the diversity of their voices and their collective energy, and the integration of Latin touches adds a bit of spice. Still, I feel rather blah about the song, and I think Jerry Leiber’s fifty-years-later claim that “Poison Ivy” is about venereal disease is absolute horseshit, a lame attempt to make the pop songs they wrote seem more socially significant than they were.
“Money (That’s What I Want),” Barrett Strong, February 1960: There are two famous versions of “Money,” and both are first-rate performances. The Beatles’ version is lustful, greedy madness; Barrett Strong’s original is more cynical and street-wise—an attitude of “That’s the way the world works, so get over it.” I get seriously hot and bothered by the pounding toms backing Barrett during the verses, and find myself enthralled by Eugene Crew’s distorted guitar licks. This Janie Bradford-Berry Gordy composition turned out to be Motown’s first hit (on Tamla), and for that alone we should be forever grateful.
“Walk, Don’t Run,” The Ventures, July 1960: Instrumental music was much more popular during the 50’s and 60’s than it is in our rap-infested present. Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place” (1960) and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” (1962) were the best-selling singles in their respective years. Whether cause or effect, one noticeable cultural difference between those days and ours (noticeable when you’ve spent as many hours I have studying American cultural history through film and television) is that the people back then spent a helluva lot more time whistling and humming. When I shared this hypothesis with my dad, he agreed: “Yeah, when you were working or waiting for someone, you’d either whistle or have a smoke if you were old enough.” In the twelve years I’ve spent in the modern office-bound workforce, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone whistle on the job, and the only person I’ve ever heard humming is me. If true, the many wordless records of the period served a valuable purpose by supplying committed whistlers and hummers with new tunes to keep them sharp.
The instrumentals mentioned above definitely fall into the easy listening camp, but the kids had their instrumentals, too. Those instrumentals largely placed the guitar at the forefront. While the impact of Bill Doggett, Bill Justis, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale and The Ventures wasn’t particularly noticeable during this down period of rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of those guys who became guitar heroes after the British Invasion restored rock to pre-eminence learned their chops by trying to replicate the sounds and moves they heard in “Raunchy,” “Rebel Rouser” and “Walk, Don’t Run.”
The Ventures’ version of “Walk Don’t Run” is vastly different from the original Johnny Smith composition, a cool jazz number that would likely be completely unrecognizable to a Ventures fan. The Ventures based their version on Chet Atkins’ cover, a sweetly-picked, laid-back rendition.
You would never connect the phrase “laid-back” with The Ventures’ version of “Walk, Don’t Run.” The opening rimshot-laden snare roll must have aroused the hell out of listeners used to the sonorous sounds of The Fleetwoods, and once you think things are about to settle down with the shift to the ONE-two-three-four rhythm and a brief rhythm guitar chord intro, Bob Bogle enters the fray and delivers a whammy-bar punctuated, slick-picking extravaganza. The sheer speed of The Ventures’ version is breathtaking, and while they would release multiple versions of the song over the years (including disco and metal versions), the original is the one that influenced a generation of budding guitarists who would change rock forever in the years ahead.
“Runaway,” Del Shannon, March 1961: Geez. If it feels like it took a helluva a long time to get to a genuine, certifiable rock ‘n’ roll song, you’re right! On the other hand, if “Runaway” is all you have to keep the faith, you’re in pretty good shape. This song has everything—a killer arpeggiated guitar intro, a no-holds barred vocal from Del, and the curious sound of the Musitron, the invention of one Max Crook, who had been one of Del’s mates in a band with the incredibly long name of Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band. The song moves like wildfire, never letting up until the fade. “Runaway” is two minutes and seventeen seconds of bliss that makes you want to hear more Del Shannon. You may want to rethink that after flipping the disc to hear “Jody,” where Del sounds like he’s ready for his last rites. The lack of quality material plagued Del throughout his career, but in “Runaway,” he gave us one of the greatest songs in rock history, no small achievement.
“Runaway” was a must at our annual family bashes, with my uncle (the guy who gave my dad his 50’s records) taking the lead vocal and doing a damn fine job with it . . . until the falsetto peak in the chorus. Yours truly stepped in and filled the gap, and after a couple of years they called on us to perform by shouting, “It’s time for Big Del and Little Del!” For a while my dad used that as my nickname until I threatened to forever damage his sexual prowess with one swift kick, so he switched to “sunshine” in honor of my blonde mane and perpetually sweet disposition.
“Mother In-Law,” Ernie K-Doe, April 1961: Not all songs in this era were about loves gained, lost or left at the laundromat. Some songs dealt with genuine threats to social stability, and if you watch the sitcoms of the period, there was no greater threat facing the American people than . . . the Mother-in-Law. Ralph almost lost Alice when he called her mother a “BLABBERMOUTH” and Ricky lived in mortal fear of Lucy’s. The mother-in-law was a comic meme of the period: everyone knew she was the ultimate symbol of evil.
Allen Toussaint’s lyrics are a stinging indictment of this dreaded presence, and (after several takes), Ernie K. Doe finally connected with the bitter, semi-comic animus in those words. Shee-it, does Ernie let her have it! “The worst person I know.” “Satan should be her name.” “Sent from down below.” Whoa, Ernie! His bitterness finally coalesces into an action plan in the last verse when she questions his masculinity. You see, back then, real men had to earn money to validate their machismo:
I come home with my pay
She asks me what I made
She thinks her advice is the constitution
But if she would leave that would be the solution
And don’t come back no more
One more thing: I don’t know who that is singing the low bass refrain but I proclaim now that he’s the greatest singer who ever lived and I want to fuck him.
“Travelin’ Man”/”Hello Mary Lou,” Ricky Nelson, April 1961: Rick Nelson is often dismissed as a relic, a teen idol during a relatively dull period in rock history, a privileged son of show business parents whose fame was based more on regular television exposure than genuine musical talent. You can file that perception into the “bullshit” category, for Rick Nelson not only loved music but took it seriously at a very early age, long before displaying his talents on Ozzie and Harriet. He could have sold millions of records based on fame and looks alone, but instead of settling for mediocrity, he insisted on working with the best musicians and recording professionals of the era (and had the resources to secure their services). While his vocals lack the energy of Elvis or Little Richard, he knew how to work within his limitations. He wasn’t a great rocker, but he did okay for himself.
This was a double-sided hit, and I prefer the original b-side, “Hello, Mary Lou,” to “Travelin’ Man,” for two reasons. First, Rick Nelson has absolutely zero credibility playing the role of a man who journeys around the world bonking babes in every port of call. Second, while he does a yeoman’s job with the vocal on “Travelin’ Man,” it is more than obvious that he is much more comfortable and energetic with the rockabilly sway of “Hello, Mary Lou.” Once he stopped being Ricky Nelson and had a little freedom, he would move decisively in that direction.
“Travelin’ Man” does present us with a question. Why wasn’t Ricky Nelson hunted down by white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan? In “Travelin’ Man” he does the deed with a Mexican chick, an Asian chick and a Pacific Islander. That’s interracial sex! Filthy miscegenation! Sure, he slips it to a German broad, but she was probably a dominatrix! That pervert! And wait, wasn’t it sinful even for a man to have premarital sex back then? Shit, man, if Rick Nelson were alive today and released this song, the Christian Right would be all over his wandering ass!
“Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, April 1961: #1 for not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six . . . but seven consecutive weeks! Bobby Lewis had learned his craft from the great blues singers, and he put his lessons to work in an exceptionally energetic all-out performance. The background singers are a bit stiff in comparison but a minor distraction when Bobby Lewis is on fire. The horn section knocks it out of the park on the stop-time bridge in one of the tightest ensemble performances on record. I pronounce myself both surprised and almost elated that such an energetic song could have such a strong appeal to a rather dull generation of Americans.
“Quarter to Three,” Gary U. S. Bonds, May 1961: It may not be garage rock, but it’s got the primitive sound and unrestrained energy of “Hey Joe” by The Leaves (which I’ll cover in Part Four). Gary competes with Bobby Lewis for Most Energetic Vocal of 1961 and gives him a good run for his money. One of many songs in this period recorded in a party atmosphere, what separates the song from the other party songs of the era is . . . you really want to be at this party! Step aside, folks, I’ve got to shake my thing! Do the Mashed Potatoes! Twist like we did last summer! Bartender! Another highball on the rocks!
“Stand By Me,” Ben E. King, May 1961: I was totally pissed when I found my father’s vaunted collection did not include my #1 favorite Ben E. King song, “Spanish Harlem,” but it’s hard to stay mad when your back-up is “Stand by Me.” King wrote this with Leiber-Stoller (they were EVERYWHERE in the 50’s and 60’s), using what would be called the “50’s Progression,” a I-vi-IV-V pattern you hear in dozens of songs, from Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby” to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” “Stand by Me” masks the pattern somewhat with a subtle arrangement opening with bass and handheld percussion, later supported by strings that are poured on a little too thick for my tastes. But I don’t listen to “Stand by Me” for the string arrangement, but for Ben E. King’s jaw-dropping vocal. Man, if ever a guy deserved to leave a group and go solo, it was Ben E. King. Ben used Sam Cooke as a model for his vocal, and his passionate plea for unconditional love combines the best of gospel and R&B. The timelessness of Ben E. King’s version is unquestioned; it was a top ten hit in two separate decades with a 26-year gap between releases.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, November 1961: Forever honored as my father’s first music purchase, I asked him to describe what appealed to him about the song. “The guys singing ‘Wimoweh.’ I just loved those syllables and the way they snapped out the word. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.” The Tokens transformed an old South African folk song into a doo-wop masterpiece, and even this anti-silliness chick found herself getting caught up in the excitement generated by the arrangement. And there in the background, without much in the way of credit, you can hear the lovely voice of opera singer Anita Darian on counterpoint. Damn fine piece of work.
“Shake Your Money Maker,” Elmore James, December 1961 (uncharted): The crown jewel of dad’s collection of this era, I was absolutely stunned to see the orange and black Fire Records label in the pile. “How did you get your hands on this?” I screamed. “You’re not going to believe it,” he laughed. “I was walking through the Fillmore one day and found this half-assed yard sale—a bunch of junk spread out over the front stairs—and I caught a stack of records leading against one of the steps with Elmore James right on top. I picked up the record and the woman who was running the sale said, ‘That’s the devil’s music. You take it away, white boy, you take it away and you go to the devil.’ I thought she was giving it away and so I took it and started to leave and she screamed, ‘Five dollars!’ I didn’t have five dollars, but I gave her two bucks and some change and she seemed okay with it.”
That now makes four times my dad got lucky: meeting my mother, having me, winning an Aretha Franklin record on a call-in radio promo and finding an original Elmore James single.
I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review. Yes, even I have my limits.
Elmore James was fire personified, and his sessions with Fire Records were absolutely fierce. The covers of this song not only pale in comparison, they fucking vanish. This song rocks with such intensity that it takes your breath away . . . and it ends way too soon. Legend has it that Elmore and his band, The Broomdusters, would play this song for thirty minutes straight and leave the crowd begging for more. Shit, I would have come at least fifteen times! The band is tight, the rhythm rollicking and Elmore’s slide substitution for the dirty deed is an irresistible tease. Some feminists may object to the prostitution implications, but most feminists are women in need of a great fuck to get them back in touch with their moneymakers. It’s a source of power, you idiots! I made my dad promise me he would leave me “Shake Your Moneymaker” in his will when he kicks the bucket. Goddamn, what a song!
“Duke of Earl,” Gene Chandler, January 1962: The only way to explain “Duke of Earl” to the aliens is to tell them that it’s a testament to the attraction of human voices melding together in song, because the lyrics are flat-out silly. In the role of self-proclaimed Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler’s regal arrogance is patently absurd, and we’re not exactly sure what this dukedom of his is all about. Is it a fantasy of a struggling nobody or the ravings of a megalomaniac? I mean, Gene actually sounds like he’s strutting through his country estate wearing his dukely robes (or whatever dukes wear), pointing out the sweep of the landscape to the girl he intends to transform into a duchess. Ridiculous!
Okay. To listen properly to “Duke of Earl,” you have to shut down the analyst in your brain completely. You cannot question Gene’s sanity. You have to believe he is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Shh! Shh! Just sit back, relax and listen to the voices.
Cool, huh! I bet you started singing along with the second round of “duke-duke-duke-of-earl!” You can’t help yourself! And yes, when Gene ends the verses with the “yay, yay, yay, yay,” you try to belt it out along with him! And now Gene doesn’t sound silly—he’s a man completely immersed in his role, and his goal is to make his life sound as grand and enticing as possible so he can secure his duchess for all eternity. What a romantic!
It also helps to remember that “Duke of Earl” started out as a joke. Once upon a time there was a guy named Eugene Dixon who sang with a group called The Dukays, was warming up his voice with a “do-do-do-do” pattern along with another Dukay named Earl Edwards. Eugene started riffing on the pattern, and thinking of the name of his singing buddy, out came “du-duke-duke-of-Earl.” The pair then worked out the full song with songwriter Bernice Williams and The Dukays recorded it. The record company refused to release it under The Dukays’ name, but gave Eugene the option of releasing it as a solo artist. He then slipped into a phone booth, changed into a duke’s costume and out came Gene Chandler, The Duke of Earl.
Okay, I lied about the phone booth, but the rest is true.
“Duke of Earl” works because the singers were fully committed to making it work; it is the wonderful sound of human voices uniting to create a compelling tapestry of sound.
If you’re still having a hard time explaining this to the aliens, show them this clip from the NYPD Blue episode, “Large Mouth Bass.” I used to watch the show religiously when I was a teenager because I loved the character of Andy Sipowicz and I had a serious crush on Jimmy Smits. If the aliens don’t get it after watching this scene, you can assume that they’re really dumb aliens and you don’t have to worry about them taking over the planet.
“The One Who Really Loves You,” Mary Wells, March 1962: The artistic marriage of Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson produced a string of hits for Mary, all the way up to and including her signature song, “My Guy.” My dad has all her hits, and I had considered doing a piece on Mary for my Great Broads series, but it was just one too many depressing female life stories for me to deal with in a series full of depressing life stories. Choosing one single was challenging, and originally I had planned to do “Two Lovers” based on my extensive experience with simultaneous multiple intimate relationships. Sounded like a natural for the altrockchick! The problem I ran into is that the song isn’t as daring as the title implies, for in the end you find out that there aren’t really two lovers but one lover with a split personality.
I chose “The One Who Really Loves You” for Mary’s commanding vocal, supported by Smokey Robinson’s brilliant production featuring deep-voiced background vocals from The Love Tones and instrumentation from the original Funk Brothers, who would provide most of the great supporting music during Motown’s peak years. As is true with most Smokey Robinson songs, the chord structure is far more interesting than most of the songs of the era, with verses that begin in C major resolving to a Dm7, and a very clever pattern on the bridge that winds up on G major to create a more natural link to the verse. The premise that you can talk a horny young guy out of wanting to bang every piece of ass that comes his way is profoundly silly, but Mary sells it with her extreme confidence in herself.
“Bring It On Home to Me,” Sam Cooke, June 1962: While Sam Cooke’s pop songs are a mixed bag, I’ll take “Wonderful World” over most of the pop in that era because even when the material is spotty, that’s Sam Cooke singing, and it doesn’t get much better than that. In “Bring It On Home to Me,” he managed to integrate the feel and structure of gospel into a popular music format, and the result is one of the great songs of the era. Incredibly, the song barely made it out of the gate—Dee Clark turned it down when Cooke offered it to him, and when Cooke released his version, “Having a Party” was the A-side. It’s obvious that both Sam and his old gospel buddy Lou Rawls are in the groove, but they avoid trying to match each other note for note, giving the song a more natural, let’s-sit-around-the-piano-and-sing kind of feel. The song has been covered a billion times (okay, not a billion, but it feels like it) but no one has surpassed the original and no one ever will.
“The Loco-Motion,” Little Eva, June 1962: Yes, my dad has most of the dance records from this era. He’s got Dee Dee Sharp doing the Mashed Potatoes, he’s got Bobby Freeman doing The Swim, he’s got The Orlons Watusi-ing around the dance floor, and yes, he’s got Chubby Checker, twisting, pony-ing, limbo-ing and twisting, twisting and twisting himself into a pretzel.
I loathe them all.
The shining exception to the Dance Tunes Suck rule is Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion.” Another tune from Gerry Goffin and Carole King, they pitched the song to Dee Dee Sharp as a follow-up to her smash hit, “Mashed Potato Time.” Adhering to the limited culinary norms of the time, Dee Dee decided to stick with mashed potatoes and went with a song called “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)” that pierced the Top 10 and is completely forgotten today. Running out of options, the pair turned to their babysitter, who had recorded the demo, and Eva Boyd of Belhaven, North Carolina, became Little Eva, pop star.
“The Loco-Motion” was an unusual dance song in one key respect: the dance did not exist when Goffin and King wrote the song. Little Eva covered for them and made one up on the fly. I suppose they had to have a dance to go along with a dance song (duh), but I’ve listened to the song a hundred times and never once felt motivated to do the Loco-Motion or even bother to learn the moves. What makes “The Loco-Motion” a great song is a fabulous arrangement combining sax drone, an ass-shaking beat, spot-on background vocals (featuring Carole King) and Little Eva’s enthusiastic, confident and unpolished vocal—and I mean “unpolished” in the most positive sense of the word. Little Eva sounds like Everygirl, just like Danny Rapp sounded like the kid you knew from high school on “At the Hop.” No one tried to Eliza Doolittle-ize her by cleaning up Eva’s accent or sharpening her pronunciation, and she sounds marvelous.
“The Loco-Motion” is the only song to make the Top 10 in three different versions in three different decades. Grand Funk Railroad’s version topped the charts in 1974 and Kylie Minogue’s rendition made it to #3 in the late 80’s. That’s a tribute to the strength of the song itself, but Little Eva’s version will always be #1 in my book.
“If I Had a Hammer,” Peter, Paul & Mary, August 1962: My dad has always been something of a folkie. His daughter isn’t—at least not an American folkie. I love folk music, just not American folk music. The exceptions to the rule are artists who were a bit quirky, like Phil Ochs and Malvina Reynolds. My favorite folk traditions are British, Irish and Bulgarian. I find nearly all the American folk heroes you care to name too preachy, too political, too sentimental or too obvious.
I had to pick one single from the mix to acknowledge the existence of the folk revival in the early 60’s, and I liked this one the best, primarily because Mary Travers takes the lead vocal and the two boring guys with the beards are relegated to the background. I find the lyrics to this Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song completely inane, and that’s coming from a confirmed socialist. The line I find most absurd is “I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.” People! The day when we all put aside our differences and love one another ain’t ever gonna happen! Do you even like everyone you’ve met in your life? I don’t! And even if I could learn to like the grumpy old woman who runs the boulangerie or the guy who ripped me off by selling me my piece of shit first car, I’m never going to love Donald Trump, members of ISIS or Jimmy Swaggart! Not in the realm of possibility! It’s already hard enough to get people to accept other people with superficial differences like skin color or buy into the fact that there are different ways for adults to manifest love and affection. Personally, I’d hammer, ring and sing about having the freedom to live my own life in peace without having to be afraid of getting my head blown off by some mentally ill religious wacko who has been programmed to believe that I represent evil because I wear lipstick and reveal my cleavage. I’ll take that freedom and run with it!
“He’s a Rebel,” The Crystals (er, The Blossoms), September 1962: Phil Spector deserves credit for the technical advance known as the Wall of Sound, which provided more depth and oomph to records in an era when a producer had to deal with the severe limitations imposed by AM radio and monaural sound. He was also a flaming asshole who treated artists like shit. “He’s a Rebel” confirms his status as both a trailblazer and major league jerk.
Gene Pitney (a much better songwriter than a singer) wrote “He’s a Rebel” for The Shirelles, who took a pass. Phil Spector was interested in having The Crystals record the song, but heard through the grapevine that a version by Vikki Carr was in the works, and damn it all, The Crystals were out on tour and couldn’t possibly make it into the studio before Vikki stole Phil’s thunder. Such a conundrum presented no problem for a man with no sense of ethics, so Spector had a local group named The Blossoms record the track and then released it under The Crystals’ name.
That’s called balls, and if I’d been the lead singer of The Crystals, Phil Spector would be missing his.
That lead singer, Barbara Alston, couldn’t mimic the sound of Darlene Love, the lead singer of The Blossoms. Truth be told, Barbara wasn’t really all that comfortable as the front girl, so she stepped aside in favor of fellow Crystal Dolores “La La” Brooks. The shift would bear fruit in 1963, but jeez, what a shitty way to implement a personnel decision.
Despite the hoo-hah, I love the song and the production. The message was intensely appropriate for a culture hell-bent on conformity:
He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good
He’s a rebel ’cause he never ever does what he should
But just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does
That’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love
You go, Barbara . . . er, Darlene!
“Up On the Roof,” The Drifters, November 1962: There has never been a group with a name so suited to their history. The Drifters were as much a concept as a real group due to innumerable lineup changes over the years. Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King are best-remembered as lead vocalists, but “Up On the Roof” featured a guy named Rudy Lewis, who would later sing lead on the mega-hit “On Broadway.” Rudy died right before The Drifters were scheduled to record “Under the Boardwalk,” at the age of 27. His vocal on this Goffin-King urban fantasy is superb: you can hear the relief in his voice when he reaches his hideaway after a hard day at work; you can hear his voice expand as he surveys the expansive rooftop view. It’s a fine piece of work, but I find it curious that a song describing an experience limited pretty much to New York and a few other big cities could touch the hearts the millions of listeners whose families were part of the great white flight migration from the cities to suburbia that would continue for decades to come.
“The End of the World,” Skeeter Davis, January 1963: If you’re looking for evidence that American teenagers of the era were narcissistic drama queens capable of manufacturing tragedy from trivia, look no further than Skeeter Davis’ monster hit about getting dumped. This girl is in serious need of long-term therapy:
Why does the sun go on shining?
Why does the sea rush to shore?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
’cause you don’t love me anymore?
Why do the birds go on singing?
Why do the starts glow above?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
It ended when I lost your love
Whoa! You expect the whole world to stop functioning just because your pimply boyfriend decided to take a powder? You think you’re the only person in the history of the world who has experienced rejection? Out of billions of guys on the planet, only this one adolescent can give your life meaning? I knew that the parents of Baby Boomers were famous for coddling their kids and trying to give them things they couldn’t have when they were kids, but this broad doesn’t need parental patience and understanding—she needs a virtual whack upside the head!
I asked my dad why he bought this horrid confessional so diametrically opposed to the way he and my mother raised me. He snapped, “She has a nice voice. Don’t read too much into it.” Translation: dad had a crush on Skeeter Davis. He’s always been a sucker for the lost puppy act.
“Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home),” The Crystals, April 1963: Okay, these are the real Crystals . . . I think. I really don’t trust Phil Spector. Anyway, this is a great Wall of Sound recording with some very intense drumming that foreshadows the more energetic styles that would emerge after the British Invasion. As for the lyrics, all you need to know is Phil Spector co-wrote the song and he never wanted lyrics that would draw attention away from his production.
Skeeter wasn’t the only narcissist on the scene.
“Hello Stranger,” Barbara Lewis, May 1963: Blissfully we move on to a female vocalist with talent equally as impressive as the more famous and feted Connie Francis. Barbara Lewis has one of the few voices that melt me. For those of you unfamiliar with period vernacular, when someone melts you it means that someone’s presence, scent, moves, voice or touch ignite a swooning feeling that sets your heart all a-flutter. Barbara Lewis does it to me every time with her unique voice that combines depth, sweetness and sensitivity. The choice between this piece and “Baby I’m Yours” was a coin flip—I love both songs with all my heart, and both songs make me swoon in ecstasy. “Hello Stranger” has stronger backing vocals, and the deep baritone voices contrast beautifully with Barbara’s alto. My love and I often slow dance to Barbara Lewis after a romantic evening, a sweet and tender experience that balances the delicious aggressiveness of our style of lovemaking.
“One Fine Day,” The Chiffons, May 1963: “He’s So Fine” may be the more iconic hit, but I find the “doo-lang, doo-lang” riff intensely irritating. This second “fine” song, also written by Goffin and King, was produced by The Tokens of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” fame, and boy, did they do one helluva job! The rhythm is more intense, the doo-wop syllables are better balanced by harmonies and the arrangement encourages lead singer Judy Craig to soar to the heavens. While I’m getting pretty tired of boy-meets-girl-now-we’re-gonna-get-married songs at this point in the story, I can’t deny the genuine joy in The Chiffons’ performance.
“Be My Baby,” The Ronettes, August 1963: Brian Wilson was obsessed with this song and admitted to playing it over 1,000 times. Brian Wilson apparently has a lot more stamina than I do, because I could barely stand to listen to it three times, my minimum listening requirement before I place my fingers on the keyboard. Yes, I get the whole Wall of Sound thing, but this is a boring song with insipid lyrics and Ronnie Spector can’t sing worth shit. All the other lemmings in the music business followed Brian over the cliff, with Rolling Stone ranking it #22 in one of their greatest songs of all-time lists (a list that changes frequently in accordance with updates to their marketing strategy). “Be My Baby” is another addition to my “influential records that suck” list (which includes some works by Brian Wilson).
“Louie, Louie,” The Kingsmen, November 1963: YEAHHHHHHHHHHHH! Finally! Sloppy, sassy, cheeky, who-gives-a-fuck rock ‘n’ roll! A certified, FBI-investigated act of rebellion!
The Kingsmen version is indeed a sloppy mess, and just like a big juicy cheeseburger slathered in oodles of catsup and mustard, a thoroughly satisfying sensual experience. The essential immediacy of the song accounts for its timeless appeal. What you hear is the first and only take. There are no overdubs or engineering tricks—it’s like you stepped into their garage just as they ended the countdown. About a minute into the song, the drummer drops a stick and yells, “Fuck!” The lead singer comes in too early on the last verse and the drummer covers for him. The rest of the band is thrown off by the mistake and shifts to the chorus a line early. All kinds of fuck-ups! Just like a real garage band! I love The Kingsmen!
The slurred lyrics have created a slew of mondegreens (misheard or misinterpreted lyrics that are unintentionally funny). My dad still insists that the line, “See Jamaica, the moon above,” is really “Stick my finger in the hole of love.” The FBI investigated the song and failed to find any of the obscenities they had hoped to expose. Apparently, they couldn’t understand any of the lyrics! Your tax dollars at work! And dig this—I read the FBI file on the investigation and noted several redactions where passages are crossed out with a big fat Sharpie. Wow! “Louie, Louie” had national security implications! Well, knock me over with a feather! The Kingsmen were true subversives of the highest order, for they wanted us to forget our stupid problems, get down and party. Take that, historical stream of American Puritanism!
Speaking of patriotism, when I lived in Seattle and attended Mariners games (yeah, they sucked but they were the only team in town), they’d play “Louie, Louie” after the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch. I would always jump out of my seat and and dance, and once they flashed me on the big screen! My 5.6 seconds of fame! I would argue that “Louie, Louie,” devoted as it is to the good American tradition of party-til-the-cows-come-home, is much more patriotic than the despicable “God Bless America,” a song that should be banned forever for its violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
So yeah, no matter how many times I hear “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, I get energized, I shake and shimmy, and I feel completely, wholly, absolutely and unconditionally thrilled to be alive.
“Dominique,” The Singing Nun, November 1963: As soon as I picked up the disc, my dad leapt to his defense. “Before you start ragging on me, remember—I was still a practicing Catholic and I’d just gone through Confirmation the previous summer. This came out right after JFK’s assassination, so I was feeling pretty religious around that time.” “Okay, dad,” I said, having no idea what to expect since I hadn’t heard the song since I was a kid and had forgotten all about it.
So I gave it three spins, did some research and finally had a reaction: what the fuck? “Dominique” was a worldwide hit, climbing to #1 in several countries, even countries where Catholics were a distinct minority and French speakers were even more scarce. Just like The Beatles, The Singing Nun (aka Jeanne Deckers aka Soeur Luc-Gabrielle aka Soeur Souirire aka Sister Smile) appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (though there was a noticeable absence of screaming during her performance). How on earth did a mini-bio of St. Dominic set to music with lyrics that only a small percentage of buyers could understand take the world by storm? I mean, it wasn’t like she was one of those hot nuns you see in gothic porn fantasies, smoking cigarettes and brandishing whips—she was a rather plain Belgian lady completely devoured by her habit and free of any sinful lipstick or blush. The song is rather boring, with six verses and a chorus repeated seven times, all combining to tell us how St. Dominic humbly waged war against liars and other assorted sinners.
The best explanation I’ve read was that the song’s success was some kind of mass atonement for JFK’s murder. I had no idea that Catholic guilt was so contagious. From now on, I’ll cross the street if I happen to stroll by a Catholic church and run like hell if I see a nun.
The phenomenon of The Singing Nun didn’t end with a hit single. There were movies, some sanitized, some spurious. Jeannine Deckers, bless her heart, became something of a rebel, releasing a song in 1967 that celebrated the advent of The Pill. Departing the convent, she moved in with another woman and commenced a long-term lesbian relationship. Desperate for cash after the Belgian government socked her with a huge tax bill, she tried to rekindle her fame with a disco version of “Dominique” in 1982. It bombed, in large part because all she did was sing the same song with the same phrasing in the same rhythm with a cheesy disco music track in the background. Facing financial ruin, she and her lover committed suicide in 1985.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. The Singing Nun’s supporting album was unceremoniously excommunicated from the top of the charts by the blessed arrival of The Beatles . . . who would soon be more popular than Jesus!
“You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore, December 1963: My dad made a surprising comment when I pulled this record out of the sleeve: “You wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Lesley Gore.” That remark ignited a long conversation between father and daughter, and because I found his story so intriguing, I asked him to summarize what “You Don’t Own Me” meant to him and how it changed his life:
This song came out after a couple of years of puberty, at a time when the sexes were pretty segregated. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and we’d really only see girls when the parish held a mixer. So all the guys hung out together and the two big topics of conversation were sports and girls. With girls, we were passing on the myths handed down to us by our parents and often reinforced in the pop songs of the day. Stuff like, “You gotta keep a girl in her place,” and “You can’t let a woman make a fool out of you.” The basic attitude was that girls needed us more than we needed them, and that all they had to do is look pretty, don’t say anything stupid, or even better, don’t say anything at all. There was a definite implication that girls were the lesser half of the species—pretty things to have around and show off to your friends, but not to be taken seriously.
Just try to imagine me trying to get close to your mother with that kind of attitude. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. I may not be alive!
Even though I went along with the guys and repeated the same old bullshit, part of me knew that the myth didn’t jive with my experience. I’d met a lot of girls who were smart, had interesting things to say and were pretty damned competitive. I was caught in between expectations of what it means to be a man and the nagging truth of my own experience.
Lesley Gore straightened me out. When I first heard that song, I froze—I don’t remember what I was doing, but I just froze and listened. Hell, the way they clear the scene for her, you can’t help but pay attention! When she sang those lines–“And don’t tell me what to do/Don’t tell me what to say/And please, when I go out with you/Don’t put me on display”—with such feeling and clarity, it was like having a vacuum cleaner suck out all the gunk from my brain. And when she turns the tables and says, “I don’t tell you what to say,” that hit me in the gut, and I realized that everything I learned about girls was not only bullshit, but flat-out wrong. I swore I’d treat any girl I knew the way I’d treat anyone else, and that gave me a definite advantage when your mother came into my life. I was about 80% free of sexism when I met her, and your mother took care of most of the rest. All thanks to Lesley Gore.
It’s easy to dismiss Lesley Gore as the teenage soap opera queen from her hits, “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” That is certainly what her handlers wanted, so it took a lot of courage on the part of Lesley and Quincy Jones to record this song. “You Don’t Own Me,” interestingly enough, was written by the two guys who wrote “At the Hop,” who will reappear in Part 3 as card-carrying patriots. Their goal was to write a hit about a girl telling a guy off, but as we know from listening to great singers like Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline, the message of the lyrics can be enhanced or even countermanded by how the singer approaches the subtext—the way a singer holds a certain note, shortens a note, emphasizes a word, inserts a caesura or any number of variations to the expected pattern. Great singers uncover rich subtexts.
And Lesley Gore was a great singer.
She maximizes the darkness-and-light contrast of minor and major keys throughout the song. In the minor key verses, her voice is shadowed with righteous but controlled anger at the thought of becoming a possession; in the major key verses, she cries out for and celebrates liberation and self-worth. The dramatic shift is accomplished almost entirely by Lesley’s voice; Quincy Jones wisely lays back when most producers would go for overkill. “You Don’t Own Me” is simply one of the great vocal performances of all time.
What makes “You Don’t Own Me” a feminist liberation message with as much power than The Feminine Mystique all comes back to the emotional subtext Lesley Gore created through her performance. Here’s an excerpt from The Feminine Mystique germane to the period that we can use for our compare-and-contrast exercise:
In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”
This is an accurate description of the status of women at the time of “You Don’t Own Me,” and I am certain that the description of the experience and its impact had a huge effect on women. My mother, who lived through the era and experienced both excitement and exasperation when engaging feminists in dialogue, has often pointed out that the problem with The Feminine Mystique wasn’t Betty Friedan’s writing ability but that very few men bothered to read it. She once said to me, “Feminism is hard work. You can pass laws, but to truly change things, you have to change the world one man at a time.” She understood that equality of the genders required not only a major cultural shift but a major personal shift for every single woman and every single man.
This is why “You Don’t Own Me” is a powerful tool for change: Lesley is trying to change the world one man at a time. Betty Friedan worked on the systems level; Lesley Gore on the personal level. Both are valuable, but I have to say I’ve seen a lot more in the way of results when educating men on a personal level that I expect nothing less than full, equal treatment.
I admire Lesley Gore in many ways, as an activist, as a talented composer and songwriter, as a woman who came out of the closet way back in 1982 and had a loving relationship with her partner for over thirty years. But above all I admire her as a woman who had the courage to sing about human rights for women at a time when defiant women—those who refused to conform to society’s limited expectations—were often scorned and ridiculed. “You Don’t Own Me” may be a contradictory exclamation point to mark the end of this era in music, but more than any other song of its era, it foretold of the musical revolution to come.