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Girl Group Sounds Then & Now pt. 1: Then!

July 9, 2010

I inherited quite a few traits from my mother: good skin, wacky eyebrows, a widow’s peak, a borderline addictive relationship to potato chips and a love of the music of girl groups. I have fond, childhood memories of dancing around the living room with her/singing along in the car with her to songs like “Too Many Fish in the Sea” by The Marvelettes and “Tell Him” by The Exciters. Because of girl groups, I used to want to be a backup singer, “ooh”-ing, “ahh”-ing, “shalala”-ing and “sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me”-ing my way through life, with coordinated hand motions and matching outfits.

But while my dreams of supporting singer stardom never came to fruition, my love of girl group sounds has lived on and occupies a huge place in the catalog of music I consume to this day. The other day I made an iPod playlist (a far too time consuming pastime of mine) of songs that all have that “girl group sound”, whether they were from that actual era in the 60s or they were from the 80s or from now. And I thought I’d share an abbreviated version of it here on the Slug for all to enjoy. So here’s part one of my Girl Group Sounds post, full of tracks I adore from back in the day. Check back for part 2 soon when I’ll post some of my favorite modern takes on the girl group sound. But for now listen, watch and do a sassy hand gesture or two!

THEN:

The Ikettes – “I’m Blue”: Ahh, this song, this song! It’s perfection is so utterly and totally…well, perfect. I first encountered this gem of girl group soul when it played in a scene in the original Hairspray. It’s got a gritty, lo-fi feel that was present in some of the earlier girl group songs before the sheen of poppier acts like The Supremes came into vogue. The Ikettes were the backing singers for Ike & Tina Turner who also recorded several songs of their own, receiving some acclaim and attention as a group but, allegedly, no royalty money from Mr. Turner. Shocking, I know. But their songs remain, and this one is a doozy and a half. I challenge you to listen to it and not do a little bump and grind, just like all the kids in the dance hall in Hairspray did.

The Marvelettes – “Beechwood 4-5789” & “Hunter Gets Captured By the Game”: It’s super hard to pick which song to play by The Marvelettes, as they had so many gems. So I’m picking two! And they represent a nice spectrum for The Marvelettes – from the more cutesy, poppy bounce of “Beechwood” the slowed down, soulful, longing of “Hunter”, it proves why they had initial success and then a return to chart prominence after a small dip in their career. I’m a sucker for “Beechwood” because it references the old way phone numbers used to exist and that is just damn charming to me. Also, the song is a sonic ear worm like no other. “Hunter” surprised me the first time I heard it, having associated the Marvelettes with a more youthful sound. But there’s a maturity and sexuality about it that impresses me for the era. It’s like the girls of “Beechwood” have grown up and want more than just a date “any ol’ time”. Incidentally, “Hunter” has a number of cover versions out there worth checking out, especially the Blondie and Grace Jones versions.

The Shangri-Las “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”: Oh, The Shangri-Las, could I love you more? I think not. The Shangs took the drama of young love in the usual girl group song and took it to an even more dramatic place, with tracks of teenage love and death like “Leader of the Pack” and runaway youth in “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”. Fronted by Mary Weiss, known as much for her dramatic spoken verses as she was for her surprisingly powerful singing voice, the Shangri-Las had a kind of tough girl image, tinged with a sweetness that made them accessible but still enough coolness for kids to want to emulate. And even when they were singing about the joys of love, like they do in this track – one of my all time Shangs faves – it’s for the love of a boy with “dirty fingernails” and who’s wearing “tight, tapered pants/high button shoes”. This version is from a live TV show, so beware the mass of cheering teens right at the beginning, they’re loud!

Okay, and because I love the Shangri-Las so, I want to share a favorite track of theirs that was the b-side to their final single, “Take The Time” and it’s called “Footsteps On the Roof”. It’s a bittersweet, yearning song about a young woman waiting for her boyfriend to come and sneak in her window and whisk her away. While it’s still got that rebelliousness that the Shangri-Las could never let go of, it has a kind of maturity to it and a tinge of the psychdelic pop that was taking over the airwaves at the time as the girl group sound faded from popularity. Perhaps that has something to do with the melancholy, wistful nature of the song, even though it’s about the thrill of love.

The Pixies Three – “442 Glenwood Avenue”: The Shangri-Las would most likely be able to kick the asses of the girls from The Pixies Three with one hand tied behind each of their backs. But that doesn’t make me adore this ultra-twee song any less. How could I not with the incessantly awesome snare fills and the adorably catchy vocals? And on top of it, the snare drum echoes the “knock twice on the door” vocal hook, which brings so much joy to my heart, like the same kind of vocal/percussion riff in”Knock Three Times”, which we all know I adore.

Lesley Gore – “You Don’t Own Me”: Yes, yes, I realize that Lesley Gore is not a girl group but merely a girl, singular. But her sound was definitely of a piece with the girl group sound popular at the time and I think she totally counts for this post. Also, I love the fuck out of her music, so deal with the contradictions! Speaking of contradictions, this song always stands out in Lesley’s catalog of cuter, sweeter songs like “It’s My Party” and “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” as a righteous declaration of independence and a refusal to be treated like a possession by a jealous lover. And while Gore sings to said lover “don’t say I can’t go with other boys”, it’s in knowing that Gore came out as a lesbian in 2005 that the song takes on an even more retroactive air of defiance. But whatever she’s defying, her voice is amazingly in command of this classic, gorgeous song. And this live TV version, while slightly edited in length, brings the power and fierceness to the song even more.

The Shirelles – “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”: Speaking of contradictory images and songs, this track by The Shirelles caused quite a stir with lyrics that were perceived as overly sexual and thus got the record banned by many radio stations. But that’s precisely why I love the song. A lot of the girl groups of the 60s had a very innocent, naive, virginal image and sound. The Shirelles weren’t so different with their iconic sweet photo of them in matching prom-like dresses. But we all know what sometimes happens on prom night, don’t we? The way the song so perfectly captures that young-and-in-love moment of “are you gonna still love me even though we’re about to do the horizontal mambo” is a nod to the songwriting skills of Carole King and Jerry Goffin as well as the vocal prowess of lead singer Shirley Alston, who mixes just the right amount of desire into her plea for ongoing love to sell it. And since I am on a kick of trying to find alternates to the familiar studio versions of a lot of these songs, here’s another great live TV show performance.

The Ronettes – “Be My Baby”: Another great live TV performance comes from The Ronettes, who should probably have their face in the dictionary next to the phrase “girl group”. Because, you know, the dictionary totally has phrases in it and “girl group” is one of them. Ronnie Spector (then known as Veronica Bennett) was lead singer and had a distinct and unusual vocal style – it was never quite pretty but it got in your head and it made the songs she sang 100% her own. And then there’s that instantly recognizable, iconic drum fill that starts the song and ushers in the bridge. That kick-kick-snare combo is practically synonymous with the girl group sound – add that to a song and it will always reference the era. “Be My Baby” is one of those songs that can get easily overplayed yet surprisingly it never gets old. And this live version from the TV show Shindig! is a stellar rendition of the classic track.

The Velvelettes – “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin'”: The Velvelettes were less of a hit making group than some mentioned before, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t put out a few smoking tunes. My favorite of all time seems to be a bit of a wish fulfillment song written by a wolf-whistling, catcalling, street harasser, as the singer just can’t resist whatever it is he’s sayin’ to her. But as far-fetched as the premise is, the song is as sassy as all get out, has a piano hook and snare combo that totally owns and a chorus that will stick in your ears for days. There’s no good video versions of this, so here’s the track in all its original glory!

The Tammys – “Egyptian Shumba”: This is maybe one of the weirdest and one of the best girl group songs of all time. The Tammys were a short-lived girl group made up of two sisters and their best friend who released a series of unsuccessful singles before their svengali-esque manager, Lou Christie, ditched them to work with The Angels (of “My Boyfriend’s Back” fame). But in the course of their brief career they managed to record this hilariously odd, surprisingly catchy, foot-stomping, girl-screaming treasure of a song. I first heard it when I was gifted with one of the best things I have ever received: the 4 CD boxed set of girl group hits and rarities, One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found. If you dig girl group songs then you should do whatever you can to obtain this boxed set, as it is fucking amazing. No, seriously, IT COMES IN A FUCKIN’ HAT BOX and is chock full of so many good songs. Anyway, The Tammys track is a standout among them for sure and quickly became the most played song from that compilation on my iTunes. You must listen to it now, it will change your life!

UH-MAY-ZING, right? Also, this bizarro little track has spawned quite a number of cover versions that I found on YouTube that are worth checking out. The Monmouth School of Rock version seems like it’s gonna get bogged down by the overly hot singer until they bust into the screams and own that shit! Here’s a clip of The Black Kids recording a cover of it and only being slightly pretentious about it. But the best part of them all is this dude doing an a capella freakout of it in his workshop!

I know there are dozens and dozens of other girl group songs I could post but this is already so long! So I will leave you with one last little tidbit. Because no post on girl groups would be quite complete without something by The Supremes, I will give you a little of Ms. Ross and her long-suffering backup singers. But it won’t be “Stop In The Name of Love” or “Baby Love” because we’ve all heard those a million times. Instead, in keeping with the wackiness of the previous track I give you the weirdest, silliest song The Supremes ever recorded – a song that shared the title with a sci-fi/comedy b-movie called Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Machine. The movie stars Vincent Price as the titular scientist who creates an army of sexy lady robots who seduce and rob rich dudes. Classic, right? And The Surpremes did the title track and it’s a fuckin’ riot.

Feel free to share and post your favorite girl group tracks in the comments section!!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2010 10:22 am

    I’m going to New York at the end of the month to see the Velvelettes play the “Detroit Breakdown” party at Lincoln Center!

    • July 9, 2010 10:24 am

      Nice! I bet that will be a fun time. I hope they have a live band and not some cheesy backing tapes.

      I mean their voices still sound fantastic. But the “music” is ouchy.

      • July 9, 2010 12:20 pm

        No only are they playing with a live band, but it’s led by Dennis Coffey (the guitar god behind “Scorpio,” “Cloud 9,” etc.)!!!

  2. July 9, 2010 1:20 pm

    More of a modern day, garage rock take on “girl group,” but I really like Thee Headcoatees (and Holly Golightly’s various solo projects).

    • July 10, 2010 12:25 am

      Kathy, I love, love, love Thee Headcoatees and Holly Golightly! They will definitely be a part of the follow-up post to this one that’s all about more modern bands that emulate/incorporate the girl group sound.

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  1. Girl Group Sounds Then & Now pt. 2: Now! « Love is the Slug

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