Crate Digging #6 – Girlie Sounds: Sex, Race and Phil Spector

by Cate

The Ronettes, early 1960s

When I initially contemplated this series, I began with the intention of exploring areas of the music world I felt merited reexamination. Occasionally, this means that I choose to focus on genres and artists that have been overlooked in their significance (Twee Pop, Black Flag, New Jersey’s musical legacy) and other times, this means that I try and advocate on behalf of artists I feel have been unjustly maligned or inaccurately judged, as I did with the Grateful Dead. Rarely, and most difficultly, those two strains intersect to create a genre/artist that feels both critically under-appreciated and unfairly appraised as insignificant fluff. Such is the case with the Girl Groups of the 1950s and 1960s.

Girl Groups essentially rose to prominence in the halcyon days of rock’n’roll and sat at the nexus of generational, racial and sexual lines. Oddly, this rather unique position probably enabled history’s chroniclers to overlook these artists, rather than appreciate the role they played in the development of pop music. In this piece, I will try to address a number of these topics, specifically as they relate to this particular genre but please note that these social issues–of class, of gender, of race–are extremely complex and at no point do I intend to present myself as an expert on these matters.

Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show, 1956

If I were to ask you to give me a brief history of rock and pop music, you would probably relay the same handful of events: In 1956, Elvis gyrated his hips during a television appearance and scandalized the nation. Over night, the telegenic singer transitioned from the moderately-successful Sun Records artist to RCA Nashville’s megastar. Rock and roll as we know it was born. In 1964, the Beatles “invaded” America, played the Ed Sullivan show and everything was forever changed. The artistic zenith of the Baby Boomer generation came five short years later when 400,000 of them coincided peacefully at a three day performance.1 Disco came on the heels of the twilight of the age of Aquarius and was followed by the advent of punk in the second half of the 1970s. In the 1980s, television took a gamble on an upstart called MTV and hip hop began its ascent to the American mainstream. In 1991, “punk broke” and Nirvana killed off the mascara-caked Sunset Strip bands. Subsequently, we descended into a vacuum of nothingness.

Well, that’s the way the story goes for many music journalists and it is about half right. The problem with this narrative is that it paints a narrow, linear progression that can only come from hindsight and at the expense of accuracy. The evolution of popular music is knotty; it is full of diversions, retreads, dead-ends, manipulations and some completely illogical left-turns. It is not hard to see why the above-mentioned version of events is appealing with its easy cause/effect logic but it also neglects legions of massively important music–without which, it would be inconceivable to imagine all the music we have today–while (possibly) over-stating the accomplishments of a few artists.

The Andrews Sisters

Running parallel to the accuracy concern are the matters of perspective. That is, music journalism tends to be dominated by a particular demographic: white, middle-aged men. To some degree, our relationship with art is shaped by our backgrounds and individual histories. We like things that consciously or subconsciously remind us of ourselves, so it stands to reason that white men would mostly write about the achievements of other white men. Add to that centuries of institutionalized sexism and racism and it becomes increasingly apparent that history’s victors write the narrative.

Prior to the Great Depression, female vocal groups were scarce with one notable exception: a trio of sisters called the Boswell sisters (a jazz vocal group popular in the late 1920s and 1930s). In 1937, three sisters named LaVerne, Maxene, and Patty Andrews began working their way around the vaudeville circuit as a trio modeled after the Boswell Sisters. Like their antecedents, the Andrews Sisters specialized in complex vocal harmonies. Though the sisters were white, their music drew heavily from the era’s black music, such as rhythm and blues, bebop, jump blues and jazz and their interpretation of these genres proved highly popular. USO tours and patriotic film appearances made the sisters household names and synonymous with World War II-era optimism. To this day, the Andrews Sisters remain the most successful girl group of all time and have sold over seventy-five million albums.

The economic boom that followed America’s involvement in World War II had a profound effect on popular culture in ways that few could have anticipated. Blooming prosperity meant that for the first time, many American teenagers were staying in school and putting off work. This in turn meant that they had time and pocket money to spend on leisure activities and thus, buying power. Hollywood and the music industry quickly realized that there was an entire untapped market for material geared toward teenage girls and that their potential for profit was enormous. Teen dreamboats like Ricky Nelson and Frankie Avalon cornered one aspect of the teen market and female vocalists such as Lesley Gore cornered the other.

The Supremes looking gorgeous

Around the same time, black music in the form of Rhythm and Blues was emerging as a popular force. Black and white musicians had long married and borrowed influences from one another (usually with white musicians taking credit) but artists like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley gained popularity by brazenly playing “black music” and harnessed the ensuing controversy to their advantage.2 America’s teenagers had a ravenous appetite for this new music and unlike many of their parents, they did not care that the music was associated with African American culture. Girl groups–or musical acts consisting of female vocalists (not to be confused with all-girl bands)–hit all the sweet notes with the emergent teen culture. Girls groups (generally) consisted of telegenic young black women in their late teens or early twenties whose soaring, majestic vocal melodies were amplified by muscular orchestration. The songs told stories of broken hearts, yearning and teenage love. They were the perfect soundtrack for malt shops, car rides and singing into a hairbrush in your childhood bedroom.

The Shirelle’s 1961 #1 hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is generally cited as the song that kicked off the girl group craze.3 The song, like many of its era, was written by one of the the Brill Building’s songwriting teams (in this case, the song was written by the husband and wife songwriting team Carole King and Gerry Goffin).4 As with many contemporary pop acts, the girl groups of the 1950s and ’60s did not write their own material. Professional songwriters, such as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller 5, Goffin and King, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector wrote lyrics and composed songs (often handling production duties, as well) and then offered them to artists with whom they had a contractual relationship.

The most classic singles of the girl group era were produced by Phil Spector at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles. Spector has become notorious for his violent personal life and his eccentric behavior but prior to becoming a tabloid fixture, he was known as one of popular music’s true creative geniuses.

Spector and the Ronettes at Gold Star, early 1960s

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the overwhelming majority of music was heard on AM radio, which was broadcast in mono (rather than stereo) sound. Mono–or monaural–sound is when one microphone, one loudspeaker, or sometimes multiple microphones are fed through a single channel. Since the mid-1960s, mono has become decreasingly common; stereophonic sound (or sound configurations consisting of two or more channels) provides listeners with the perception of auditory perspective and is standard on FM radio and contemporary sound entertainment. The compressed sound of mono recordings suited the mediums of the era (again, AM radio and poorly-constructed turntables) but it produced music that sounded flat and distant to the listener. To remedy this problem, Phil Spector devised a recording process dubbed “the Wall of Sound.”

Gold Star Studios was Spector’s preferred recording destination because it featured echo chambers which were commonly used for classical recordings. To create the Wall of Sound effect, Spector would set up microphones in the studio, which transmitted sound to the subterranean echo chambers, which were also appointed with methodically placed microphones and speakers. The sound transmitted to the echo chambers would reverberate and then be captured by the chamber’s microphones and fed back to Spector’s control room and recorded. The vocal performances were supported by an uncommonly large amount of instrumentation–for pop music, at least. The songwriter Jeff Barry recalled that it was not uncommon for Spector to have five guitars, two basses, strings, percussion, tambourines, maracas, bells and seven horn players performing on one pop song. The results were absolutely spectacular, but it could also be described as textbook “overkill.” In any event, the recording technique made Spector’s girl groups shine on the radio.

Arguably, the best example of the Wall of Sound production style is on the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”

Shortly after groups such as the Supremes and the Ronettes released their best work, British bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who released albums in the U.S. Compared to the material that had previously dominated the American pop charts, the rhythm and blues-influenced music of the British Invasion groups sounded fresh, aggressive, radical and masculine. The musical climate of the country changed quickly and it further cemented a generational divide between the kids who embraced this new rock music and their older siblings and parents who found it repellant. The British Invasion hinted at pop culture’s future; girl groups, teen idols and doo wop invoked its past. Girl groups began performing poorly on the pop charts and quickly fell out of favor.

Musically, the girl groups of the early 1960s were pure ear candy but the upbeat moony sound betrayed a sometimes dark reality. Though many of the era’s hits were written by female songwriters such as Carole King, Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil, the lyrics painted a disturbing portrait of women’s roles in pre-Second Wave society. Take, for example, the Crystal’s single, “He’s a Rebel.” The song is infectious but a closer reading of the lyrics depicts a protagonist who happily describes her cretinous boyfriend, who will “never be any good” before gleefully adding, “but that’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love.” The Shangri-Las hit “Leader of the Pack” told a similar story of a girl who fell in love with a man who was bad for her and yet, she loves him unconditionally (even after he meets his untimely end in a rainy motorcycle crash). “Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups is a well-known and much-loved pop song, but it is almost the musical equivalent of a stack of bridal magazines and groan-inducing female stereotypes. That theme of female helplessness and unerring devotion to a deadbeat boyfriend was a mainstay of the genre and occasionally, it could take an even more unsettling turn.

Gerry Goffin and Carole King were responsible for a number of pop hits throughout the 1960s and 1970s

In 1962, Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote a handful of songs for Phil Spector’s group, the Crystals. One of the songs that became a single was “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss).” The song was inspired by the real life circumstances of the singer Little Eva. Eva’s boyfriend regularly beat her and when Goffin and King discovered this, they wrote a song that attempted to justify her boyfriend’s behavior the way an abuse victim might. Had the song been released a few decades later or sung by someone like Billie Holiday, it probably would have conveyed a deep sense of appreciation for the severity and depravity of the subject matter. In Spector’s hands, however, the song is given the Wall of Sound treatment and translated literally. To call the result tone-deaf is insufficient and in light of what we know about Spector now, it comes across as especially disquieting.6

In the years to come, several artists would find inspiration in the genre, including Dolly Parton, whose early single “Don’t Drop Out” was clearly derivative of the girl group sound. Subsequent artists such as Bananarama, Destiny’s Child, TLC, the Weather Girls, the Pointer Sisters, En Vogue and the Spice Girls borrowed heavily from the girl groups’ sound, style and choreography. Some female artists, such as Beyonce, Amy Winehouse and Adele have been more forthcoming in their devotion to the works of Spector’s girl groups by dressing like Ronnie Spector and covering Brill Building songs. Additionally, the influence of girl groups can be found in uncommon places, such as rock groups like Sleater-Kinney and Hole (listen to the interplay between the vocals of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker or Courtney Love and Melissa Auf der Maur and you can hear the distinct echo of the Ronettes and the Marvelettes) and dance punk by the likes of St. Etienne and Le Tigre.

But despite their continued influence on contemporary pop stars, few music journalists bother to document their impact on the music world. Even the mausoleum-like Rolling Stone, which breathlessly covers the careers of Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart, even as their relevance diminishes and they continually churn out dull, mediocre albums, ignores the works of these women and the songwriters behind them. This poses an interesting question: Why? Why are these artists being passed over, dropped from oldies playlists and forgotten by all but a few hipsters and retro-lovers, such as the Dum Dum Girls?

The answer is, in essence, who the girl groups were and who they catered to–black women and teenage girls, respectively. American Bandstand may have integrated in 1957 but American culture was hardly integrated (and largely is not to this day). In 2007, Patti LaBelle caused a minor controversy when she stated that her career and those of her peers had been adversely affected by racism, which she contended is prevalent throughout the music industry. LaBelle began her career as the centerpiece of the Blue Belles and argued that covers of her songs sold better than the originals because white artists received more support from their labels and thus, more air play.

While admittedly it can be difficult to prove LaBelle’s claims in retrospect, there does appear to be some truth to that argument. Consider again the content of Rolling Stone. Artists like Jack White and Eric Clapton have built their careers around their desire to play music like that of their (black) heroes–Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Otis Redding–and yet, how frequently are those inspirations written about? Why don’t their boxed sets, reissues and compilations warrant spilled ink?

Further, while the entertainment industry loves teen girls’ disposable income and love of pop culture, it does not tend to take them seriously as an audience. Pop fluff is for girls and “serious music” is for men and the “cool” women who chose to embrace it. The music world has a long history of dismissing female artists and only accepting those who demonstrate male traits and male tastes. Janis Joplin, Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett are taken seriously because they dress in unfeminine ways, could drink most people under the table and look like they could knock the biggest guy in the room into next week if he looked at them the wrong way. But feminine girls? The ones you could name, like Debbie Harry, are the exception, not the rule.7

It’s a shame, really because when all the pros and cons are tallied, those girl groups sang some fucking amazing songs.

My Girl Group Play List:

The Crystals, “He’s a Rebel”
The Marvelettes, “Please Mr. Postman”
The Cookies, “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About my Baby)”
The Ronettes, “Be My Baby”
The Teen Queens, “Eddie My Love”
The Supremes, “Baby Love”
The Shirelles, “Tonight’s the Night”
The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack”
Martha & the Vandellas, “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave”
Dolly Parton, “Don’t Drop Out”
The Crystals, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”
The Blossoms, “That’s When the Tears Start”
The Supremes, “Stop! In the Name of Love”
Martha & the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Streets”
The Ronettes, “Walking in the Rain”
Patti La Belle & Her Bluebelles, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”
The Shirelles, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”
The Supremes, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”

Bonus: We have all heard the Supreme’s hit “Stop In the Name of Love” but there is an acapella version floating around online that seriously deserves a lesson. With the orchestrations stripped away, you can really get a sense of the immense talent and vocal power the three Supremes possessed. The harmonies are flawless; their voices bob and weave in and out of each other creating a lush sound that quite frankly, is obscured by the ornate backing music.

  1. I am continually, genuinely surprised by the ever-growing mythology surrounding Woodstock. The performances were largely forgettable, if not downright middling and surely, a three-day festival could never be the artistic high point of a decade that included Pet Sounds, Slaughterhouse-FiveIn Cold BloodRosemary’s BabyBonnie & Clyde, Pop Art, Minimalism, Richard Serra and countless other creative achievements. Besides, Monterey Pop was the superior festival. Everyone knows this.
  2. You know how you always see Little Richard on television, glitter shimmering on his lapels, ranting and raving about how his work was stolen from him by the likes of the Beatles, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Stones and well, pretty much everyone? He is usually brushed off as a delusional lunatic but the truth is that he is not wrong. Seriously, listen to the first 20 seconds of  “Keep a Knockin'” and then listen to the opening of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” Sound familiar? It should. (This should probably be another article.)
  3. The Shirelles’ hit was the first girl group number one hit but it was not the genre’s first top 40 hit. The Teen Queens became one-hit wonders over night with “Eddie My Love” in 1956 and then the Chantels scored a hit with 1958’s “Maybe.” Carole King sang her own version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” on her solo album Tapestry released in 1971.
  4. The Brill Building is located at 1619 Broadway in New York City. At the peak of its influence, the building housed eleven floors of studios, songwriters, composers and music publishers. The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Bennie Goodman Orchestra, Paul Simon, Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and Don Kirshner were among the luminaries who called the Brill Building home. In the 1950s and 1960s, the building was known for producing a particular kind of pop song, which became known as the “Brill Building Sound.” This pop style was heavily influenced by Latin music, R&B and was perfectly calibrated for heavy radio play.
  5. Leiber and Stoller were also members of the Brill Building crew and their credits include Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.” There are too many well-known songs that were written by the above-mentioned songwriters, but if you take a quick peak at the pop charts from the early 1960s, many of the songs will be products of the Brill Building’s inhabitants.
  6. Aside from being convicted of murder, Phil Spector’s ex-wife Ronnie Spector (lead singer of the Ronettes) disclosed that her marriage to the producer was an unhappy one. Immediately after marrying her, Spector became abusive and domineering toward Ronnie. She contends that he completely cut her off from her friends and family and went so far as to keep her prisoner in their Los Angeles home, sabotage her career and deny her royalties.
  7. Women as diverse as Liz Phair, Ann Wilson, Gwen Stefani, Kira Roessler, Cyndi Lauper, Pink, Amanda Palmer, Robyn, Lily Allen, Pat Benatar and Lita Ford (yes, I am serious) have spoken about the pressure they have endured by bandmates, video directors and label executives to tart up their images. In the music industry, it appears that there are two acceptable archetypes for women: the tomboy who plays with the boys and the sex object whose talent is a secondary concern to her sex appeal. Though these models have existed since the advent of modern media, they were codified in the 1980s and appear to be getting progressively worse. The blame for this development lies squarely on the shoulders of MTV and Madonna, in my opinion. MTV radically changed the music industry and proved that sex and female exploitation translated to massive revenues. (Compare a video from MTV’s early 1980s programming to one from the mid-’80s. You will notice a drastic change in production values and a massive difference in the amount of lingering shots of mostly naked women.) Madonna, for her part, openly embraced this relationship between selling one’s sexuality and commercial profit. With each successive video, she upped the ante and whether it was David Fincher having her crawl on the floor on all fours and lick milk from a saucer or posing naked in explicit photos with Vanilla Ice, she did it. Her massive success created more pressure for other female artists to follow in suit. Now, many people will argue that she was empowering herself and other women through these tactics. I remain unconvinced. Women who have managed to straddle those two molds are far and few between and often, it was not until after a female artist’s career took off that she was able to dictate the terms of her image.