It was a moment of perfect chanteusic convergence: These songs and those who sang them, those who produced them and, most important, those who would hear them late at night on a car radio where there was only the AM dial to light the lover’s lane. Three wishes of attraction, infatuation and eternal belief in the power of adoration to conquer all, captured in the three minutes of the classic pop single.
A soaring chorus, a verse that rhymes throb with sob or oowhee with baybee, and a deft vibrato mixed with attitude is the hallmark of what has become known as the Girl Groups, a genre which – even in its current Disneyfication; see Miley Cyrus’s “I Can’t Wait To See You Again” or anything by Mam’selle Swift – can be as precisely carbon-dated as a diamond ring, that you place on your finger, as I gaze into thine eyes.
The matchmaker to this marriage proposal between singer and song is the record producer, and the emphasis on the recorded end unto itself, its structure and melodic hooks and shape of reverb, can at times overshadow the actual performance. Even when the performer is gifted with a unique tonal sound – think Ronnie Spector wavering her voice ‘midst the storm of “Walkin’ In The Rain” or Mary Weiss‘s good-bad-but-not evil affair with the “Leader of the Pack” – the production looms over the record, its sense that it was created and orchestrated to be loved, honored, and obeyed. Voices could be interchangeable – Darlene Love led the Crystals, as did LaLa Brooks, and many served double and triple duty. Louise Murray was both a Heart (their “Lonely Nights” one of the greatest examples of how the doo-wop sound laid the harmonic underpinnings for the Girl Groups) and a Jaynette (whose “Sally Go Round The Roses” is a spooky stroll through the thorny bushes of the mating dance); Margaret Ross of the Cookies (“Chains”) was also lead singer of the Cinderellas, who have one of my top 5 G2s ever, the divine “Baby Baby I Still Love You.”
The genre was most dominant in the early years of the ’60s, though a record like the Chantels‘ “Maybe,” from 1958, surely encouraged many of the style’s future starlets to dream of the Top 40, much as they might have had a crush on the boy next door. Perhaps an end point to this golden age might be the ascendance of the Supremes and Motown’s hit factory, and a consequent loss of innocence in the pop process. In between, a flood of adolescent yearning was unleashed, as sound barriers were broken (with producers like Phil Spector and Shadow Morton attempting to outdo each other dramatically) and Brill Building songwriters who gave free rein to their fantasies (“He Hit Me [And It Felt Like A Kiss]“). As legendary as the performers who sang their songs, the names of Goffin-King, Greenwich-Barry and Weil-Mann enshrined a moment in verse and catch-phrase when love moves from real to unreal, the realization, and stops time in its tracks.
So I found myself in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park on a hottest of summer Saturdays to witness five hours of “She’s Got The Power,” a tribute and celebration of the Girl Group era curated by Dr. Ike of the Ponderosa Stomp, a fine-wine epicurean of the 45 disc, and residing in New Orleans, truly a connoisseur of femme fatale. I had intended to just be another cheering spectator, but a few days before the show I got a call asking if I’d be interested in playing in the acoustic guitar section for the Ellie Greenwich tribute portion of the show, and strum behind Ronnie her royal self! Ah, to be another brick in the wall of sound, one of my greatest daydreamings, and soon to come all too true.
The first half was programmed as an old-school “revue,” with a parade of hits that have outlived adolescent wish-fulfillment to become part of the golden-oldie canon. In rapid succession we were treated to the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” the Exciters‘ “Tell Him,” Reparata and the Delrons‘ “Whenever A Teenager Cries,” the Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” and for me, a song I’ve been waiting an entire lifetime to hear by its original artist, Maxine Brown‘s divine “All In My Mind.” The fact that most of these classics were cut by girls who were teenagers themselves meant that voices still retained a burnished glow, and the backstage camaraderie was more high school reunion than seen-it-all professional.
After intermission, the rolling-and-tumbling chords of “Da Doo Ron Ron” ushered me onto the stage, where I formed a twin acoustic guitar section with Gene Cornish of the Rascals, an especial treat for one who cut his six-string teeth on “Good Lovin’” and “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (the latter could have been a Girl Group hit had not the Rascals been boys). I stood in the back to handclap to Lesley Gore, and then returned to my guitar post for Ronnie. She dedicated her set to Amy Winehouse, an heir apparent, and sang a snippet of “Back to Black” before the bass drum count-off of “The Best Part of Breaking Up.” When she launched into her version of “Chapel of Love,” recorded before the Chiffons‘ hit version, she waggled her microphone at me to sing along. Oh, the bliss.
The stage filled for the Ellie Greenwich tribute, and Little Steven Van Zandt came up to make our guitar section a trio. LaLa took on the lofty peaks of “River Deep Mountain High” and stood atop the summit proudly. The shadow of Phil Spector, of course, hovered over the evening, and though his tragic incarceration and madcap reputation stain his legacy, there is no doubt that he took the Girl Group sound to its greatest and most monumental hallelujah chorus. The night closed with “Be My Baby,” as it should, the purest expression of fealty, longing, and to-be-or-not-to-be, the eternal one-and-only question.
And though it may seem like heresy, I do believe that at this current pop moment we are witnessing another Girl Group explosion, with single slices of provocative female singers guided by sophisticated producers fashioning catchy, witty, and infectious records that ask to be played over and over, feeling to me like a genre awaiting its own celebration a half century in the future. I’m thinking Britney, Christina, P!ink, Ke$ha, Gwen, Rihanna, Katy. Be My Baby’s babies, all.