When people talk about influential artists, too often the Girl Groups are forgotten. They certainly helped shape the most influential band of all time…The Beatles.
By the early 1960’s, the explosion of Rock & Roll in the 1950’s was mostly over. Instead, the bulk of the music business had returned to professional songwriters coming up with songs for performers. The music itself was mainly Pop, with some light trappings of Rock & Roll. Most of the hits were by teen idols. Then in 1961 came the first #1 song of the rock era by what was called a “Girl Group”.
The first big Girl Group hit was “Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles, topping the charts in January of 1961. The song was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The group followed up with “Dedicated To The One I Love” at #3, and also had two big hits in 1962 with “Baby It’s You (#8) and “Soldier Boy”(another #1).
The second #1 by a Girl Group was “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes in December of 1961. It was the first #1 record for Motown. By the way, I remember seeing a letter sent by one of my sisters (I think it was Janice) who co-opted a line from that song. She wrote a very large D on the envelope, and after that D was a column of hyphenated words…-liver, -letter, -sooner, -better. Hope the postman got a smile out of that.
And then there were more. The Crystals (left) and The Ronettes were two Girl Groups produced by Phil Spector. The Crystals hit #1 with “He’s A Rebel” in 1962. The song was written by singer-songwriter Gene Pitney, who had sixteen of his own Top 40 hits in the ’60’s. Two other big hits for The Crystals came in 1963…Da Doo Ron Ron (#3), and “Then He Kissed Me” (#6). Both were written by the team of Jeff Berry & Ellie Greenwich, along with Phil Spector. Those same three also wrote the #1 hit “Chapel Of Love” by The Dixie Cups. Spector became know for his “Wall Of Sound” production technique, where he layered on multiple instruments (such as 3 pianos at once) and lots of backing vocals.
Phil Spector did the same thing for The Ronettes. In 1963, their hits were “Be My Baby” (#2), and “Baby I Love You” (#24). Again, both songs were written by Berry, Greenwich, and Spector. “Walking In The Rain” made #23 in 1964, a song written by the team of Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, along with Phil Spector. The song was a Grammy Award winner. The Ronettes were named for lead singer Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, who became Ronnie Spector (Phil’s wife). The Ronettes bring us back to The Beatles. The Ronettes toured with The Beatles in England (January of 1964), and became friends with the band. They also opened for The Beatles during the band’s final tour in 1966.
Update: Producer Phil Spector passed away January 16th, 2021 at the age of 81. Spector had been in prison since 2009 when he was convicted of fatally shooting his girlfriend, actress Lana Clarkson. Spector is in the 1960’s photo above, during his short marriage to Ronnie Spector. Update: (Jan. 12th, 2022) Ronnie Spector died today at the age of 78. Her family said she had a brief battle with cancer. Their statement said… “Ronnie lived her life with a twinkle in her eye, a spunky attitude, a wicked sense of humor, and a smile on her face.”
Let’s look at the influence of Girl Groups on Rock & Roll’s biggest band. In the early ’60’s The Beatles had four songs by Girl Groups on their albums…”Please Mr. Postman”, “Boys” (it was on the flip-side of the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), “Baby It’s You”, and “Chains” (#17), a song by The Cookies (and written by Goffin & King). The influence was multifaceted. The vocal harmonies of these Girl Group songs were great training for The Beatles’ own harmony singing, and the flowing melodies, written by some of the top songwriters of the day, influenced them too.
The Beach Boys also covered some Girl Group songs, and Brian Wilson was very taken with Phil Spector’s production techniques.
The Angels were studio backup singers, and had their own #1 hit in 1963 with “My Boyfriend’s Back”. The lead singer warns a boy who’d been bothering her…”My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble.”
The Shangri-las were just high school teenagers in 1964 when they started becoming popular. Although they look fairly happy in the above photos, their songs were not so chipper. First came “Remember (Walking In The Sand”) a #5 hit about losing a boyfriend (“He found somebody new.”), followed by “Leader Of The Pack”, a #1 smash about losing a boyfriend…in a motorcycle accident. They finally found happiness with “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” (#18) in 1965, but sadness returned later that same year with “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” (#6). Their downbeat songs were even covered by punk bands and Aerosmith.
Far and away the most successful ‘60’s Girl Group was The Supremes. Their first big hit was “Where Did Our Love Go” in mid 1964. That started a string of 5-straight #1’s…”Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In The Name Of Love”, and “Back In My Arms Again”. In all, The Supremes had twelve #1 hits, and a total of 29 Top 40 hits. Those songs included…”I Hear A Symphony” (#1), “My World Is Empty Without You” (#5), “You Can’t Hurry Love” (#1), and “You Keep Me Hanging On” (#1). The prolific Motown songwriters were also providing hits for Martha & The Vandellas, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and more.
Some people have said the end of the Girl Groups came with The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion. But, The Supremes charted from 1964 to 1970, the same years as The Beatles. Even as Rock grew, there was room on the charts for Pop. Eventually though, the continuing trend for artists to write and perform their own songs is what pushed out the Girl Groups. The positive effect was that more young women started playing instruments and fronting & forming bands…such as Heart in the ‘70’s, and The Bangles & The Go-Go’s in the ’80’s.
Although the golden age of Girl Groups was in the ‘60’s, they never completely disappeared. The best-selling Girl Group ever, The Spice Girls, were a ‘90’s phenomenon. They dressed a little differently too.