The girl group harmony format predates rock‘n’roll, stretching back to vaudeville at turn of the century and continuing with the Boswell Sisters in the Thirties and the Andrews Sisters in the Forties.
At the start of the Sixties, many girl groups still operated in doowop territory. Bobbie Smith & the Dream Girls’ ‘The Duchess Of Earl’, an answer song to Gene Chandler’s ‘Duke of Earl’, and ‘Come On Let Me Try’ by Linda & the Del Rios are two examples. Some of the newer outfits, however, were more pop-orientated.
One such was the Crystals. With its combination of classy songwriting, by Gene Pitney, and contemporary production courtesy of Phil Spector, their ‘He’s A Rebel’ is one of the defining moments of Sixties girl-group pop. The single topped the American charts in November 1962 and reached the British Top 20.
The selections here under the Crystals’ name actually comprise the work of two different groups. ‘Uptown’ and its B-side, ‘What A Nice Way To Turn Seventeen’, feature Barbara Alston on lead vocals, as does ‘No One Ever Tells You’ (flip side of the controversial flop ‘He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss’). By contrast, ‘He’s A Rebel’ and follow-up ‘He’s Sure The Boy I Love’ were recorded under the Crystals’ banner by the Blossoms at producer Phil Spector’s instigation.
The Blossoms had already been trading under a variety of names, including the Dreamers and the Echoes. ‘Son In Law’ was originally recorded as the Coeds, while ‘Search Is Over’ and ‘Hard To Get’ are from their first two singles of a second spell as the Blossoms. Lead singer Darlene Love became one of Spector’s favoured vocalists.
Spector later produced the Ronettes and married lead singer Veronica, who became Ronnie Spector. ‘Silhouettes’ and its flip side, ‘You Bet I Would’, are from the pre-Spector period, the former a revival of a 1957 doowop hit by the Rays, written and produced by Bob Crewe and Frank Slay.
‘He’s A Rebel’ was originally offered to the Shirelles, who were uneasy with its anti-establishment lyric. One of the pioneering girl groups of the decade,
they had two American Number 1 hits, the second of which was ‘Soldier Boy’. Before that, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ was their Top 40 breakthrough. The British Invasion dented their popularity – although, ironically, the Beatles were big fans, covering ‘Baby It’s You’. Its seldom-heard B-side, ‘The Things I Want To Hear (Pretty Words)’, is featured here.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ early recordings were released on Gordy Records, one of several Tamla Motown subsidiaries whose output was indistinguishable from the parent label in terms of style. ‘I’ll Have To Let Him Go’/’My Baby Won’t Come Back’ was the Vandellas’ first, often overlooked single. Martha Reeves continues to tour today.
Michigan’s Marvelettes made their debut on Tamla with the 45 ‘Please Mr Postman’, which went all the way to Number 1 in 1961. ‘Beechwood 4-5789’ and ‘Playboy’ were subsequent Top 20 hits. An undiscovered gem, ‘Too Strong to Be Strung Along’, shows that Motown paid careful attention to the quality of B-sides even at this early stage.
The Cookies served as backing vocalists to Little Eva and, later, Ray Charles. ‘Chains’/’Stranger In My Arms’ was their biggest hit in the States. ‘Chains’ could only make it to Number 50 in Britain but impressed the Beatles, who not only featured it in their stage act but also recorded it on their first album.
Another Fab Four connection comes in ‘He’s So Fine’, the first hit for New York’s Chiffons which George Harrison was accused of plagiarising for ‘My Sweet Lord’. ‘Never, Never’/’No More Tomorrows’ was an earlier 45 on the independent Wildcat label, while ‘Doctor Of Hearts’ was the B-side of a one-off 1962 single for Reprise before their move to Laurie Records and stardom the following year.
Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles became Labelle (of disco anthem ‘Lady Marmalade’ fame) in the early Seventies, Back in 1962, ‘I Sold My Heart To The Junkman’ slugged it out with a rival version by the Starlets. The Bluebelles emerged victorious with a US Top 20 placing.
Not all the girl groups were of African-American origin, as is proved by the Angels, a white trio from New Jersey. Their biggest hit, ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’, tends to overshadow the rest of the group’s work, represented here by early single ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and another hidden gem, the B-side ‘You Should Have Told Me’. The Paris Sisters were blonde siblings from San Francisco, whilst Anita & th’ So-And-So’s were not technically a group at all but singer Anita Kerr multi-tracking her own voice!
No compilation of girl groups would be complete without the Supremes. ‘Let Me Go The Right Way’, ‘Time Changes Things’ and ‘Your Heart Belongs To Me’ are all from 1962, when the group were just starting to make inroads into the lower end of the Billboard Hot 100 two years before their major breakthrough. They would go on to become the decade’s most successful girl group, paving the way for the likes of Bananarama and, in later years, Pussycat Dolls and Destiny’s Child.