With the exception of the teen idols, girl groups were the only genuinely distinctive genre to peak in the early 1960s. The genre owed its success largely to the 1959 payola investigations, combined with increased attacks on rock 'n' roll's alleged bad influence on teenagers. These factors stimulated a change in image and musical focus among record companies and radio disc jockeys. Radio's efforts to clean house led to the concentration of power in the hands of the program director who, in turn, adopted national playlists and a tightened Top Forty format. There was a resulting decline in regional hits produced by small record labels; the pop music industry was driven by the ongoing search for the next big trend. Heavy reliance on proven formulas became the modus operandi as the balance of power shifted to a select group of record executives, studio producers, staff songwriters, and media personalities.
Girl groups proved to be one of the more successful formulas to be mined again and again by those labels committed to the youth market. Music historians have sometimes fallen prey to a revisionist perspective of that era which interprets the rise of girl groups--and female performers in general (e.g., Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Lesley Gore)--as early evidence of the increasing assertiveness of women in the workplace and within Society in general. In point of fact, however, girl groups were strongly manipulated by powerful men who were well-connected within the record industry. Successful girl groups were prized in large because they were easily pliable, generally submitting to outside control with a minimal display of rebellious attitude. The younger the performers, the more likely they were to accept the strict order of the system. This at least in part explains why few groups were able to sustain a successful recording career beyond a hit recording or two.
The Chantels were the first girl group to rise above the one-hit wonder status which limited the impact of acts such as the Paris Sisters ("I Love How You Love Me"; 1956), the Teen Queens ("Eddie My Love"; 1955), and the Poni-Tails ("Born Too Late"; 1957). The group--originally a quintet whose members were all classmates at Saint Anthony of Padua School in the Bronx--were discovered backstage at an Alan Freed rock 'n' roll revue by Rama/Gee/Gone record producer Richard Barrett while waiting to meet their idol, Frankie Lymon (of the Teenagers). The Chantels' second release, "Maybe" (1958), proved to be a seminal event in the girl group genre. Its importance is noted by Alan Betrock, in his book, Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound:
Upon its release, the record literally exploded--its impact and appeal were simply undeniable. Barrett kicks off the record with a series of piano triplets, a wailing vocal chorus jumps in, and then [lead singer] Arlene [Smith] tears your heart out with one of the most searing and honest vocal performances ever. It all came together here; the churchy-gospel influences meshed with a commercial rhythm & blues sensibility. Utterly convincing and profoundly moving, "Maybe" packs even more of a wallop when one realizes that Arlene Smith was only sixteen at the time of the recording session, and the record still captivated both teenagers and adults. The Chantels records were not polished--their rough edges and even occasional wrong notes are there to hear if you search hard enough--but it was their utter intensity and atmospheric realism that carried them into a class all their own. "Maybe" entered the national charts at #55, and the next week had reached #32. Yet this incredible burst of popularity caused problems for...End Records, because they simply could not meet demand fast enough. In many cities bootleggers moved in, selling thousands of records before [End] could fill the orders....Because of these sales and order discrepancies, the record only reached #15 nationally, but it stayed on the charts for over a third of a year. Not only was "Maybe" one of the biggest selling records of its time, but its sound greatly influenced musicians and producers for years to come.
The Shirelles were the first girl group to realize any notable degree of commercial and artistic success following in the stylistic path established by the Chantels. When the Shirelles' first few releases achieved only modest success, producer Luther Dixon decided to sweeten up their heavily r & b sound through the use of strings. He struck paydirt with the West Indian-inflected "Tonight's the Night" (1960), followed by the Carole King/Gerry Goffin composition, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." The latter song was a hit around the world, remaining number one for five weeks on the U.S. singles charts. The arrangement--featuring swirling strings accented by a snare drum figure which inverted the traditional rock beat and added on a slight rhythmic shuffle--spurred record industry movers and shakers to try to incorporate and enlarge upon its techniques. In addition, its success drove home the idea that the right song, combined with the right singer and right arranger and right producer, represented the best blueprint for making a pop record.
While the Shirelles went on to enjoy many other hit singles, most notably the chart topper, "Soldier Boy" (1962), many other competitors were attempting to interpret the formula in their own ways. Producer Phil Spector was building his own roster of girl groups on the Philles label (see: THE SPECTOR SOUND) and many of Berry Gordy's biggest hits for the Motown-Tamla-Gordy (aka the Motown Sound) combine were recorded by all-female aggregates. Don Kirshner and his Aldon publishing company, located in the heart of the Brill Building complex in Manhattan, supplied songs to many record companies who, in turn, matched them up with contracted girl groups. By 1962, his firm had eighteen writers on staff, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-six, including the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil, Gerry Goffin-Carole King, and Neil Sedaka-Howard Greenfield teams. In addition, number of record companies achieved success in large part due to girl group recordings. These included Red Bird-Blue Cat, Cameo-Parkway, Chancellor, Jamie-Guyden, and Swan.
The decline of the girl group sound was a product of a complex chain of events. Betrock, the genre's leading historian, described this process in the following manner:
The British Invasion is often cited as the main reason that the girl-grop sound was
washed off the airwaves. This is a broad oversimplification, and for the most part,
not accurate. During 1964...girl-group records did tremendously well on the U.S.
charts. Number One records were scored by Mary Wells, The Dixie Cups, The
Supremes, and The Shangri-Las; the Number One spot was held by girl groups
for 25 percent of the entire year (about the same percentage as the previous year),
and other major hits were recorded by The Ronettes, Martha & The Vandellas,
Lesley Gore, The Jelly Beans, and numerous others. But the British Invasion did
herald the era of new sounds and of self-contained groups that wrote and played
their own material. Most popular trends or genres in music run their course within
three years, partly because they capture the tenor of their times so well, and partly
because dozens of second-rate imitations flood the market and the public soon
overdoses on the particular sound. If the girl groups were beaten away by a sound,
it was not only the British sound, but also surf, Motown, folk-rock, and blue-eyed
soul. More importantly, it was the writers and producers who voluntarily dropped
out of the scene, fearing that they could not compete with the new sounds.
Despite the relatively short duration of the girl group sound, its legacy continues to shine brightly. The classic songs of the genre (e.g., "The Locomotion," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Da Doo Ron Ron") have regularly been revived by contemporary stars, while its stylistic features have been recreated by countless other performers. New Wave girl groups (e.g., the Go-Gos, the Bangles), the riot grrrl movement, and pop confections like the Spice Girls all represent variations of the original mold.
Top Artists and Their Hit Recordings
The Ad Libs--"The Boy From New York City" (1965)
The Angels--"My Boyfriend's Back" (1963)
The Blue-Belles(, Patti LaBelle and)--"I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" (1961)
The Caravelles--"You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry" (1963)
The Chantels--"Maybe" (1958); "Look in My Eyes" (1961)
The Chiffons--"He's So Fine" (1963); "One Fine Day" (1963); "Sweet Talkin' Guy" (1966)
Claudine Clark--"Party Lights" (1962)
The Cookies--"Chains" (1962); "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Baby" (1963)
The Crystals--"He's A Rebel" (1962); "Da Doo Ron Ron" (1963); "Then He Kissed Me" (1963)
The Dixie Cups--"Chapel Of Love" (1964); "People Say" (1965)
The Exciters--"Tell Him" (1963)
The Girlfriends--"My One and Only Jimmy Boy" (1963)
The Jaynetts--"Sally Go Round the Roses" (1963)
The Jelly Beans--"I Wanna Love Him So Bad" (1964)
Little Eva--"The Locomotion" (1962); "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" (1963)
Martha & the Vandellas--"Come and Get Those Memories" (1962); Heatwave" (1963); "Dancing in the Streets" (1964); "Nowhere to Run" (1965); "Jimmy Mack" (1967)
The Marvelettes--"Please Mr. Postman" (1961); "Playboy" (1962); "Don't Mess With Bill" (1964)
The Murmaids--"Popsicles and Icicles" (1963)
The Orlons--"Wah-Watusi" (1962); "Don't Hang Up" (1962); "South Street" (1963)
The Paris Sisters--"I Love How You Love Me" (1956)
The Pixies Three--"442 Glenwood Avenue" (1963)
The Raindrops--"What a Guy" (1963); "The Kind of Boy You Can't Forget" (1963)
Reparata and the Delrons--"Whenever a Teenager Cries" (1963)
The Ronettes--"Be My Baby" (1963); "Baby I Love You" (1964); (Best Part of) Breaking Up" (1964)
The Shangri-Las--"Remember (Walking in the Sand)" (1964); "Leader of the Pack" (1964); "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" (1965); "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" (1965)
Dee Dee Sharp--"Mashed Potato Time" (1964); "Ride" (1962)
The Shirelles--"Tonight's the Night" (1959); "Dedicated to the One I Love" (1960); "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (1960); "Mama Said" (1961); "Baby It's You" (1961); "Soldier Boy" (1962); "Foolish Little Girl" (1963); "Don't Say Goodnight and Mean Goodbye" (1963)
The Supremes(, Diana Ross and)--"Where Did Our Love Go" (1964); "Baby Love" (1964); "Come See About Me" (1964); "I Hear a Symphony" (1965); "My World Is Empty Without You" (1966); "You Can't Hurry Love" (1966); "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (1966); "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" (1967); "Love Child" (1967)
The Toys--"Lover's Concerto" (1965); "Attack" (1965)
Mary Wells--"Two Lovers" (1962); "You Beat Me to the Punch" (1963); "My Guy" (1964)