Sharps and Flats: 60s girl groups

Published January 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In the early '60s, before the lanky guitar-toting Britboys invaded our shores, the Ronettes, Crystals, Shangri-Las and Shirelles ruled the airwaves. The Girl Groups were the principle women in rock. Tough, sweet, street-smart, they knew all about love. Unlike latter-day girl groups like the Runaways, the Go-Go's, L7 or Bikini Kill, these ladies rarely wrote their own material and never played an instrument. Svengali boys like Phil Spector, George "Shadow" Morton and Berry Gordy produced them. Songwriters like Carole King, Gerry Goffen and Ellie Greenwich put words in their mouth. And they -- typically black, working-class teens, often with roots in gospel -- just sang their hearts out. While the Girl Group era is often dismissed among feminists and rocker grrrls alike as the golden age of codependency training for women, on "60s Girl Groups," the claustrophobic wall of sound, sicky-sweet lyrics and sassy, sexy attitude coalesce into a heartfelt, immortal statement of female teen torment, hope and defiance.

This collection of obscure treasures from 1962 to '67, the peak years of this era, features lesser known groups like the Pearls, the Apollas and the Dolls. They join the more famed Cookies, Chiffons and Blossoms -- all artists who were at some point part of Warner Bros. and its associate labels. Very few of these songs appeared in Alan Betrock's list of the "130 best" of the 1,000 Girl Groups of the day. And we don't get the plush production we've grown accustomed to from Spector/Morton/Gordy. But every fan knows a band's obscurity is more a function of weak marketing than a true measure of talent. We also know that B-sides can whip A-sides anytime -- if we bother to play them.

You know it's the real thing if the song gives you chills, knots in your stomach and gets you all torn up, thinking about him. But this collection also works as a great document of U.S. cultural history: The Cookies went on to fame and glory with "Chains" (later covered by the Beatles); the Chiffons' "One Fine Day" is forever etched into our hearts, as is the Royalettes' "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" (later covered by Laura Nyro). But the more esoteric ensembles here are just as compelling and heart-wrenching -- the Pearls' "If I Had a Choice" is classic doo-wop tear-jerk-off, right up there with Frankie Lymon. The Apollas can come off like Helen Reddy. The Revlons rock like Leslie Gore. Compilation producer Kevin Tong has performed a great act of love, putting these voices back into the world. Amen.

By Donna Gaines

Donna Gaines is a New Yorker whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Spin, the Village Voice and Newsday. She wrote "Girl Groups: A Ballad of Codependency" for the "Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock."

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