"The Fabulous Girl Groups" is the third installment in a special series that highlights the evolution of women in music by placing their accomplishments, inspirations and influence in the context of the eras that shaped their sounds and messages. "America's Foremothers" introduced the series, and "Pioneers of Rock" was the second feature.
The roots of the girl-group era date back to 1956, the year when a vocal group called Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers lit up the charts with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Mary Wilson of the Supremes remembers that many girls around her neighborhood weren’t content just to listen to Frankie Lymon sing on their transistor radios – they wanted to be Frankie Lymon. Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes auditioned for her future producer and husband, Phil Spector, by singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” when they met in 1962.
The first real girl-group hit was the Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee,” which reached Number Six in August 1957, just a month before nine African-American kids had to be escorted by the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to desegregate their high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1958, as Swedish diplomat Agda Rossel became the first woman to head a permanent delegation to the United Nations, and the first American satellite, Explorer I, was launched, a group of Catholic school girls from the Bronx who called themselves the Chantels scored the second girl-group chart hit with a song called “Maybe.” The fact that Chantels’ lead singer Arlene Smith wrote “Maybe” was a bit of an anomaly in the music industry of the time. In the girl-group world, most of the actual performers were teenage girls, as were some of its most prolific songwriters, including Ellie Greenwich, Cynthia Weil and Carole King. Even one of the most successful girl-group record labels, Scepter, was owned and run by a woman, Florence Greenberg, who had been a housewife in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. Greenberg also managed the Shirelles (pictured), the most successful of the girl groups. But again, Greenberg’s executive position was the exception to the rule of the male-dominated music industry. In 1960, the birth control pill became widely available for the first time. It’s no coincidence that this was the same year that the Shirelles released their Carole King-penned Number One hit, ”Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The song frankly addresses the real fears that girls and young women had about the about the consequences of having sex in a way that hadn’t been dared before.
In 1963, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique launched the reawakening of the Women's Movement in the United States. That same year Goldie and the Gingerbreads became the first all-female rock band to be signed by a major record label. The band toured the U.K. and Europe and became extremely popular there, appearing on bills with such bands as the Animals, the Kinks, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Hollies and the Yardbirds. The group notched one U.K. hit, 1965’s “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” which failed to chart in the U.S., as it was edged out by a heavily promoted version of the same song that was released by Herman’s Hermits two weeks before the Gingerbreads’ version. Lead singer Genya “Goldie” Zelkowitz, who would later change her last name to Ravan, recorded a number of solo albums and became lead singer of the jazz-fusion group Ten Wheel Drive. She also became one of the first independent female record producers, producing Ronnie Spector’s first solo album, Siren, and the Dead Boys’ debut, Young, Loud and Snotty. Ravan also hosts two radio shows for Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius/XM radio. One of her shows, Chicks and Broads, features influential female musicians from the Fifties to the present. (pictured above: Mary Wilson of the Supremes' Green Petals Dress, 1968, part of the Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power exhibit now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum)
Girl groups, while sometimes seen as puppets manipulated by unseen and mostly male handlers, were an authentic manifestation of the worldview of teenage girls – a group just coming into its own in the early 1960s and increasingly recognized for its growing economic power as consumers and arbiters of style. The girl-groups reflected teenage girls’ explorations of their world, their limitations and their limitless potential. Groups including the Bobbettes, the Chantels, the Shangri-Las, the Shirelles, Goldie and the Gingerbreads and the Ronettes; and songwriters such as Ellie Greenwich, Cynthia Weil and Carole King gave voice to those explorations and the possibilities that waited down the street — or just around the corner.