There are certain phenomenons in music that just bring me absolute, unadulterated joy: the intro to my favourite song; a super catchy chorus on some pop punk anthem; being able to sing along to the whole rap in Gangsta’s Paradise……However I think there is one sound that tops all of those- the resplendent harmonies and expertly produced songs of the 1960s girl band.
The 1960s was a phenomenal time for music with most modern genres finding their feet during this swinging decade and the popular girl and boy bands that are now pop staples really came into their own. Bridging the gap between 1950s Doo Wop and the proliferation of Motown, there was a flurry of female vocal groups that in many cases helped define the teenage experience with their tales of crushes; heartbreak; yearning and burgeoning sexuality.
There had been all-female vocal groups before of course (country music had many early pioneering girl groups, although these tended to be family groups such as the Carter Sisters) and there have been many since. But for one cohort in the early 1960s, this was ground-breaking stuff- the look, the sound, the recording techniques…everything contributing to a critically acclaimed and widely influential seminal sound.
There were a lot of these bands to choose from, each one with at least one hit that everyone still knows and loves but for the purpose of this blog, I have chosen my top 5.
Shirelles- The Shirelles were a quartet from New Jersey who had a string of hits in the 1960s that are still instantly recognisable today- Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow and Dedicated to the One I Love being the two fantastic examples. The Shirelles were the quintessential 60s girl group in terms of their aesthetic and singing style and their influence is reflected in the accolades they have achieved over the career- being named in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists poll and being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Their hit Will You Still […] is considered to have influenced the swathes of American girl groups that came in the decades after them. They formed earlier than a lot of their cohorts- 1957 was when they first got together to sing in order to enter the school talent show. Fast forward to 1960 and the group were gaining commercial success with Scepter Records and enlisting songwriter extraordinaire Luther Dixon. They were such darlings of the circuit, they were able to collaborate with the big songwriters and musicians of the day including Burt Bacharach and King Curtis. The Shirelles were a natural progression from the Doo-Wop groups of the 1950s American music scene- keeping the emphasis on strong harmonies whilst broadening the tone of the voice to intone vulnerability and soul as the record-buying public’s sensibilities progressed. Most of their songs were written for girls to relate to, imploring the listener to empathise with their romantic predicament or amorous joy.
Shangri Las– The absolute badass godmothers of girl groups, the Shangri Las were cool, feisty and had attitude. They were a welcome departure from the more saccharine-sounding groups of their peers who had a much demurer sound. The Shangri Las were famous for the ‘teen melodrama’ of their songs which is most demonstrable in their biggest hit Leader of the Pack (poor Jimmy. RIP). They were named after a restaurant in their native Queens, NY, where they were mere teenagers when they were signed to Red Bird Records– a label considered to be a ‘girl band’ label where 90% of its charting releases were by female artists. The youngest member- Mary Weiss was just 15 at the time of the contract being signed in 1964. Their first hit was the absolute banger Walkin’ In the Sand which also had the random honour of having a then unknown Billy Joel play piano on the demo. Their songs were intense and dramatic productions often using sound effects to compliment the story being sung using exquisite harmonies by the members- remember the motorbike revving in LoTP? Their persona was of NYC tough girls, an image that their fans adored, and which various rumours and innuendos sought to encourage. Their demeanour was one of teenage resilience and their songs explored the less cutesy elements of being a teenager in the 60s (or anytime for that matter)- running away, heartbreak and rebellion. Unfortunately, their career was short-lived. They were active between 1963 and 1968 but after a couple of line-up changes; disappointing chart positions and the folding of Red Bird Records, the Shangri-Las game-changing time in the spotlight was over.
Crystals– The Crystals were unlucky in that their challenging relationship with a pop Svengali caused irreparable damage to the stability of the band and meant their career includes only two studio albums- 1962’s Twist Uptown and 1963’s He’s A Rebel. On the plus side, their songs such as Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me are classic hits that have frequently been voted as some of the greatest songs of all time. The group started off as a quintet and they signed with Philes Records– the record label started by Lester Sill along with the man credited as being both the creator and destroyer of 60s girl groups- Phil Spector. They found success with singles such as There’s No Other (Like My Baby) and Uptown however they ran into some issues when they released the song He Hit Me (And It Felt like a Kiss) in 1962. Understandably, with a name like that, the song caused something of a controversy. With questionable lyrics seemingly endorsing the notion of violence as an appropriate expression of love sung against the backdrop of a dramatic Spector score, the song received little airplay and has since been all bit disowned by those who had a hand in penning it. Spector’s expectations (I will hereby referring to them as Spectations) and demands were high and when the original members of the band were not able to satisfy them, other singers such as Darlene Love were brought in to record under the Crystals name. This didn’t please anyone other than Spector- The Crystals were unhappy at being elbowed out and Darlene Love and her band The Blossoms were vexed at having their recordings released as the Crystals. This pattern continued during the recording of the singles He’s A Rebel and He’s Sure the Boy I Love.
All of this turbulence proved to be too much for the band to overcome. They parted ways with Spector and Philes Records and signed with United Artists. After some disappointing chart performances and some band departures, the Crystals disbanded in 1967. They did however, reform as a trio in 1971 and continue to perform today.
Chiffons– Another girl band hailing from New Yawk, the Chiffons were responsible for the epic He’s So Fine which includes some of the most perfect sing-a-long lyrics of any a girl band song (do-lang, do-lang, do-lang). It was their first single, and was a number 1 hit in America, selling over a million copies. They had some bona fide bangers back in the day- One Fine Day, Sweet Talkin’ Guy and I Have a Boyfriend. The Chiffons were a big touring band and the success of Sweet Talkin’ Guy meant they were able to tour in Europe which was unusual for this cohort of bands at the time. Although the Chiffons output in terms of new singles tends to tail off in the 1970s the group remain active today and those early hits are still absolutely timeless.
Chantels– The Chantels were another group that formed in the 1950s and became one of the earlier R&B/Doo Wop girl groups to achieve success. They formed in New York (there’s a pattern here?) and originally consisted of 5 members. The Chantels had a unique selling point that set them apart from some of their musical peers- their lead singer Arlene Smith had been trained as a classical singer, rather than the gospel tradition that was more commonplace amongst Black singers of the time. Smith was a songwriter as well as a singer and penned the lyrics to their first single He’s Gone. They achieved Gold disc status with their next hit Maybe– an absolute triumph of singing ability.
The group had a few line up changes, and a few record label changes and had some underperforming singles but the pure vocal ability of the group is widely considered to be far more influential than their chart performances would demonstrate. The lead vocals on a track like Maybe is simultaneously Herculean in its power and complex in its beauty.
It is this phenomenal vocal prowess that earned the group an induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002. They never achieved the level of success that would have earned them a space in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although they have been nominated on numerous occasions) but their abilities are laid out for all to hear in their recordings so you can judge for yourself whether they should qualify for that accolade.
The above are just five of my favourites, but this list of incredible bands could have been much longer. I haven’t even gone into the slightly more well-known bands, but you are likely to be wondering ‘where’s The Supremes? The Marvelettes? Martha and the Vandellas?’ Well, they were certainly on my mind, but it would take tomes and tomes to do the entirety of this genre justice so for now, you’ll have to be satiated with my suggested playlist.
Who do you wish was in this list? Leave your comment below!
**Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow- The Shirelles
**Walkin’ In the Sand- Shangri-Las
**Sweet Talkin’ Guy- The Chiffons
**Be My Baby- Ronettes
**Then He Kissed Me- The Crystals
**Maybe- The Chantels
**You Can’t Hurry Love- the Supremes
**(Love is Like A) Heatwave- Martha and the Vandellas
**Please Mr Postman- The Marvelettes
**Aint Gonna Kiss Ya- The Ribbons