The nice Jewish girl matriculated directly from the Dwight School for Girls in Englewood, N.J., to Sarah Lawrence College. She never took a year off in her education because, as she sensibly noted at the time, “It would be very foolish of me to leave school to go into such an unpredictable field on a full-time basis.” Lesley Gore’s part-time field was pop singer, and in her brief but urgent prime she was the Queen of Teen Angst.
She endured heartbreak as a birthday girl betrayed by her beau in “It’s My Party,” savored revenge in the sequel “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and belted the proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me.” Those three songs, all recorded in 1963, still held an honored place in America’s pop-cultural jukebox on Monday, when her long-time partner, jewelry designer Lois Sasson, announced Gore’s death of lung cancer, at 68.
Daughter of a swimwear manufacturer, Lesley Sue Goldstein was born May 2, 1946, in Brooklyn and raised in Tenafly, N.J. Her music teacher made some demos that got to Quincy Jones, then a fledgling producer at Mercury Records. The man with the golden ear heard a soprano that could segue from adolescent to womanly in a single phrase and saw pretty, dimpled girl coiffed in the era’s mandatory bouffant helmet. Now he had to find a song that suited both her range and persona.
Walter Gold, John Gluck Jr. and Herb Weiner had written “It’s My Party” for the song publisher Aaron Schroeder (himself the composer of five No. 1 singles for Elvis Presley, including “It’s Now or Never”). The song sounded like a hit to Phil Spector, who wanted to record it with The Crystals. Schroeder didn’t tell this to Jones, who had already produced his version with Lesley. When Jones heard of Spector’s plans, he finished post-production on the song and released it March 30, 1963. Within four weeks it was No. 1 — the first pop hit in Jones’ storied, half-century-plus career.
The tale of a girl whose happiest birthday is ruined by seeing her boyfriend Johnny sneak off with the predatory Judy, who returns with his ring, “It’s My Party” is a little melodrama of public humiliation. The verse, with its ominous melodic curve, spells out the dilemma (“Nobody knows where my Johnny has gone, / And Judy left the same time”) before the chorus erupts in the tantrum repetition of a little girl’s snit (“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, / Cry if I want to, / Cry if I want to!”). The oddly perky musical setting lets Gore mine the character’s hurt while slyly mocking it; she is both the victim and the amused commentator.
Hits from the first decade of pop rock often summoned “answer songs.” Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol” prompted “Oh Neil” by Carole King, the young singer Sedaka had written his top-10 number for. Damita Jo’s “I’ll Save the Last Dance for You” followed The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me.” These were the old songs with sex-change lyrics. Rare was the answer song with an original tune and performed by the same artist. “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” written by Beverly Ross (“Lollipop,” “Candy Man”) and Edna Lewis, gave Gore the payback part of her two-act playlet.
This time the wounded thrush sees Johnny and Judy together — “So I kissed some other guy. / Johnny comes up and he hit him, / Cause he still loves me, that’s why.” A cheating lover with anger-management issues seems a poor long-term emotional investment, but Gore sold the proposition with a voice full of teasing satisfaction. And Jones’ horn section, which had brayed in the instrumental break of “It’s My Party,” modulated with no sweat into a triumphant fanfare. “Judy” went to No. 5 on the Billboard charts.
In that fascinating few years between essential Elvis and the early fever of Beatlemania, Brill Building pop made history with young Jewish composers writing for black girl groups. The landscape also allowed a few young female singers who transmitted the hurt of love with a sonic blast (listen to the great Timi Yuro’s revenge masterpiece “What’s a Matter Baby”) or a gospel wail (the young Dionne Warwick’s cathartic “Don’t Make Me Over”). Across the pond, Dusty Springfield had broken through with the plangent “I Only Want to Be With You.” Gore wasn’t quite in their league of vocal virtuosity — she was a straight-ahead interpreter who attacked the text rather than mining the agonizing subtext — but the 17-year-old had the luck of a big ballad, a declaration of independence, in “You Don’t Own Me.”
Composers John Madora and David White, who confected uptempo hits for Danny and the Junior (“At the Hop”) and Len Barry (“1-2-3”), turned to the more mature Euro-pop for this precocious statement. If the song had any American cousins, they would be the avant-pop that Burt Bacharach and Hal David had started to produce for Warwick and other R&B artists. Again Jones produced, this time employing legendary arranger Claus Ogerman to provide the soughing strings. And Gore proved equal to the demands of greater power and grownup assertiveness. This was Lesley unleashed.
Imagine “You Don’t Own Me” not as an answer song but as a warning song: the threat of emancipation directed at the unreliable Johnny of Gore’s first two hits. She almost whispers the ghostly minor chords of the verse (“You don’t own me. / I’m not just one of your many toys”), but that’s just a massage before the chorus’s womanly karate chop: “And don’t tell me what to do / And don’t tell me what to say / And please, when I go out with you / Don’t put me on display. … I’m young and I love to be young. / I’m free and I love to be free. / To live my life the way I want / To say and do whatever I please.” We imagine that the abashed Johnny made a quick getaway, and that the singer — a woman who had discovered her roar — didn’t miss him one bit.
“You Don’t Own Me” rose in early 1964 to No. 2, just behind the Beatles’ first top-of-the-U.S.-pops “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” That ranking was prophetic: the golden age of boy bands ruled for the rest of the decade, and Gore never again made the top 10. She graced the charts with the giddy “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” another Jones-Ogerman production that reached No. 13 and handed the 21-year-old Marvin Hamlisch his first hit. A second Hamlisch composition, “California Nights” with a Beach Boys flavor, went to No. 16 in 1967. And for Gore, that was it. Her life as a diva darling was over before she was 21.
She went the singer-songwriter route in albums that attracted little attention or acclaim. In 1980 she collaborated with her younger brother Michael on songs for the Fame movie, earning an Oscar nomination for “Out Here on My Own.” She appeared as a “guest star” in the musical Smokey Joe’s Cafe, an amalgam of rock standards by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller that ran for five years of Broadway. (Just a guess: she sang the sultry-brazen “I Am Woman,” which Leiber and Stoller had written for Peggy Lee.)
In her later years, Gore came out as gay, hosted the PBS series In the Life and supported many LBGT causes. The L word would have been taboo for Gore in her pop spotlight years, as it would have been for Springfield. In a way, she had already been outed in Alison Anders’ 1996 Brill Building bio-fic Grace of My Heart, which conjures up simulacra of King, her husband Gerry Goffin, Spector, Brian Wilson and a secret lesbian called Kelly Porter and played by Bridget Fonda.
Grace of My Heart went virtually unnoticed. If moviegoers thought of Gore in the ’90s it would have been for the prominent placing in the hit comedy First Wives Club of “You Don’t Own Me,” its anthem status undiminished. A new generation of kids got the Lesley lilt when “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” showed up in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
Sharing a life with Sasson for the past 33 years, Gore dwelled comfortably in her post-celebrity decades, still looking great at 68. She’ll be fondly remembered by her fans of a half-century, and those cursing YouTube for a stalwart pop singer of a vanished age. Now it’s their turn to cry.