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How 1960s Pop Songs Helped Young Women Find Their Own Voices in a Time of Social Change

11 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

It was an unlikely setting for social reform: an auditorium full of screaming, swooning young girls in plaid skirts and boys in chinos. The project was designed as a celebration of “teenage” music, with fans at the live event at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (and, later, screening the footage in movie theaters) punching ballots for their favorite performers. The Teenage Awards Music International would kick off an ongoing series of shows to be broadcast on one of the major television networks; proceeds would benefit music scholarships for young people around the world.

While those plans never materialized, the one-time concert event known as the T.A.M.I. Show would set the bar for rock ’n’ roll spectacles to come. The idea was wildly ambitious. Using a new high-resolution camera system called Electronovision, the producers would film some of the most recognizable pop stars of the moment. A live color edit from four camera angles would be transferred to 35mm film, then presented as a concert event on movie screens across the country. At the time — 1964, still televised largely in black and white — the concept was revolutionary.

Though the film was officially out of print for decades, the T.A.M.I. Show nevertheless inspired an outsize legend. Seven of the show’s dozen acts, including Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, and the Beach Boys, would be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The show, filmed shortly after the contentious passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, featured an integrated bill, with almost as many black acts as white. Most famously, a young British group called the Rolling Stones were scheduled to take the stage after the soul singer James Brown, who established his crossover appeal to white audiences with an astonishing performance that, as the T.A.M.I. Show mythology has it, left Stones singer Mick Jagger dumbstruck with awe.

At the time, however, there was one name on the program that eclipsed all the others. The biggest star on American radio at the time was a young singer — still a teenager herself — with a Jackie Kennedy–style coiffure and a bedroom in her parents’ suburban home in Tenafly, New Jersey. “She was the biggest name on the bill,” director Steve Binder would recall. Her name was Lesley Gore.

Introduced by show hosts Jan and Dean, who wore matching sweatshirts stamped with her surname, the prim young lady in heels and a wool skirt stepped to the microphone in front of the house band— the redoubtable session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew— and began her brief set with her latest hit single, “Maybe I Know.” The bouncy song admitted the singer’s suspicion that her boyfriend has been unfaithful, “but what can I do?”

Then she removed the microphone from its stand and strode to the lip of the stage, where the central camera captured her close-up in a gauzy filter. To an ominous, minor-key arrangement in 3/ 4 time, Gore began to sing: “You don’t own me/ I’m not just one of your many toys.” When the song abruptly shifted to an exultant major key— “don’t tell me what to do/ don’t tell me what to say”— she lifted her gaze to the ceiling and permitted herself a satisfied smile.

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

“You Don’t Own Me” was, at the time, a complete surprise. In an era of preordained roles for young men and women — Gore’s own album titles presented her singing For Mixed- Up Hearts and about Boys, Boys, Boys — female pop singers had rarely been so bold about declaring their independence.

In the early years of rock ’n’ roll, the subject of the music was often rock ’n’ roll itself. Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over, Beethoven” imagined the great classical composers turning in their graves over the rowdy new music. Everybody in the old cell block, as Elvis sang, was dancing to the “Jailhouse Rock.”

By 1957, the music was settling in for the long haul. In Philadelphia, the disc jockey Dick Clark was about to bring the television program he hosted to a national audience. With a simple format — groups of teenagers dancing in a television studio to the latest pop hits — the show’s name was changed to reflect its vastly broadened audience, from Bandstand to American Bandstand. One of the songs that helped establish the show’s popularity was written by two Philly kids, John Madara and David White. They crafted their lyrics around a West Coast “dance sensation that is sweeping the nation,” the Bop. According to Clark, he urged White’s group, Danny and the Juniors, to make the lyric less specific to a fad that would soon fade. (Voice instructor Artie Singer, who had a co- songwriting credit, claimed it was his idea.) In any case, “let’s all do the bop” became “let’s go to the hop.” The song, “At the Hop,” reached the number one spot on the national charts in the first week of 1958 and stayed there for seven weeks.

White and Madara continued to write songs together. They created “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay,” a second national hit for Danny and the Juniors, and they began working with an African- American schoolgirl from Philadelphia named Maureen Gray. Madara owned a record shop in a black neighborhood in the city — “jazz, gospel, and R&B music, that was it” — with a piano in the back room. The two composers were impressed with the work of the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who’d engineered hits for Gene Pitney and a dramatic young singer from Chicago named Timi Yuro. Bacharach and David had another young protégée named Dionne Warwick, who sang on their demo version of a new song called “Make It Easy on Yourself.” She’d hoped the song would launch her own career; instead, it went to Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield’s cofounder in the Impressions, who had moved on to a solo career.

Warwick, not yet 22 years old, was distraught, feeling the songwriters had betrayed a promise to help establish her as a recording artist in her own right. “Don’t make me over, man!” she is said to have shouted at Bacharach and David. “Accept me for what I am.” Those words would soon be heard on radio stations across the country: “Don’t Make Me Over,” the exquisitely orchestrated R&B ballad that Bacharach and David crafted out of the singer’s admonishment, became the first in a steady stream of Top 40 hits that would last through the decade for the three collaborators. The song “displays a protofeminist sense of control,” wrote Dave Marsh in his book on the greatest singles of all time, The Heart of Rock & Soul.

Madara and White soon composed a similar song with Maureen Gray in mind. “You Don’t Own Me” was a “sideways” variation on “Don’t Make Me Over,” as Gray once described it. But the songwriters never got around to recording it with her. Instead, they showcased it for Quincy Jones, who urged them to play it for Lesley Gore. At a record company retreat in the Catskills, the two Philly songwriters approached Gore at poolside and sang “You Don’t Own Me” for her, with one playing a baritone ukulele. Inside the resort, they played it again, this time at a piano. With Gore eager to record the song, White and Madara were invited to sit in on a New York studio session.

The simple idea behind the song, Madara said, was to write a song “about a woman telling a guy off. We always hear about guys saying things about girls, and girls pleading their cases. How about a song about a girl coming from her point of view?”

The song was certainly an anomaly at a time when “girl groups” — the Shirelles, the Shangri-Las, Martha & the Vandellas — and showy pop singers like Yuro, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, and Connie Francis (“Where the Boys Are”) dominated the commercial airwaves. Almost every song of the era written for female voices was lyrically subservient, playing into traditional notions of demure young women hopelessly devoted to their dreamy, overprotective sweethearts. “He’s so fine,” cooed the Chiffons, from the Bronx. “He is my destiny,” crooned Little Peggy March, a product of suburban Philadelphia who was just fifteen when her song “I Will Follow Him” topped the pop chart in early 1963. “My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble,” as the Angels — like Gore, teenaged girls from New Jersey — taunted an unwanted suitor.

The girl group phenomenon of the early 1960s, an answer of sorts to the mostly male-voiced doo-wop format of the previous decade, projected a collective image of puppy love, with boys typically acting as they pleased, and their doe-eyed girlfriends perpetually ready to forgive them. The trend was a product of the music-business hit machine, in which producers, executives, and talent managers — almost all of them men — “shaped” their artists into prescriptive molds based on the industry’s most recent commercial successes. Al Kooper, who worked in the legendary songwriting mill known as the Brill Building in Midtown Manhattan, once explained the process: “I’d come into work and I’d go into this little cubicle that had a little upright piano . . . and every day from ten to six we’d go in there and pretend that we were 13-year-old girls and write these songs. That was the gig.”

Many of the girl groups were black, adding another hurdle to any notions they may have had of autonomy or self- determination. Rare was a song like “Chains,” a buoyant regret by the Cookies, a veteran R&B vocal group originally formed in Brooklyn, in which a lover laments the invisible “chains of love” that impede her attraction to another guy. There was a reason that song (written by the husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King) gave the girls as much independence as the guys: first recorded (though not released) by the Everly Brothers, later covered by the Beatles, it was written from a male perspective.

Some critics were dismissive of the “girl groups” and the narrow scope of their apparent interests. Al Aronowitz, who would make his name as the journalist who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles, wrote a piece for the Saturday Evening Post in 1963 headlined “The Dumb Sound.” The Brill Building formula, he wrote, amounted to a modern version of Tin Pan Alley “packed with so many kids, they’ve started calling it Teen Pan Alley.” A writer for a Christian newspaper neatly summarized the plot of a typical girl group record: “Things happen to me. I have no control over them and no responsibility for them.” Yet regardless of who wrote the songs (and to some degree in spite of their vapid content), the “girl group” period helped a generation of young women discover their own voices, by singing along with their pop-star stand-ins.

Oxford University Press

From Which Side Are You On? 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs by James Sullivan. Copyright © 2019 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Correction, Jan. 3:

The original version of this excerpt mischaracterized two moments in the songwriting partnership between John Madara and David White. They did not share a songwriting credit on “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay,” which was written by White, and White recalls being the one to play the ukulele for Lesley Gore.

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