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Music: Dream Girls

3 minute read

A rock myth 20 years after

Bandstand memories. A trio or quartet of young women in identical dresses, heavy on the sequins and feathers, sway in gentle syncopation as they mouth the words to their new hit record. They have the rough, “found” beauty of stenos or inner-city cheerleaders, and they run through their number with artless urgency, as if they realize that this is their one fluky shot at stardom. They sing of the idealized male, who needs both adoration and protection: the angel baby, the rebel, the leader of the pack, the playboy, the soldier boy, the fine fine boy, the boy I’m gonna marry—he’s sure the boy I love.

Boys and girls of the early 1960s returned the favor. By plugging into the nervous system of every love-starved teenager, these “girl groups” dominated the AM airwaves for three or four years and made honest, infectious, good music besides. Wrote Critic Greil Marcus: “If you were looking for rock ‘n’ roll between Elvis and the Beatles, girl groups gave you the genuine article.” The Payola Years of rock have recently been limned in such movies as Sparkle and The Idolmaker and in the hit musicals Dreamgirls and Little Shop of Horrors. Now Alan Betrock’s Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound (Delilah Books) recaptures some of that music’s innocent power—and documents the casual exploitation of these young singers by their managers and record producers.

In the free-for-all pop music business of the late ’50s, a strained symbiosis obtained between singers and songwriters. Both were young and ambitious; both pulled the music directly from their own up-tempo urban experience. But the writer-producers were white, most of them, and in control; the performers were working-class girls, black or white, and in thrall. With six Top Ten singles (including Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Soldier Boy), the Shirelles expected that the “trust fund” of their earnings would be substantial but, as they told Betrock, when they turned 21 they learned that the money was not there. Some groups, like the Crystals with He’s a Rebel, would find their name on a song they had not recorded. Many would be shuffled or discarded when their producers found more malleable girls with the same sound. Even at Motown, where the bosses were black, a team of dream girls like the Supremes could be treated as if they were balky students at a finishing school. Few got rich; most soon returned to gray oblivion.

What is left, and still has its slick power, is the music. Songwriting teams like Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil composed terrific teen anthems for the girl groups. Producers Phil Specter, Shadow Morton and Holland-Dozier-Holland encased the adenoidal voices in a cushion of strings, saxophones and heartbeat percussion. In those years before rock became Ph.D. fodder, the girl-group sound married musical sophistication and the saving emotional jolt. That sound retains its power and appeal. On record, at least, the dream girls are still beautiful.

—By Richard Corliss

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