Legendary Swinging 60s Girl Groups

The 1960s was the decade of revolution for music and when the cult of ‘girl groups’ hit the big time. Almost all the girl groups were black – the combination of gospel trained voices, catchy hooks and sweet doo- wop melodies bowled over the baby boomer generation.

Here are brief intros to a selection of the biggest-selling soul divas from the Motown era.

The Shirelles:

The group were Shirley Owens – main lead, Doris Coley, Beverly Lee and Addie Harris; fellow high school kids who started singing doo-wop songs together. They went on to become the originators of the Girl Group craze. The girls’ songs about boy troubles and heightened teenage heartbreak stormed the charts. They were the first all girl group of the rock n roll era to get a No 1 hit in the US for the song ‘Will you Still Love me Tomorrow’ ( it’s recently been covered by Amy Winehouse).  It also reached No2  that year in the UK . The Shirelles had a string of other hits such as ‘Mama Said’ and ‘Soldier Boy’.Their 1964 song ‘Sha La La’ went relatively unnoticed until Brit group Manfred Mann covered it in 1965 making it an international hit. Their song ‘Baby it’s You’,written for them by Burt Bacharach, was a hit in 1961 and the Beatles covered and recorded it in 1963 along with another original Shirelles song ‘Boys’.

The Ronettes:

Young teens Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett lead singer, her sister Estelle, and their cousin Nedra Talley practiced at their Grandma’s house and called themselves The Darling Sisters. The girls were discovered in 1961 at Joey Dee’s Peppermint Lounge on New York’s 45th Street. One night the manager mistook them for a singing trio that hadn’t arrived and put them on stage to perform. They belted out a version of Ray Charles’ “What I Say”. They were an immediate sensation, Ronnie in particular had an intensely soulful voice. All the girls were sultry with smoky eyes and towering beehive hair doos. Producer Phil Spector took them on and the girls went on to have a row of hits like ‘Be My Baby’, ‘I Can Hear Music’ and ‘Walking in the Rain’. Ronnie married Spector in 1968 and divorced in 1974 describing Spector as extremely possessive. The Ronettes songs had since been used in movies and advertisements in the 80s, the women accused Spector of cheating them of royalties – they sued but lost the case in 2002. Last year Spector was convicted of murdering an actress at his Hollywood home in 2003.

The Shangri Las:

Sisters Betty and Mary Weiss and twins Margie and Mary-Ann Ganser formed the group at school. The girls were 15 and 16 years old when they were signed – their first hit song was ‘Walking in the Sand’ reaching no 5 in US and 14 in the UK. Before the height of their fame Betty left (but returned later on) with Mary in the spotlight as the lead of a three-piece group. Mary’s passionate voice made their next release in 1964 ‘Leader of the Pack’ a No 1 hit in the US. The song about her doomed infatuation with a rebel is legendary for its use of a revving motorbike that was wheeled in the recording studio.  Overnight the girls’ image turned from angelic good girls to tough chicks with soft hearts. They swapped their modest stage outfits of blouses and full skirts for daring skin-tight jumpsuits and Go -go boots.  The hit song was released in the UK in 1965 but the BBC banned the song from airplay for its gang boy death theme – nearly a decade later in 1972 it was released and peaked at No3.

The Marvelettes:

Motown’s first successful Girl Group had a No.1 smash with ‘Please Mr Postman’ in 1961.As a follow-up Motown released ‘Twistin Postman’, a version of the song to match the Twist dance craze.  In 1962 they made top 20 with the song ‘Playboy’ but the hits waned and in 1965 the 5 member group was reduced to a trio – Gladys Horton( lead singer), Katherine Anderson and Wanda Rogers. When their careers flagged due to competition from other groups, they collaborated with the legendary Smokey Robinson and Wanda Rogers eventually took over as lead singer. They created hits such as ‘The Hunter gets Captured by the Game’ ‘When You’re Young and In love’ ‘Don’t Mess with Bill’, Their last big hit in 1968 was ‘My Baby Must be a Magician’. Wanda said in a 1990 interview: “I came off the road because of the problems when touring in the Southern States, the white people were so prejudice, there were times when they wouldn’t want to pay for our work.”

Martha Reeve and the Vandellas:

A Motown group that dominated the charts from 1963-67, known as the singers who had a raw R&B sound compared to the Supremes. They had a dozen hit singles including ‘Nowhere to Run’, ‘Dancing in the Street’, ‘Heat Wave’ and ‘Jimmy Mack’. Lead singer Reeves was schooled in gospel and classical music but it was R&B which captured her heart. Martha started working as a secretary at the Motown offices taking on any job she could. When she got the chance to be a backing vocalist in the studio, a producer spotted her exceptional powerful singing voice and stunning looks. The group was soon formed and the hits started, however, infighting amongst the members of the Vandellas led to problems. There were many instances where these “fights” happened on stage. In 1968 Rosalind Ashford stayed but Betty Kelley was fired and was replaced by Lois Reeves, Martha’s sister. But by then the times of the Girl Groups had shifted to the Halls of Fame and gave way to disco. Yet throughout time, all the legendary divas who sang their hearts out,  have left an influence on countless modern day musicians.

By Jameela Oberman

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