STARTING AROUND FRIDAY…

…I’m going to be busy for a while.

Friend’s birthday party Friday night. High school reunion (hurricane damage permitting) Saturday night. Sunday, I leave for a nine-day trip in which I’ll be visiting North Carolina (my brother), Nashville (my nephew) and Memphis (my oldest sister). On that first Sunday, good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll be in Atlanta to catch the tail-end of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman’s tour celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

I’m looking forward to all of it but especially the concert. McGuinn and Hillman are in their seventies. Though both still tour a good bit on their own, they don’t get together all that often. Any time might be the last time. My bucket list is pretty short (limited to my living heroes: them, Mary Weiss, a truly reunited Go-Go’s and Al Green’s church…that’s about it). Knocking off even one of them is a big deal.

The plan originally involved catching the show at the Ryman in Nashville (see nephew above) on the 8th. Then Durham on the 15th became a possibility (see brother above). In the end, between work schedules (my nephew’s and mine), my brother’s travel plans (he and his wife took a New England cruise for his 75th birthday), and being priced out of various venues (the Ryman went from $35 to $400 while I was trying to get my act together–eventually came down but it was too late by then), Atlanta became the only option. Looks like a great venue and the ticket was $50 so it all worked out.

I say all that by way of explaining why I may be away from the blog for long stretches between now and the end of the month. If I can get to the blog and have a chance to post from the road I will…and I plan to post on a regular basis between now and Sunday, time and energy permitting.

But, in any case, I don’t want you to think I won’t be thinking of you! Because without all who visit, comment, suggest and make me smile, I’d be diminished more than I can say:

NOT REALLY JUST ANOTHER GAL FROM LIVERPOOL (Cilla Black, R.I.P.)

CILLABLACK1

In England, at least, where she was big enough to inspire a television miniseries last year, she must have seemed very much a matter of right place, right time: Liverpool, 1964, discovered and managed by Brian Epstein.

Easy math then.

But, in a sense, she was both in time and out of time, charmed and cursed in equal measure, a big-voiced ballad singer who came along at the very moment the Beatles’ long shadow made that style a harder slog than it had literally been the day before.

No, she wasn’t quite Dusty Springfield or Dionne Warwick or Lulu or Shirley Bassey. But that just shows how deep the bench was once upon a time. And I’ll just say, I’ve been doing this for a few years, and, in searching around YouTube for an appropriate clip or two, every one I opened had an outpouring of affection on a level I’ve never encountered researching anyone else who just passed.

She had real talent, then, but I suspect the depth of that affection has less to do with that than a sense she was one with an audience who had grown up suspecting no one famous would ever be one with them.

So, you know, a rock and roller after all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsGTPXx0zmw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jdq6w2Btmm0

STANDING TALL (Lesley Gore, R.I.P.)

LGORECOVER

“Tom Doniphon, you listen to me. Where I go and what I do is none of your business. You don’t own me!”

(Vera Miles to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–1962)

“Don’t tell me what to do/And don’t tell me what to say”

Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

DI: Fans have always told you how important song has been to them. Are you making “a statement” even today?

LG: No question about it. It’s the one song – after some 40 years, I still close my show with that song because I can’t find anything stronger, to be honest with you. It’s a song that just kind of grows every time you do it. It might mean one thing one year and “boom,” two years later, boy it can mean something else.

(Digital Interviews with Lesley Gore, May, 2003)

When the late Charlie Gillett published the first important history of rock and roll in 1969, he dubbed the flood of hit records by young women from the early and mid-sixties “Girl Talk.” However problematic that phrase was, it was positively enlightened compared to the “girl group” moniker which gained currency soon after and has been used as short-hand ever since by everyone from the boys’ club that re-defined rock ‘n’ roll’s quasi-official narrative in Gillett’s wake in strict accord with their own needs to those doctrinaire feminist scholars who are so often in the habit of accepting all the wrong things.

One group that never accepted the term was a number of the “girl group” participants themselves.

I don’t know how Lesley Gore felt about it, but Arlene Smith (14 when she basically invented the concept with the Chantels), Mary Weiss (15 when she defined the apotheosis with the Shangri-Las) and others always saw themselves as a vital part of a larger tradition and always understood that the term was meant, consciously or subconsciously, to segregate them from that tradition.

As it happened, it worked to separate them by more than gender.

Make of it what you will, but no other “genre” name in rock and roll or any other form of music has ever needed to not only cordon off its practitioners by gender, but also further subdivide them by race, age, number and anything else that can be brought to bear.

This was made somewhat easier by an odd circumstance. With the exception of Weiss, all of the concept’s signature lead group voices, were black (Smith, Shirley Owens, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Gladys Horton, Diana Ross, Darlene Love). Meanwhile, except for Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells, the signature solo voices were white (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, Lesley Gore). So just in case gender wasn’t handy enough on its own, some of these voices could be conveniently cut from the bunch by race…or age…or number…or just vocal inclination.

Further divisions were managed by siphoning off various groups or singers into some other category (anything would do).

Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were “Motown.” Clark, Springfield and Lulu (along with Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, big stars in England who had limited success in the States) were “British Invasion.” Warwick was “Supper Club Soul” or “Adult Contemporary.” Lee and Francis were “Teen Idols” (or “Countrypolitan” or just “Pop”) and so forth.

None of this was exactly untrue. I make the distinctions myself at times.

But the trick to the official rock and roll narrative was that, once separated from the already hidebound ethos, these outliers were never let back into their moment.

I mean, if you wanna start a fight with a Rock Critic, try calling Dionne Warwick (twenty-one when she recorded her first big hit) or Brenda Lee (fifteen when she recorded hers) a Girl Group singer.

The effect, when used in tandem with the “male-producer-as-svengali” syndrome I’ve addressed pretty relentlessly on this blog, was and is to blunt the force and magnitude of the first mighty surge of cultural power ever spear-headed by a collective of young women in the history of American music.

Or, for that matter, pretty much any age women anywhere.

In any cultural (as opposed to social or political) context.

Ever.

The effect of the “girl talk” moment, both as symbolism and underlying reality, was of that part of the audience which had fought their way to the front rows at Elvis and Jackie Wilson concerts in the fifties (and, yes, fainted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the forties, though in those days they mostly stayed in their seats), literally stepping forth from the audience and taking the stage themselves.

Few of them wrote their important hits (Smith and DeShannon were rare exceptions). Even fewer produced and none ever received proper credit. So, mostly, they seized the moment by singing.

Sing they did. Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Darlene Love, Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss, Ronnie Spector, Jackie DeShannon. No genre, style or sensibility, however named, was ever graced with greater voices, and, amongst that cacophony, it fell to then seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore, she of the perfect pitch and Sarah Lawrence pedigree, to sing their anthem, the one record that most assuredly marked the future off from the past, even as the storm of the British Invasion (a genre, like any but the one Lesley Gore was slated into, where no distinction needed to be made between groups or individuals, men or women, teens or twenty-somethings, no matter how many of its acts were four or five guys with guitars) seemed to wash every other future away.

‘You Don’t Own Me,” (it’s title and ethos copped from a John Ford movie even in the unlikely event the songwriters never saw it) wasn’t her biggest hit.“It’s My Party” made #1, while “You Don’t Own Me” was stopped at #2 by the symbolic-as-hell and real-as-hell phenomenon that was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. It may not have even been her greatest vocal. I’m partial to “She’s a Fool” myself and there’s plenty of other competition.

But it’s the one that truly escaped time and found a life that was not and is not in any way bound by its original moment.

My memory plays tricks on me and I’ve never been able to track the quote down, but I’m willing to swear on anything you want that, somewhere, there’s an interview with Gore where she said it was also the one song she knew would be a hit.

When she was asked how she knew, she had a simple answer:

“Because I read my fan mail.”

Call her anything you want. Can’t mark the future off any plainer than that.

Time came for Lesley Gore today at 68.

Well…not really….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAzoc9wijm0