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

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (When the Singers Ruled Motown and I Spy Goes Places We Haven’t Caught Up To Just Yet)

Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)

“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.

For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.

What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.

Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.

But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).

Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.

So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.

But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.

What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.

Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.

But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.

And they did.

The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.

Then, of course, he forgot.

Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.

Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.

Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.

But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.

I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.

Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.

But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.

Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.

Fair enough.

But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.

So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.

Shame about the rest of us.