The Real Dreamgirls

How girl groups changed American music

Although loosely based on The Supremes (above), the movie Dreamgirls is a work of fiction. The real story of the 1960s girl groups, however, changed American music forever. (Michael Ochs Archives / Corbis)
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With three Golden Globe awards and eight Academy Award nominations, Dreamgirls has renewed interest in the girl groups of the 1960s as well as Motown Records, the Detroit-based company that became one of the most influential labels of the time. The movie, based on the 1981 Broadway play, tells the story of a small black record label and its star singers whose success crosses over to the pop charts. Although loosely based on The Supremes, the movie is a work of fiction. The real story of the 1960s girl groups, however, changed American music forever.

The girl group phenomenon reached its height between 1960 and 1963, though many scholars recognize The Chantel's 1958 song "Maybe" as the beginning of girl groups' commercial success. In 1961, The Shirelles reached number one on the pop charts with "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" That same year, Motown got its first pop hit with The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." A black-owned recording company having such a hit was, at that time, revolutionary.

Hundreds of girl groups recorded songs during the sixties, but hardly any of them were seasoned musicians. The groups, usually made up of three to five singers, often formed through glee clubs and high schools, with many having backgrounds in church gospel music. Their songs employed a lead voice with backup harmonies, and the music was a hybrid of soul, rhythm and blues, pop and 1950's doo-wop.

"It's sort of the female corollary to doo-wop at the beginning," says Jacqueline Warwick, author of the new book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identityin the 1960's and professor of music at Dalhousie University. "Whereas these teenage boys, in cities like Detroit, can go out on the streets and kind of roam around the neighborhood and sing harmonies with each other, girls aren't so free to do that. So they're sitting at home or gathering at a friend's house or they're sitting on the bench during basketball practice at school, and doing the same kind of thing—harmonizing and making up songs."

It wasn't uncommon for a group to get its big break at a high school talent show or, like The Dreamettes in the movie Dreamgirls, at a local talent contest. In the oral history Women of Motown by veteran music critic Susan Whitall, former Marvelette Katherine Anderson Schaffner talks about her group's Motown break: "We all sang in the [Inkster High] School glee club; that was one of the classes we had together. They announced that they were having a talent show. When they announced that, Gladys asked why don't we go ahead and be a part of the talent show. …We sang one of The Chantels' numbers—I'm thinking it was 'Maybe.' We lost! But because of our performance, one of our teachers…when it came time to audition for Motown—because that was a part of what your winnings would be, to audition for Motown—she recommended that they take the top five. And we were fourth."

The girls went to Detroit for an audition, and eventually, they kick-started the Motown hit machine that would later call itself "The Sound of Young America."

Teen Culture

The success of girl groups had much to do with the market. The post-war baby boom had produced more teenagers than ever before, and the 1950s brought the explosion of a new teen culture with its own music, clothes, movies and dancing. Teenage life became synonymous with pop culture, and with many of these teenagers having money to spend, the record market flourished.

Teenagers listening to popular music during this time heard songs with voices that sounded like their own. They watched performers on stage who were their age. For American girls to see female groups was something new. "That really had never happened before and it really hasn't happened since," says Warwick. "We get young teenage girls at front and center in mainstream pop culture."

Crossing Color Lines

In the 1950s and 1960s, the R&B (Rhythm and Blues) charts were "black" charts and the pop charts were "white." But girl groups—from the black The Marvelettes to the white The Shangri-Las—were popular with a mixed audience from the beginning. In Motown, founder Berry Gordy aimed to make music with widespread pop charts appeal.

Certainly whites (particularly young people) had been listening to black music before girl groups came on the scene, and black artists had made the pop charts before. Nat King Cole reached the charts in 1946 with "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," which made the top ten. In the 1950s, Chuck Berry had songs at the top of the R&B and pop charts, as did Little Richard. And it wasn't only men—Ruth Brown's "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" was number one on the R&B charts in 1953, and number 23 on the pop charts.

Yet before girl groups, it was easier for a song to cross over than for artists themselves to do, says Warwick. And, of course, white artists also re-recorded songs done by black artists. "We listen to Pat Boone covering Little Richard songs now and it's just laughable," she says, "but at the time that was a real phenomenon. Little Richard's song 'Tutti Frutti' [could] access that white suburban middle-class audience, but Little Richard himself [couldn't] do that. With girl groups, that becomes more possible."

That isn't to say teenagers weren't also listening to the original Little Richard. But in Motown, Berry Gordy knew he could achieve both the musical and social aspect of crossover with well-groomed, sweet young girls.

Finding the Words

Girl groups subject matter articulated a common teenage experience, regardless of race, even as the culture around them was slow to catch up. They sang to mixed audiences about courtship, boys, parties, parents and parents not letting them go to parties to court boys. But they also sang about love and crushes, mostly from the position of a patiently waiting, yearning girl. This seemingly passive attitude and general lack of depth in song subject matter makes it easy to dismiss girl groups music as trivial and, in contemporary terms, less than radical.

But the songs were sometimes closer to real life than expected. For instance, "Please Mr. Postman" is in some ways a classic girl group song, with a girl waiting for a letter from a boy. But this song inevitably gained meaning from the times in which it was heard.

Schaffner of The Marvelettes talks about the song's political significance in Marc Taylor's book The Original Marvelettes: Motown's Mystery Girl Group. "We were all surprised when 'Postman' hit so big," she says. "The most surprised was Motown. But then again, hindsight is that there was a lot going on when 'Postman' was released. We were into, or going into the Vietnam War. We had a lot of young men that were leaving home for the first time going into the military, and, of course, some never returned. The timing of 'Postman' was excellent. When my brother went into the military, I know how anxious I or my mother or sister would be looking for a letter or something like that from him."

The girl group era was also the civil rights era. Freedom Rides began through the South in 1961, and in 1963 at the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. That same year, four teenage girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Because of events like this, says Warwick, the figure of the non-white teenage girl was being politicized in America. And the same non-threatening, pure quality that was letting black girl groups cross over into white culture was giving young women force in the civil rights movement. "If you think about the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas in 1967," she says, "of nine black teenagers chosen to integrate the schools, six of them were girls. And all that very famous footage of Elizabeth Eckford…going to school that first day. So the emblem of the teenage girl is being imbued with a lot of political significance."

In the entertainment world, The Supremes—arguably the most successful girl group of all time—began playing venues that had been hard for black musicians to book. They were also among the first black musicians to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. "For them to be on Ed Sullivan—almost every week it seemed like—that was a tremendous, incredible influence," Whitall remembers. "I was just overcome every week by this, these incredible visions, they were just such beautiful girls in these beautiful gowns, singing the music that I was listening to all week on the radio. … And I'd even think—and this is where it gets interesting racially—oh, I want to look like Mary Wilson, she's beautiful."

Even when girl groups didn't set out make political statements or songs, the politically charged times came to them. In 1967, Martha and The Vandellas were singing in Detriot when the riots broke out. From the stage, they told the audience what was happening outside. Everywhere they went on tour that summer, there were riots. Soon people started talking about how the group's hit song "Dancing in the Streets" was about social uprising. This was not what Martha Reeves thought of when she sang the song. In Women of Motown, she says, "What I related the song to was my experience in Rio at Carnival time, and in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. It was a time for people to forget who they are and just get with each other to be happy and loving and dance and rejoice."

The Sounds

In Motown, Berry Gordy had a specific formula for making a hit song. He gathered a stellar group of area jazz musicians (all men), known collectively as The Funk Brothers. He stuck with a select group of songwriters who were told to write songs in first person and present tense. The Motown sound was characterized by a straight-forward, grounded beat (bass and drums) and melodic hook. It also employed call-and-response vocals and heavy use of tambourine. In New York, Phil Spector produced girl group songs using his famous "wall of sound," a production technique that employed a huge amount of instruments and layered track after track on top of each other. He created a thick, roaring, echoing sound, like The Ronettes' recording of "Be My Baby."

"Musically, the girl group sound—and popular music at the time in general—was drawing on a lot different sources," says Warwick. "There are girl group songs that are based on blues progressions… But there's also some that sound more like Tin Pan Alley songs—almost like Broadway numbers."

The girls rarely wrote their own songs, but neither did the male groups of the time. Instead, says Whitall, it was more of a movie studio system. "This is not a singer-songwriter thing, where they were coming in with their own material," she says.

But the success of girl groups had to do with more than harmony and lyrics. It was about the whole performance—how they moved, the clothes they wore, how big their hair was. In Motown, Gordy hired finishing school teacher Maxine Powell to teach the girls how to walk and talk. He also brought in professional choreographers. All of this was part of his effort—embraced by the girls—to convey a middle-class respectability.

Outside Motown, The Shangri-Las were singing songs about good girls loving bad boys, such as "Leader of the Pack." In the mid-to-late 1960s, they took on more of a tough girl image, wearing spike heels and tight leather pants to match their delinquent themes. The Ronettes, who were biracial, also became famous for their bad-girl short skirts, high-piled hair and thick eyeliner.

Male promoters did have ultimate control over the groups, and in what is arguably a tradition in the recording industry, some musicians were exploited: they didn't get credit for their work, it was released under a different name or they didn't get royalties.

But for many girls, fame also offered an array of new opportunities. In Women of Motown, The Marvelettes' Schaffner says, "I loved going on the road. As with many artists who lived in the black community at that time, it was an avenue that allowed you to travel to other cities and states and gave you that 'out.'" Of course, some of the girls were so young that chaperones accompanied them on tour—sometimes their parents.

End of an Era

The girl group boom began to fizzle in the late 1960s, in part because of the British Invasion. But The Beatles themselves were obsessed with American girl groups and even sang girl group songs, including "Please Mr. Postman," The Shirelles' "Baby It's You" and The Cookies' "Chains."

The only girl group able to compete with The Beatles on the American charts was The Supremes, who maintained popularity into the early 1970s, even though Diana Ross had left the group. Yet The Supremes aren't necessarily representative of the rest of girl group culture. Says Warwick, "Even from the very beginning, their songs are a little more adult in the themes," such as in the songs "Where Did Our love Go" and "Stop in the Name of Love." These grown-up themes contrast with The Shangri-Las singing healsongs about teenage drama. "At Motown, The Marvelettes, The Velvelettes, groups like that, are much more clearly identified as teenagers," she says, "and arguably that's why The Supremes had more longevity. They were able to transition into becoming adults with greater ease."

One thing is certain: by the time the women's movement arrived in the late 1960s, there was a generation of women used to standing on the stage and telling the world how they felt. In an era of cultural upheaval, girl groups helped articulate the personal experiences of teenagers—of all races—who were living through tremendous political upheaval.

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