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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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."

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