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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"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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