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)

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.

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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.

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