Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Girl Group sound

I've been in seventh heaven this past week, listening to Rhino's latest boxed set, One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost and Found. I'm a long-time fan of the early-60s Girl Group/Brill Building/Wall of Sound genre (and of Rhino Records, of course), and this boxed set is perhaps the finest representation to-date of the Girl Group part of that equation.

First, a bit about the boxed set. It's a 4-CD set, each CD with 30 songs each, for a total of 120 girl group classics. It comes with the kind of in-depth liner notes, in a separate booklet, that one expects from the folks at Rhino. And it's all wrapped up in what looks to be a 60s-era hatbox, very cute.

The recordings are all first-rate, fully remastered in glorious mono (in most cases). Many of the songs here are available on other collections (such as K-Tel's long out-of-print The Brill Building Sound boxed set), but the sound here is much superior to what I've heard elsewhere. Take, for example, the forgotten gem "My One and Only, Jimmy Boy" by The Girlfriends. This song first got rediscovered on The Brill Building Sound, then later was included on one of Ace Records' Early Girls compilation CDs. In both those instances, the sound was muddy, without a lot of headroom; it sounded as if it had been recorded in a trashcan. Not so on Girl Group Sounds. Here the sound is bright and clear, almost as if it had been recorded last year instead of forty years ago. (It first hit the charts in February of 1964, where it got swept away by the Beatles invasion.) You can hear every footstomping beat, every crack from Hal Blaine's snare drum, and all the glory of Steve Douglas' rockin' sax solo. The sound is so vibrant, so joyous, you just want to get up and dance along.

As I said, most of the songs on the Rhino set have been available in other collections, although you had to look hard for them. Rhino's mid-1980s The Best of the Girl Groups compilations offered some of these tunes, as did K-Tel's late, lamented 1993 The Brill Building Sound box. More recently, U.K. reissue label Ace Records had dug up several of these cuts for their Early Girls and Where the Boys Are compilations, although both the sound and the liner notes are superior in this new Rhino set.

My favorite tunes? There's a bunch. "He's Got the Power," by The Exciters. "You Don't Know," a rare solo singing turn by songwriter Ellie Greenwich. "Please Don't Wake Me," by The Cinderellas. "I Never Dreamed," by The Cookies. "Break-A-Way" by Irma Thomas. The Bacharach-like "Girl Don't Come," by Sandie Shaw. "The One You Can't Have," by The Honeys, written and produced by Brian Wilson in his best better-than-Spector mode. The aforementioned, "My One and Only, Jimmy Boy," by The Cinderellas, a rollicking Wall of Sound-alike by future Bread-winner David Gates. "Dream Baby" by a very young Cher, where producer Sonny Bono shows that he learned something when he used to work for Phil Spector. "I'm Blue (The Gong-Gong Song)" by the Ikettes, recently revived in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1. "Peanut Duck," an irresistibly odd dance number by an anonymous singer billed as Marsha Gee. A somewhat obscure Dusty Springfield number titled "I Can't Wait Till I See My Baby's Face." A rare live version of Patty & The Emblems' "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl." And too many more to mention.

The Girl Group sound was inspired by the popular female pop singers of the 1950s (Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, et al), the burgeoning R&B genre (Ruth Brown, Etta James, et al), and various female doo-wop groups. The fire was lit by early rock 'n' roll, and the fuel provided by the era's best producers, songwriters, and studio musicians. Its birthplace was New York, but it quickly migrated to Los Angeles, Detroit, London, and beyond. At its best, the Girl Group sound mixed bits of Brill Building pop, Phil Spector Wall of Sound, sassy Motown soul, and the sound of swingin' London -- although it doesn't fall squarely into any of these camps. After all, Brill Building songwriters also wrote for male teen heartthrobs and manufactured groups like the Archies and the Monkees; the Wall of Sound powered hits by The Righteous Brothers and Ike & Tina Turner; Motown was at least as much Temps and Tops as it was Supremes and Marvelettes; and London pop eventually devolved into schmaltzy Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. So the Girl Group sound was more than the sum of its parts -- it was its own distinct sound, whether fronted by a real group or a solo singer with backups.

To many critics, the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era was a musical wasteland, but they just weren't listening hard enough. The best of the Girl Groups (and solo singers working with backup groups) transcended the factory-like approach to the music, working with the best songwriters, producers, and studio musicians to create classic tracks that bear their unique imprint. I'm talking about groups like The Shangra-La's, The Chiffons, and The Shirelles, and solo singers like Ronnie Spector (of The Ronettes), Darlene Love (of The Blossoms), Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Leslie Gore, and, of course, Diana Ross (and The Supremes). These are great songs, great performances, and great records. I can listen to them all day long -- and often do.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, can those two girls sing or what? WOW!