1963: The Year Girl Groups Broke

Talkin’ ’Bout Boys with the Girls of Summer ’63

The Ronettes

On any afternoon in the summer of 1963, you could watch the high school girls in clusters around the pool, a portable radio tuned to WABC as Dan Ingram played all the current hit singles, and their voices mixed in with the voices on those songs—Anita Humes of the Essex, Judy Craig of the Chiffons, LaLa Brooks of the Crystals, Brenda Reid of the Exciters. And Lesley Gore, Doris Troy, Timi Yuro.

In the evenings, and on days when it rained, the girls huddled near the jukebox and fed it with quarters, playing the 45s that said all the things that they wanted to confess: their crushes and their heartbreaks, their feelings of insecurity and desire, their longing for connection. Take, for example, the week of August 6, 1963, fifty-five years ago.

I’m no statistician, but it seems to me that there may never have been a previous time when the percentage of young women on the charts was higher. One third of the hits on the Silver Dollar Sound Survey and the week’s Pick Hit (the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”) were sung by women, solo or in groups: “Just One Look,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Easier Said Than Done,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave,” “One Fine Day,” “Hello Stranger,” “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home.” If you throw Mary Travers and Inez Foxx into the mix, the female representation gets even higher. By the end of August, add the Jaynettes, the Ronettes, the Raindrops, the Charmettes, Ruby and the Romantics. It was like top 40 radio was one big slumber party, with the girls (through, it has to be said, lyrics written mostly by guys, on records produced and arranged mostly by guys) talkin’ ’bout boys, the boys eavesdropping through the power of 50,000-watt radio.

The songs were like pop-art panels ripped from the pages of comic books like Teen-Age Romance or Young Love (“She took my boyfriend,” the thought-balloon of one girl says. “Now what?” or “I learned the hard way that romance seldom beckons to a Regular Gal!). But there was something new about some of them, something bolder and more proactive. These girls weren’t all passive and shy; the records and their performances had confidence. “One fine day,” the Chiffons sang, “you’re gonna want me for your girl.” Ronnie Spector made it explicit: “I’ll make you happy baby, just wait and see.” The Exciters’ explosive singer Brenda Reid instructed her female listeners: “Tell him!” “Get him!” On the impossibly kinetic “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave,” Martha Reeves is delirious with desire, and the Vandellas egg her on: “Go ahead, girl!”

You might not consider the message of ’63 female pop “feminist”—the songs are filled with swoony boy-worship (“The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget,” “A Walkin’ Miracle,” “A Breathtaking Guy”) and old-school ideas about masculinity (there’s the threat of a physical beat-down in “My Boyfriend’s Back,” and a jealous punch in “Judy’s Turn to Cry”)—but there was also the sense of some consciousness-raising. The Shirelles’ “What Does a Girl Do” tackles the double standard head-on: it’s okay for a guy to approach a girl, but what if a girl has those feelings? What’s she supposed to do? Wait around? Girls were expected to set the sexual boundaries, but that wasn’t always easy, as the Cookies admitted on “Will Power.” On “Then He Kissed Me,” the girl is the first one to say the words “I love you.” Doris Troy admits, “Just one look and I fell so hard in love with you.” They weren’t sitting by the phone hoping Johnny Angel finally acknowledges their existence.

The British poet Philip Larkin wrote in “Annus Mirabilis”: “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three. …Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.” Which would place it right after this girl-group summer. The birth control pill was still a new thing, FDA-approved since only 1960, but already over a million American women were taking Enovid, and society was on the cusp of dramatic change. If you want to identify the first musical shots of the sexual revolution, you could start with Hal Blaine’s emphatic drumbeats that kick off the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” which was among the most erotically charged of the girl group records. You could also point to the ebullient, frisky bounce of Carole King’s piano on the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day,” to the unguarded passion of the Crystals on “Then He Kissed Me” (“He kissed me in a way that I’ve never been kissed before”), to Darlene Love’s anticipation on “Wait Til My Bobby Gets Home” (she’s craving affection, but keeping another persistent suitor at bay).

The Jaynetts’ “Sally Go Round the Roses” is the most cryptic of the summer ’63 girl hits, a record that’s all hushed suggestion and ellipses, and not like anything else on the radio. It hit the national singles chart in late August and it was like a dream, the voices cool but ominous. “Sally don’t you go downtown,” all those Jaynettes murmur (it sounds as though there is a choir of them), because “the saddest thing in the whole wide world is to see your baby with another girl.” That’s really all we know; Sally’s being told to do her crying among the flowers. What “Sally Go Round the Roses” does, like so many of the other girl group records, was make all the arguments about the vapidity of pre-Beatles sixties pop music seem ridiculous. Take a snapshot of that genre, however loosely defined, at that moment, and see all the emotion, vitality and innovation.

The writing, production, and arrangements of Goffin & King, Bert Berns, Barry & Greenwich, Goldstein-Feldman-Gottehrer, Phil Spector, Leiber & Stoller, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Jack Nitzsche, the Tokens’ Bright Tunes Productions, Artie Butler, Quincy Jones—they were all on the radio with female-sung records in the summer of ’63, a summer that gave us all a glimpse into what made young women tick, how delighted/confused/hopeful/crestfallen they were from moment to moment, how the perpetual melodrama of adolescent mating was changing in the early sixties. On Labor Day weekend that year, you could sit in the balcony of the Brooklyn Fox theater at Murray the K’s show, and see the Angels, the Chiffons, the Ronettes, and the Shirelles. All the girls in the audience sang along to “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “He’s So Fine,” and “Be My Baby,” and it was as though they could say out loud the secrets hidden in their hearts and scribbled in their diaries.

 

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