Girl Groups and the History of Rock and Roll
The conventional wisdom is that rock and roll “died” between 1959 and 1964 – roughly the period between Buddy Holly’s plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa and the Beatles’ more upbeat arrival at JFK airport. In this scenario, The Day The Music Died is only the beginning, as Elvis enters the Army, Chuck Berry goes to jail, Jerry Lee Lewis is ruined, and Little Richard leaves the stage for the church. By the late 1950s, a number of female vocal groups began to produce songs. The groups were 2-3 women one sang a lead part while the others sang a background vocal.
This was the birth of “girl groups”. This sound was the trend for the early 1960s. Girl groups remained on the Billboard pop charts in 1962 to 1965 but, by 1965 the popularity of this sound started to fade. Although girl groups were only successful for a short time, their sound influenced many other types of music, and it continues to have an impact on performers today. The girl groups were an important part of the early days of rock and roll as well as the history of women in American popular music. The popularity of the girl groups marked a point in history for women in rock and roll.
For the first time it established a specific style of performing that listeners associated only with women. The girl group sound was the result of a producers, songwriters, instrumentalists, and manager, in addition to the women who sang the songs. The producer, were significant in determining a particular group’s success or failure. The girls groups had little to no control over what was produced. Some rock historians would argue because of their lack of control over there own music, the girl groups were all very similar and would not have succeeded without the guidance of others to distinguish them from everyone else.
The performers who made up the girl groups were generally very young, most were in their teens and early twenties, which put them at a great disadvantage in terms of artistic control. Female artists were for the most part not taken seriously by those who ran the music industry, and girl groups were usually “used” for hit songs rather than creative or talented individuals. “Nobody in the business really took female performer too seriously back then. The system just wasn’t open to women. Many of the groups’ careers only lasted until they were not longer able to hit the Billboard Top Forty and when that didn’t happen the group just faded away, to be replace by the next latest and greatest group. For this reason, few groups were able to stay on top for more than two or three years. A large portion of the media at the time ignored them. Some of the teen magazines and television variety shows that helped the male performers all but ignored the girl groups, limiting the amount of exposure they received.
Most of the best known girl groups were black.. Some of the white groups and singers like the Shangri-las and Lesley Gore, had their photos plastered everywhere. Fewer of the black groups and singers enjoyed the same privilege. Racism was prevalent within the music industry and it ensured that these groups would have very limited shelf life. Because media coverage of the groups was scarce, the girl groups had to rely solely on their songs to maintain their popularity.
Once the public’s interest diminished, the producer would abandon the group and move on to another “project”, this abandonment usually signaled the end of the group’s career. There was no visible difference between one group and another in fact, most did not know any of the individual names of the performers, as they were all just a “package” for the public to view. Girl group artists were generally identified by their group name alone, and the individual members of any group often changed from one record to the next.
Producers often used unnamed session or backup vocalists to sing under the name of a successful group, and some groups recorded under more than one name. When the girl group era more came to an end in the mid 60s, most of the artists faded into obscurity. Although, a number of groups continued to perform, singing in oldies revival shows, their whereabouts are largely unknown. While there popularity was temporary at best and they did not get the recognition they deserved, the effect they had on music is unmistakable.