There are few moments that can’t be improved upon by a good song from a girl group. Happiness is magnified, heartbreak is more monumental, a pretty summer day shines with sweet harmonies, “yeah yeahs,” and fantastic hairdos. I’m pretty sure that’s a scientific fact.
The heyday of girl groups, from roughly 1961 to 1965, brought us a genre of music where girls weren’t just the objects of desire, they were the ones with desires. Often those desires were cute boys on motorcycles and maybe a wedding. Before Phil Spector was a punch line and horror, he was making amazing records with his Wall of Sound technique. By 1965, everyone wanted in on a piece of the Spector-like recording and a flurry of similar-sounding records flooded the market. Many of these were on the amazing Red Bird Records label, founded by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
From 1964 to 1966, Red Bird and its soul subsidiary, Blue Cat, released some of the most recognizable and catchy girl group hits. A quick read through producing and songwriting credits in the liner notes of very first time in true Stereo is a who’s who of pop royalty: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Chip Taylor, some guy named Phil Spector.
So many of these songs were covered by other artists, usually to greater visibility and chart position. This is a shame. The Ad-Libs’ original version of “The Boy From New York City” is here (though there are far too many boys in that group to consider it a girl group) and so is the first recording of “Go Now” by the golden-voiced, silky-smooth Bessie Banks. Her version was usurped by the Moody Blues version. The Hollies covered Evie Sands’ “I Can’t Let Go” (which was also covered by Sloan on their Live At A Sloan Party EP), but she did it better, even though the Hollies version placed #2 on the UK charts.
Evie Sands shows up again with “Take Me For a Little While.” She has a rich, soulful voice, and it’s gorgeous. It’s also such a surprise that she’s a teenager. It’s a great track, with swelling strings and growing urgency, and the girl group-ishness dialed back. This is one that I can’t stop listening to.
A huge surprise was Ellie Greenwich’s breathtaking “You Don’t Know.” It’s not a simple song; it begins simply, and hushed, and builds to a frantic crescendo. She was an iconic songwriter, and she had a terrific, pure voice. She could have been a major star in her own right, had her husband and songwriting partner Jeff Barry not put the kibosh on Red Bird’s plans to send her to England as the United States’ answer to Dusty Springfield. Her other tracks, “Another Boy Like Mine” and “Call Me His” aren’t as inventive or surprising, but they are delightful.
There isn’t a bad track on this disc. Roddie Joy’s “He’s So Easy To Love” is gloriously elegant. “Sugar Boy” by the Charmettes is a sweet confection with elaborate production. The liner notes point out that the Goodies were offered “Leader of the Pack,” which was recorded instead by label mates the Shangri-Las (who aren’t represented here). Instead, they turn up with “The Dum Dum Ditty” which, while not a classic like “Leader Of The Pack,” has thunderous, Spector-esque production and a great deal of charm.
The album finishes out with ten tracks of scratch vocals, demos and studio chatter. It’s an interesting glimpse into the working out of harmonies and phrasing. Not essential, but interesting.
The Red Bird Girls: very first time in true Stereo is a miraculous time capsule. The reign of the girl groups was brief, but they made a lasting imprint on the history of rock and pop music. This album is an excellent overview of Red Bird Records and their contribution to the genre. It is chock full of absolute gems and may be my perfect summer album.
The Red Bird Girls: very first time in true Stereo was released on February 21 from Real Gone Music and is available to purchase from their website.