American Girl Bands and Their Influence on Popular Music
Revolving approximately 122 times per play, the Shirelles 7-inch single, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, commandeered turntables across the USA in 1961, affirming girl bands as a legitimate contender on the music charts. Although considered by critics as an influential and formative movement in popular music, 1960s girl bands often take a backseat to their better-known male contemporaries. But without their hit recordings, artists like the Beatles and the Beach Boys may never have had the guidance to experiment and revolutionize studio production in the way that they did. In fact, when asked about first hearing the Ronettes, Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame said, “In a way it wasn't like having your mind blown, it was like having your mind revamped.” In addition to their infectious pop hooks, bands like the Ronettes won over many fans, like Brian Wilson, with their innovative recording techniques and also for their advancement of racial diversity within the music industry.
All-female vocal groups were not born in the 1960s, as there had been popular acts before in the vaudeville and barbershop quartet formats, like the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters. But all-female bands were afforded greater opportunity in the late 50s and early 60s due to the prevalence of radio. With the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, many young women, enamored with the energy of Chuck Berry and the harmony of The Platters, began crafting their own brand of pop music. Songs like Be My Baby, He’s So Fine and Baby Love still endure as landmarks in pop music history, and one of the most important reasons for the success of these hits were the music moguls who championed them.
One of the key figures in the development of the girl band sound was songwriter/producer, Phil Spector, better known today for his conviction in the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. But before the murder trial, Phil played a crucial role in expanding the influence of females in popular music with his deft songwriting and his novel recording technique known as the “wall of sound.” The technique utilized multiple instruments playing the same exact part to layer the sound on the recording so that it would sound "bigger" on an AM radio broadcast. This technique, which was pioneered on recordings by groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals, became widely adopted and can be heard on albums by bands as diverse as the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, Queen and Bruce Springsteen. The massive sound that brought the vocal talents of girl bands to life, on thin sounding AM broadcasts, helped spawn a wave of studio mavericks that continue to inspire adventurers behind mixing consoles.
In addition to influencing studio recording techniques, the popularity of girl bands also helped propel diversity in the music industry. In 1961, the Shirelles, an African-American group, became the first act out of the wave of girl groups to crack the top-40 with Tonight’s the Night. They followed this success with a string of other hits over the next few years and helped lay the foundation for other similar acts to find success. The emergence of soul and R&B based songs was one of the most important developments in the girl group scene, musically and culturally. Bands like the Shirelles, the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas charted numerous top-20 hits that are still often heard on radio and in films. The effects of their success undoubtedly paved the way for more contemporary acts like TLC and Destiny’s Child.
Through their influence on songwriting, studio recording and racial diversity, girl bands helped shape American culture in the 1960s by forging ahead in a male-dominated industry with hit after hit. If a litmus test were needed to prove the effect girl bands had on popular music, look no further than the first two Beatles albums, which included five covers of songs previously recorded by all-female acts. While I’ve spent the majority of this article endorsing the cultural significance girl bands had in America, I must say that the music is timeless simply because it is a shining example of great songwriting and vocal talent. If you find yourself driving along and a classic girl band comes on the radio, turn it up and sing along. No one will mind.