The golden era of the girl group sound only lasted a few years, emerging at the dawn of the ’60s and fizzling out well before the decade’s end. Yet the genre inspired such a wealth of records — far more than the market could bear — that even half a century after the wave ebbed, there are still plenty of unheard treasures to be dug up and rediscovered.
It’s a genre with an uncommonly high-quality ratio: partly because some of the greatest songwriters and producers of the era had a hand in the girl-group sound, but partly because the sound itself is so durable.
Fans of the girl-group sound aren’t concerned with rock’s preoccupations with authenticity and virtuosity; in fact, they embrace teenage melodrama and a certain ramshackle quality. It’s also a genre that encompasses multitudes: the elaborately wrought orchestrations of Phil Spector and his disciples, as well as chintzy chunks of pop kitsch; powerful soul belters, as well as dewy-eyed innocents.
Anyone curious to hear the wide range of styles bound together under the loose but instantly identifiable girl-group sound would be advised to check out Real Gone Music’s new compilation Honeybeat: Groovy 60s Girl-Pop, available as a 19-track CD or a 14-track, limited-edition, violet-vinyl LP. (The former is the version reviewed here.)
The set is compiled and co-produced by Sheila Burgel, founder of Cha Cha Charming magazine and DJ behind WFMU’s girl-pop program Sophisticated Boom Boom. Burgel has previously contributed to Ace Records’ Nippon Girls series of ’60s Japanese pop, as well as Rhino Records’ essential box set One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found.
All of Honeybeat’s tracks are pulled from the extensive Sony Music Archives, were recorded in the ’60s, and feature female vocalists. Beyond that, however, the selections vary wildly across the extremes of the American girl-pop field. The compilation spans nine labels, eight years (1961-1968), and a plethora of styles, from country pop to gritty soul, jazz pop to garage rock.
There’s a Top 10 pop hit (Skeeter Davis’s “I Can’t Stay Mad at You”), as well as a never-before-released obscurity (“Talk That Sweet Talk” by Dorothy Jones of the Cookies). Artists range from TV star Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, performing a Vegas-lite rendition of “Why Don’t You Do Right?”), to Aretha’s sister Erma Franklin (contributing the sassy put-down “I Don’t Want No Mama’s Boy”), to “Loco-Motion” driver Little Eva (chirping Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”), to pseudonymous unknown Carmen Cole (gravely interpreting Ann-Margret’s “I Just Don’t Understand”).
Honeybeat’s eclecticism is both a strength and a liability. Arranging selections around a narrower theme — say, subgenre, region, or producer — would make for a more cohesive listen and a stronger overall statement. This lack of focus leads to a novelty like Andrea Carroll’s “Gee Dad” getting undue prominence, while it would make more sense as a side note in a box set or in the context of a collection of girl-group parodies. Likewise, the inclusion of Nichelle Nichols’s brassy Peggy Lee cover, as delightful as it is, stretches the already elastic boundaries of the girl-pop sound to loop in a well-known actress in her mid-30s doing a swing-era standard.
While Honeybeat may lack a unifying theory of girl-pop — unless you count “anything can be girl-pop,” which is fair enough — it boasts an intriguing batch of tracks, roughly a third of which have never previously been reissued. Naturally, many of these do an uncanny job of replicating Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, including the Sweet Things’ tenderhearted “You’re My Loving Baby,” April Young’s gutsy “Gonna Make Him My Baby,” and, best of all, the Avons’ exquisite “Be Good to Your Baby.” (Even their titles owe a debt to the ne plus ultra girl group record, “Be My Baby.”)
The Supremes are another favorite inspiration, begetting Linda Carr’s “Sweet Hunk of Misery” — a laid-back Southern rewrite of “Where Did Our Love Go” recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals — and Honeybeat cover stars the Glories, whose driving, Motown-esque stomper “No News” is the compilation’s standout track.
Other highlights include the Pussycats’ murky Shangri-La’s pastiche “The Rider,” Tracey Dey’s infectious “Hangin’ On to My Baby” (produced by the Four Seasons’ Bob Crewe), the Lollipops’ delightfully bratty “Don’t Monkey With Me,” and Sandi Sheldon’s heartachingly romantic “Baby You’re Mine” (written and produced by the ubiquitous Van McCoy, who also contributes the Sweet Things’ “You’re My Loving Baby”).
As terrific as much of the music is, however, Burgel’s liner notes are at least equally valuable. Her track-by-track notation blends music journalism with detective work, diving into sketchy archival records, combing through scant published material, and even cold-calling potential lost singers. For a genre like girl-pop, plagued with limited information even on its biggest stars, this level of detail is a much-needed resource.
On top of that, new interviews with artists like the Lollipops and Gia Mateo, whose brushes with near-fame are faded, bittersweet memories, and with producer Jerry Ross, widower of the late April Young, add an extra layer of poignancy to the inherently emotional girl-group sound.
Honeybeat‘s diversity of girl-pop sounds means that listeners may find it hit-or-miss — even if they disagree about which are the hits and which are the misses. Regardless, there’s something here to discover for every variety of girl group enthusiast, whether it’s a lost Gerry Goffin-Carole King composition from 1961 or a capsule biography in the liner notes of an obscure favorite. Honeybeat would be a worthwhile inclusion to any girl-pop devotee’s collection in its own right, but it would be even better as the first entry into a series. After all, there are bound to be plenty more gems languishing in the Sony Music Archives, and Burgel would be the ideal rescuer to dredge them from the depths.
Get your copy of Honeybeat: Groovy 60s Girl-Pop from Real Gone Music’s online shop!