But then again, hindsight is that there was a lot going on when 'Postman' was released. We were into, or going into the Vietnam War. We had a lot of young men that were leaving home for the first time going into the military, and, of course, some never returned. The timing of 'Postman' was excellent. When my brother went into the military, I know how anxious I or my mother or sister would be looking for a letter or something like that from him.
The girl group era was also the civil rights era. That same year, four teenage girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Because of events like this, says Warwick, the figure of the non-white teenage girl was being politicized in America.
And the same non-threatening, pure quality that was letting black girl groups cross over into white culture was giving young women force in the civil rights movement. And all that very famous footage of Elizabeth Eckford…going to school that first day. So the emblem of the teenage girl is being imbued with a lot of political significance. In the entertainment world, The Supremes—arguably the most successful girl group of all time—began playing venues that had been hard for black musicians to book.
Even when girl groups didn't set out make political statements or songs, the politically charged times came to them. In , Martha and The Vandellas were singing in Detriot when the riots broke out.
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From the stage, they told the audience what was happening outside. Everywhere they went on tour that summer, there were riots. Soon people started talking about how the group's hit song "Dancing in the Streets" was about social uprising. This was not what Martha Reeves thought of when she sang the song. It was a time for people to forget who they are and just get with each other to be happy and loving and dance and rejoice. In Motown, Berry Gordy had a specific formula for making a hit song.
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He gathered a stellar group of area jazz musicians all men , known collectively as The Funk Brothers. He stuck with a select group of songwriters who were told to write songs in first person and present tense. The Motown sound was characterized by a straight-forward, grounded beat bass and drums and melodic hook. It also employed call-and-response vocals and heavy use of tambourine.
In New York, Phil Spector produced girl group songs using his famous "wall of sound," a production technique that employed a huge amount of instruments and layered track after track on top of each other. The girls rarely wrote their own songs, but neither did the male groups of the time. Instead, says Whitall, it was more of a movie studio system. But the success of girl groups had to do with more than harmony and lyrics. It was about the whole performance—how they moved, the clothes they wore, how big their hair was.
In Motown, Gordy hired finishing school teacher Maxine Powell to teach the girls how to walk and talk. He also brought in professional choreographers. All of this was part of his effort—embraced by the girls—to convey a middle-class respectability. The Ronettes, who were biracial, also became famous for their bad-girl short skirts, high-piled hair and thick eyeliner.
Male promoters did have ultimate control over the groups, and in what is arguably a tradition in the recording industry, some musicians were exploited: they didn't get credit for their work, it was released under a different name or they didn't get royalties. But for many girls, fame also offered an array of new opportunities.
As with many artists who lived in the black community at that time, it was an avenue that allowed you to travel to other cities and states and gave you that 'out. The girl group boom began to fizzle in the late s, in part because of the British Invasion. But The Beatles themselves were obsessed with American girl groups and even sang girl group songs, including "Please Mr. The only girl group able to compete with The Beatles on the American charts was The Supremes, who maintained popularity into the early s, even though Diana Ross had left the group.
Yet The Supremes aren't necessarily representative of the rest of girl group culture. Says Warwick, "Even from the very beginning, their songs are a little more adult in the themes," such as in the songs "Where Did Our love Go" and "Stop in the Name of Love.
They were able to transition into becoming adults with greater ease. One thing is certain: by the time the women's movement arrived in the late s, there was a generation of women used to standing on the stage and telling the world how they felt. In an era of cultural upheaval, girl groups helped articulate the personal experiences of teenagers—of all races—who were living through tremendous political upheaval.
- How girl groups changed American music;
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