It would be understandable to look at Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, Beyonce, etc., and assume the music business values sales potential over gender.
If that’s true to any extent now, it is far less than a hallmark of music business history — a fact underscored by an artist as triumphant as Barbra Streisand, whose imposing new 970-page memoir recounts numerous faceoffs with male producers and men in general.
Perhaps even more fascinating are the tales in But Will You Love Me Tomorrow (Hachette. $31), a new oral history of 1960s “girl groups” by Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz.
Unshadowed by megacelebrity, this book is not a polemic on gender politics, sociology or sexism in general. It just inevitably touches on all of that while tracing how female vocal group music flowered in the early 1960s and by the end of the decade was morphing into a new sound — as all popular music does.
This turf has been covered before, notably in Alan Betrock’s Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound and John Clemente’s Girl Groups: Fabulous Females Who Rocked The World, to which Flam and Liebowitz give a shoutout.
There is always more to tell, however, about a musical era whose fascination would endure if it had given us nothing more than Ronnie Bennett, Nedra Talley and Estelle Bennett singing “Be My Baby.”
But Will You Love Me Tomorrow adds nuance and color to the stories of that era by telling them entirely in the words of artists, songwriters, producers, musicians and executives who shaped and appreciated its sound.
Those narrators include Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, Diana Ross, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Martha Reeves, Arlene Smith, Mary Wilson, Carole King, Keith Richards, Patti LaBelle, Berry Gordy, Billy Joel, Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber and dozens of other good catches. Not surprisingly, many of the most telling perspectives come from artists whose names are perhaps not so well known: Talley-Ross of the Ronettes, Lois Powell of the Chantels, La La Brooks of the Crystals.
Collectively, they paint a fascinating picture of how some of the most engaging and enduring pop music of the 1960s ended up on 45 rpm records, from the Shirelles’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and Martha and the Vandellas’s “Dancing In the Street” to the “Dixie Cups’s “Chapel of Love” and the Shangri-Las’s “Leader of the Pack.”
It’s neither biography nor academic treatise. It’s more like not-exactly-random snapshots of how particular groups formed and what success and stardom, or near-miss, looked and felt like from the inside.
Not surprisingly, some memories don’t synch up. Talley-Ross, while stressing her affection for Ronnie Spector, dismisses some of Ronnie’s stories about her early relationship with Phil Spector as mythology.
Artists recall the moments when they felt they had crossed the threshold to success, like when Jiggs Allbut of the Angels heard “My Boyfriend’s Back” on multiple top-40 radio stations. On the flip side, Allbut and other Angels also learned one day that their management had passed into the hands of The Mob.
But Will You Love Me Tomorrow keeps its mission focused. Some of the narrators acknowledge a debt to influences like Frankie Lymon, the Chantels, Gregorian chant or even the great tap dancer Honi Coles from the Apollo Theater. But the book leaves it to others to chronicle female vocal group history back to the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters, or even to 1950s pop groups like the McGuire Sisters and the Chordettes.
Instead it picks up the story at the point in the ’50s when girls as well as boys became enchanted by a new sound: rhythm and blues with rock ’n’ roll, gospel and pop woven in. After groups like the Bobbettes, Clickettes, Queens and Cookies scored hits, the Chantels and Shirelles broke out as stars and helped push the music world to create a niche for them.
This was more complicated than it might seem, because for years much of the music world had assumed most female singers were guided by some male genius who told them how to look, act and sing. Former Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner underscored that point with his recent assertion that women artists couldn’t discuss music on the same level as men.
That makes it particularly powerful when every artist in But Will You Love Me Tomorrow makes it clear she came to the music with her own vision. Just like the guys, she heard something she couldn’t resist, usually on the radio, and she wanted to do that herself. So she rounded up some friends, and while the lineups almost always kept shifting, the committed ones stayed with it until they got someone important to listen.
Even artists who eventually experienced ragged breakups, like the Supremes or Ronettes, remember the early scuffling days, when it was them against the world, as some of the best in their lives.
Flam and Liebowitz don’t leave out the downsides: the tension triggered in families when a teenage daughter headed out on the road to chase a music career; the lethal danger black people could face riding a bus through the South; the pain of having to cut a friend loose from the group; the frustration when outside circumstances killed a career, like the time Red Bird Records folded and left its artists out in the cold; the way the music industry seemed to ensure that everyone but artists got paid.
The authors also don’t flinch from the fact that more than a few stories did not end happily, as the pressures of stardom and the deflation of faded stardom led to lost lives.
But in the end, most of these once-naïve and vulnerable young women do not come across as victims. Sent on a path for which no one can be prepared, they learned to navigate and helped blaze trails for all who followed.
As for the music, that’s the easy part. It’s tomorrow now — it’s been tomorrow for quite a while — and we still love it.