When the Wonderettes step onstage in The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns, they join the rich tradition of female recording artists dating to the 1950’s and 60’s, a phenomenon knowns as the “girl group.” While the individual women singing in these groups were frequently seen by producers as interchangeable, during these decades women began to claim their place in rock and roll. But like any other attempt to break through a glass ceiling, these pioneering women faced many challenges along the way.
The first challenge was that the women in these groups were frequently quite young, often still in their teens when they were discovered and launched into the limelight. A great example of this are the women of The Chantels, considered by many to be the very first successful girl group, represented in The Marvelous Wonderettes by their 1958 top-20 song, “Maybe.” The Chantels began singing together in high school, and lead singer Arlene Smith was just 16 years old when they recorded “Maybe,” their second single. The song was co-written by Smith and the owner of their record label, George Goldner. However, when the song was released, the record label did not credit Smith as writer – an anonymous “Casey” was credited with Goldner instead. Smith’s age and inexperience likely prohibited her from receiving the original credit. While later releases do credit Smith, as late as 1987, a reissue of “Maybe” credits R. Barrett, The Chantels’ producer, as songwriter in Smith’s place.
Many girl groups owed their success to music producer Phil Spector, who became famous for his lavish instrumentation later termed a “wall of sound.” In 1961, Spector signed a group called The Crystals. Their first hit, “There’s No Other Like My Baby,” was recorded on the evening of some of the group’s high school prom, and they came to the studio wearing their prom dresses. But, another challenge faced by female artists was that sometimes producers pulled a fast one and either swapped out individual singers, or in this case, the entire group. When it came time to record The Crystals’ third song, “He’s a Rebel,” Spector wanted to record the song quickly to beat another artist to the market, and The Crystals couldn’t get to LA fast enough. So, he had a group called The Blossoms sing the song as well as their next one – but claimed that it was The Crystals. The original group had no recourse, but they continued to work with Spector, recording “Da Do Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me,” both of which were top-10 hits.
The groups and individual artists featured in The Marvelous Wonderettes are a veritable who’s who of musical history, including the Chordettes, Patti Page, Doris Day, Connie Francis, Laura Nyro, , Lesley Gore, the Shangri-Las, Martha and the Vandellas, the Bobbettes and of course, Aretha Franklin. The songs they sang may have been primarily fluffy songs of romance and innocence, of finding that perfect relationship with a hunky guy, but the women in these groups fought hard for opportunities, equal pay, and credit and ownership of their work and names. While girl groups lost popularity during the British Invasion, the girl group sound had a serious impact on rock and roll can still be heard in today’s music – and as music critic and writer Richie Unterberger explains, “its echoes are heard in all rock that relies upon orchestral production, harmonies, and/or crafty, melodic compositions to send its message.”