Dreamgirls, which has received three Golden Globe Nominations and eight Academy Award nominations, has reignited interest in the girl groups of the 1960s and Motown Records. This Detroit-based firm became one of the most prominent labels of the era.
Basing itself on the 1981 stage production, this film follows an up-and-coming record label and its star singers as they make their way onto the pop charts. A work of fiction, the film is partially based on The Supremes.
Many girl groups released songs in the 1960s, but very few of them were seasoned artists by that time. It’s not uncommon for glee clubs and high schools to form these ensembles of three to five singers, with many coming from church gospel music backgrounds. This group’s music was an amalgam of soul, rhythm-and-blues, pop, and 1950’s doo-wop.
As in the movie Dreamgirls, it was not uncommon for a group to earn their big break during a high school talent show or a local talent contest. The Marvelettes all sang in a glee club in high school, so a talent show was announced starring them.
The market had a lot to do with the success of girl groups. More teens were born after World War II, and a new adolescent culture emerged in the 1950s, with its music, costumes, movies, and dance. There is no doubt that the teen years became linked with pop culture, and with so many of these teenagers having money to spend, the record.
This was a time when teenagers listened to popular music and heard songs with voices that sounded just like. They sat in the audience and saw performers; their female gatherings were a novelty for American girls. “That had never happened before, and it hasn’t since,” recalls Warwick of the incident.
Crossing Colored Lines
Pop charts were “white” during this time, whereas R&B (Rhythm & Blues) charted. From the start, a mixed audience was drawn to female groups, whether they were the black The Marvelettes or the white Shangri-Las. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, wanted to create music that would appeal to a wider audience.
As for whites (especially young people), black music had been popular in the U.S. for a long time before girl groups came around. In 1946, Nat King Cole’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” entered the top ten on the charts. The R&B and pop charts were dominated by Chuck Berry in the 1950s, as was Little Richard.
Although it was easier for a song to cross over than the singers themselves, Warwick argues that before girl groups. The same goes for the fact that white artists have also re-recorded black artist’s songs. We giggle now when we hear Pat Boone cover Little Richard tunes, but it was a big deal back then.
Of course, this does not imply that youngsters were not also listening to the original Little Richard. With the help of well-groomed and sweet young girls, Berry Gordy felt that he could make it in crossover’s musical and social aspects.
Despite the fact that their culture was slow to catch up, girl groups’ subject matter communicated a shared teenage experience. On stage, they sang about courting boys at parties and how their parents would not let them go to parties to court boys.
A lot of their material, though, was about love and crushes, usually from the perspective of a patiently waiting, desiring. It’s easy to consider girl groups’ music as inconsequential and, in today’s words, less than radical because of their apparent passive attitude and lack of depth in song.
However, the tunes were occasionally more realistic than expected. “Please Mr. Postman” is a classic female group song featuring a girl waiting for a boy’s letter. Despite that, the context in which this song was heard gave it a deeper meaning.
Even though many of the girl groups did not set out to make political comments or songs, they were forced. A group of musicians, including Martha and The Vandellas, were performing in Detroit in 1967 when the riots broke.
To keep their audience informed, they broadcast what was going on outside. During their summer tour, there were riots in every city they visited. A few months after “Dancing in the Streets” was released, people discussed how the song was about social unrest.
Martha Reeves had no idea what she was singing about when she wrote the song. Her experiences inspired it in Rio during Carnival, and in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, she recalls in Women of Motown.
During the Motown period, Berry Gordy had his formula for a hit song. They became known as The Funk Brothers and comprised a superb collection of local jazz players (all men). Some of his songs were written in the first person and the present tense, and he persisted with them. An uncomplicated beat and melodic hook were the hallmarks of the Motown sound. On top of that, there was a lot of use of tambourine and call-and-response.
Female ensembles rarely composed their songs, as did male groups of the era Whittell claims it was more like a Hollywood studio setup instead. There was a lot more to it than harmony and lyrics when it came to success.
Was the whole performance—how they moved, how they dressed, how huge their hair was—that was the issue? The girls in Motown were taught how to walk and talk by finishing school teacher Maxine Powell. In his attempt to portray middle-class respectability, the girls enthusiastically accepted all of his efforts.
The Shangri-Las sang “Leader of the Pack,” a song about nice girls loving wicked boys outside Motown. At this time, they adopted a tough female persona by wearing spike heels and tight leather leggings to complement their delinquent themes. The Ronettes, biracial, were also known for their short skirts, thick eyeliner, and high-piled hairstyles.
Promoter men had final authority over the ensembles, and some musicians were exploited in what has become a tradition in the recording industry. In short, it was an evolution of sound.
End of an Era
As a result of the British Invasion, the female group craze began to wane in the late 1960. The Beatles, on the other hand, were enamored with American girl groups and even sang songs by them, such as “Please Mr. Postman,” “Baby It’s You,” and “Chains.”
When it came to American charts, only one lady group could compete with The Beatles: The Supremes, who continued to be famous even after Diana Ross had departed the group in the early 1970s.
Despite this, The Supremes don’t symbolize girl group culture in general. For example, “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Stop in the Name of Love” have more mature themes. The era may have ended but people still are very much interested in where the dreamgirls are now!
When The Shangri-Las sing about teenage drama in healing songs, this is a stark contrast. This is why The Supremes lasted longer than groups like Motown’s Marvelettes, Velvelettes, etc. It allowed them to adapt more smoothly into adulthood.
A generation of women had been accustomed to standing on stage and expressing their feelings when the women’s movement emerged in the late 1960s. In a time of cultural upheaval, girl groups enabled teenagers—of all races—to express their unique experiences during a time of change.