The third segment of NMWA’s Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, entitled “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow: The Early 1960s,” focuses on the relationship between emerging girl groups and the female singer/songwriters of this era. While often thought to be puppets of the male-dominated music industry, groups like The Shirelles, The Supremes, The Ronettes, and The Shangri-Las often performed songs penned by Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Cynthia Weil. In fact, one of the most successful labels to represent girl groups, Scepter Records, was led by a New Jersey former housewife, Florence Greenberg. These collaborations produced pop songs that provided a voice and soundtrack to a generation of teenage girls.
While running the record label Greenberg was also managing The Shirelles, one of the earliest girl groups—The Shirelles set precedent for those to come with their fashionable outfits and flawless hairstyles. On view in the exhibition, a 1965 dress worn by Shirley Alston-Reeves of The Shirelles is a gauzy, mauve gown detailed with silver and gold sequins and accentuated at the waist, neck, and wrists with gold sequin bands. It exemplifies the quartet’s graceful look. Singer/songwriter Carole King would lead The Shirelles to be the first girl group to top the charts in 1961 with “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” King went on to produce a number of other hit songs for musicians of the sixties, and later became one of the most popular solo artists of the ’70s.
Another singer/songwriter of the day, Ellie Greenwich, was known as New York’s “Demo Queen.” She produced the hit “Leader of the Pack” for The Shangri-Las’ album Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las, featured in the exhibition. Additionally, she produced “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” for Darlene Love, whose crimson, sweetheart-cut mini-dress is on display. Finally, Cynthia Weil, in collaboration with her husband Barry Mann, produced “Walking in the Rain” performed by The Ronettes, a girl group whose style has influenced many musicians, including the late Amy Winehouse.
The most successful and iconic girl group of the era, The Supremes, topped the charts with twelve hits in a five-year span. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard grew up together in Detroit before they were signed to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records. The Supremes had a versatility that allowed them to fit in with The Beatles and Motown artists and an elegance that enabled them to play shows at high stakes clubs in New York and Las Vegas. Mary Wilson’s one-shouldered gown, covered in a delicate arrangement of black and ivory sequins, illustrates the group’s sophistication. Wilson led the group through various configurations until it dissolved in the late ’70s.
—Brittany Beyer is the external relations intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
The exhibition Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power is on view at NMWA through January 6, 2013.