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Black women recorded famous rock 'n' rolls songs but few remember their names

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Listen closely to these iconic rock 'n' roll songs because there's going to be a pop quiz afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DA DOO RON RON")

THE CRYSTALS: (Singing) I met him on a Monday, and my heart stood still. Da doo ron ron ron. Da doo ron ron.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE MR. POSTMAN")

THE MARVELETTES: (Singing) Wait. Oh, yes, wait a minute, Mr. Postman. Wait. Wait, Mr. Postman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE FINE DAY")

THE CHIFFONS: (Singing) One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl.

ESTRIN: All right. Name the artists who performed these songs. Can't do it? Neither could I. So many of the biggest hits of the 1960s were sung by African American girl groups whose names have faded into the background. Well, a new book puts the spotlight back on these artists. It's called "But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" Authors Emily Sieu Liebowitz and Laura Flam interviewed more than 100 people from that era, including former girl group members like the ones you heard singing at the top, The Crystals, The Marvelettes and The Chiffons.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #1: The singers who voiced those songs are, for the most part, unknown. And the truth is that the music is everywhere in the world - songs that people fell in love to, got married to, their hearts were broken to for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA SAID")

THE SHIRELLES: (Singing) Mama said there'll be days like this. There'll be days like this, Mama said. Mama said, Mama said.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #2: They were young women when the group started. Some of them were as young as 11 years old. And their careers lasted, you know, something like 18 months in most cases. They weren't considered an investment by their record labels or managers because the assumption was that they would leave the music industry and go on to have families.

ESTRIN: Right. Which was very much in line with, you know, society in the 1950s and '60s when they were performing.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #1: Someone in an interview that we did described the girl groups as the "sweetener," quote, unquote, in terms of introducing Black music to a white audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S SO FINE")

THE CHIFFONS: (Singing) He's so fine. Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang. Wish he were mine. Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang. That handsome boy over there. Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang. The one with the wavy hair.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #1: The girl groups flew up the charts, and they were immediately sent to tour all over the country, including the South. And they ended up becoming sort of soldiers on the front of the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEN HE KISSED ME")

THE CRYSTALS: (Singing) When he danced, he held me tight. And when he walked me home that night, all the stars were shining bright. And then he kissed me.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #2: Look at the covers of the albums of the girl groups. Many of them don't feature a picture of the group because it made it more marketable to a national market. The women of the girl groups would often show up to these concerts in the South with people who didn't even know they were Black.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #1: The Crystals showed up once to a show in the South, and people didn't know that they were a Black group. They didn't allow them to perform, and they didn't have anywhere to stay. They ended up sleeping in the lobby of the venue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW")

THE SHIRELLES: (Singing) Tonight, you're mine completely. You give your love so sweetly.

ESTRIN: Talk about the origins of the song "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." It's an amazing story of young women both writing and singing this hit against many odds.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #2: Yeah. The group, The Shirelles, did not want to record the song at all, saying that it's too country.

ESTRIN: Is that code for too white?

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #2: I think so. But Luther Dixon, their producer, promised he would rework something, and they really didn't have a choice in the matter. They were going to record the song. In the meantime, Carole King, who was 18, bought a little book and figured out how to write an arrangement for a small orchestra of violas.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHIRELLES SONG, "WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW")

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #2: They fell in love with the sound, and they create this anthem together that goes on to reach No. 1 and really kick off the girl group phenomenon.

ESTRIN: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #1: When "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" came out, it was groundbreaking. It was possibly the first song - women expressing their own feelings and fears about sex and really marked a time of change in the country for women. And The Shirelles were the voice of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW")

THE SHIRELLES: (Singing) Is this a lasting treasure or just a moment's pleasure? Can I believe the magic of your sighs? Will you still love me tomorrow?

ESTRIN: They didn't want to initially sing this song, and yet they were told, no, you're singing this song. Can you explain a little bit more how little control these girls had on their own careers?

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #2: They're not writing their own music. They're not choosing their own music. Even on tour, their manager - like, The Chantels' manager, Richard Barrett, would lock them in their dressing rooms. The payment for performance was paid to their manager, and then most of the groups were told that money was put in a trust for them, which usually did not exist.

ESTRIN: What would you say are these girl groups' lasting legacy today?

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #2: I think there's a pretty much direct line into what you can hear today. I don't think we would have Destiny's Child and Beyonce if these women hadn't forged the idea of the female vocal harmony R&B group.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #1: They were the first to do so many things and inspired so many other girls. Whoopi Goldberg described to us the moment that she saw The Supremes on TV, and it changed her whole concept of what she would be able to do with her life, seeing what The Supremes had pushed forward for themselves. And girl groups have continued. There are girl groups in the '70s, '80s, '90s, now. All of those groups got their idea from seeing somebody else do it first. And that was those first girl groups of the '50s and '60s.

ESTRIN: Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz are the authors of "But Will You Love Me Tomorrow: An Oral History Of The '60s Girl Groups." Thank you both so much.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #1: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED AUTHOR #2: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW")

THE SHIRELLES: (Singing) So tell me now, and I won't ask again... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Majd Al-Waheidi
Majd Al-Waheidi is the digital editor on Morning Edition, where she brings the show's journalism to online audiences. Previously, Al-Waheidi was a reporter for the New York Times in the Gaza Strip, where she reported about a first-of-its-kind Islamic dating site, and documented the human impact of the 2014 Israel-Gaza war in a collaborative visual project nominated for an Emmy Award. She also reported about Wikipedia censorship in Arabic for Rest of World magazine, and investigated the abusive working conditions of TikTok content moderators for Business Insider. Al-Waheidi has worked at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, and holds a master's degree in Arab Studies from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. A native of Gaza, she speaks Arabic and some French, and is studying Farsi.
Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.

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