Some of rock and roll’s best known girl groups—the Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Ronnettes—were active in the 1960s, but the girl group phenomenon has roots in the 1950s. It was during the 50s that the first prominent vocal groups made up of teenage girls began to show up on the popularity charts, both pop and R&B.
This playlist highlights some of the vocal groups that were beginning to proliferate during the early rock and roll era. These groups were drawing from a variety of influences, including the “sister” ensembles of the swing era (like the Andrews Sisters) and from the male doo-wop groups that were also popular in the fifties (one of the first girl groups, the Queens, was founded by Shirley Gunter, whose brother Cornell was a member of the Coasters).
Much of the early girl group music features the tight vocal harmonies and nonsense syllables that came from the sister groups or doo-wop, but these “girl group” songs also created a new platform for the concerns of teenage girls. Girl group historian and musicologist Jacqueline Warwick writes that the popularity of these groups “marked the first instance in U.S. history of a music centered around adolescent girls and their experiences coming of age, in a society were teenagers were emerging as a newly signfiicant group.” 1
All of the groups on this playlist were part of rock and roll culture in the fifties—they performed on package shows and were heard on rock and roll radio programs, for example—with the possible exception of the Chordettes, who are performing a hit song written by a teen girl songwriter, Beverly Ross. While a number of girl group hits were written and produced by men, the Brill Building songwriting teams who increasingly worked with girl groups in the 1960s also included songwriters who were young women themselves, including Carole King, Ellie Greenwich, and Cynthia Weil. Ross was among the first.