Tag Archives: Girl Groups

A rather (un)comprehensive list of 10 Ladies of Queer Soul that you should know.

As I’m dusting off this blog and working towards crafting my lecture for the Queer Astrology Conference in March, I stumbled on this blog post from 5 years ago and thought it was time for a refresh/update and debate.

The inspiration initially came from looking at photos of Etta James for a “Happy Birthday” post then. I thought about how her iconic look was created/based on the drag persona of embellishing upon feminine virtues. She wasn’t the only R&B diva to openly create personas that borrowed or gave a knowing wink to their LGBT fanbase.

It’s not a new cultural phenomenon that began with Beyonce, Mandonna, Kylie Minogue and others. Nor was it something that our list of ladies of soul and pop started. Countless other performers along the gender continuum continue this kinship with queer fans as well.. It’s not a widely covered subject around this era of music, however.

So… here’s my list. What do you think?

1) Dusty Springfield
I think the most accurate description of Dusty Springfield’s persona was that she envisioned herself as “A Gay Black Mans interpretation of a female soul singer, filtered through the prospective of a closeted lesbian Irish Catholic with layers of catholic guilt that she tried to run from.” Her look, a combination of Italian Actress Monica Vitti, The Ronettes and Mary Wells via London West End Drag Queens is one of the best examples of porcine, over the top camp glamour that sets a precedence for drag queens to this day.

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2) Tina Turner
I rate Tina Turner highly in her 1960s caricature because she is remembered in this period as being raw, wild and sexual. It’s a trait that was rarely allowed to be visible in African American Women in the 1960s. Then again Janis Joplin was the only white female that was allowed real raw sexual power on record and onstage. This open display, however created partially by her husband-manager Ike, allowed a generation of Closeted Gay men to hope and believe that being wild open, and potent, sexually liberated, was possible if you wanted to be. Luckily for them the door started to open in June, 1969. Tina would have to suffer with Ike for 7 more years.

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3) The Ronettes
Their towering Bouffants (of actually their hair), Their Racial ambiguity (Veronica and Estelle being Black, Native American and Irish, Nedra being Black and Puerto Rican) and their far more blatant form of Coy Catholic bad girl sexuality made them as much unpeggable outsiders as Queer folk in the 1960s. All the more wonderful once they started having hit records, toured with The Rolling Stones (and were bigger stars than them) and had fans masturbating in the Audience. Who wouldn’t want that compliment?

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I denote the Fall of 1966 since this denotes the 3 year period where it was obvious that The Supremes were being used as Diana Ross’s launchpad into gay icon–err–Solo stardom success. The Chiffon gowns gave way to bugle beads and millions of sequins. More layers of hair and make-up were plastered onto Diane, Mary, Florence and soon Cindy to hide the fact that underneath the happy melodies and perfect dance steps, in the Spring of 1967 that the group was splitting in two. The songs became more baroque and ridiculous as well. Need we talk about “I’m Living In Shame” being Douglass Sirk’s Imitation of Life on vinyl?

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5) Etta James
As I said earlier, her initial choice to bleach her hair blonde was influenced by her gay best friend that she took along with her on her initial tours. The skin hugging dresses (despite her often size 12+ frame) and penciled in eyebrows that would make Joan Crawford jealous were the result of her love and affinity for local drag queens and trans women that made up her pool of best friends. And her raw, honest songs make her a twin in spirit for the reasons gay men grasped onto Tina Turner. I can’t give you the full scope of her long standing relationship with her queer fanbase, so it would be best for you to read her Auto Biography, Rage To Survive for a fascinating read.

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6) Dionne Warwick
She’s everyone’s favorite Ice Queen of Soul. The pretty, pristine, complex Burt Bacharach Songs, the slinky gowns, the tours of Europe, being the “Black Pearl” to French Music critics. The odd balance of restraint, hurt, the “closet” aspect of the rage seething underneath. She’s also a member of a super extensive, melodramatic music family dynasty that included her sister Dee Dee, Aunt Cissy, adopted Sister Judy, Cousin Whitney…on and on… If there’s a mini-series meant for Lifetime it would be about Dionne and her relatives.

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7) Nina Simone
I don’t know if I can fully say it has been more historical re-evaluation or delayed appreciation of her work by Queer and not so queer folks of all ages, blurring the lines between appreciation and appropriation. It seems appropriate for the Piscean High Priestess of Soul. Or maybe I’m playing ultimate cynic and there’s a sincere bond to the (Bi-Polar) High Priestess of Soul. Her songs, alternating between hymns, folk songs, battle cries and uptown soul, always done with the alternate of a twinkling smile and a righteous roar will forever attract new fans.

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8) Lesley Gore
She went to #1 across the board in 4 weeks whining about how she lost her boyfriend at a party. When I say across the board, yes, that means “It’s My Party” also conquered the R&B Charts with it’s unabashed scorned brattiness. As wimpy as that sounds, a teen icon was born, with a perfect Aqua-netted flip. Underneath the veneer of wondering about hetero-normativity, true sexual identity questioning happened, and slipped out at hilariously unintentional moments (See “Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy”).
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9) Tammi Terrell
1) Who wouldn’t want to be the most glamorous Marvin Gaye duet Partner (and the only one to ever appear on Television with him!) 2) Have men fight over you 3) Die Tragically young and beautiful and 4) Leave men weeping for you?
Ok, maybe not the dying part, but Tammi Terrell’s short life is comparable to a Bronte Novel in the amount of beautiful sorrow. Solo and in partnership, her discography details with rich emotion all of the up and downs, ins and outs of being human. Thankfully, nearly 50 years after from the beautiful yet tragic final act of a woman fiercely determined to leave her mark on the world, this talented Taurus is getting the respect as an artist she was always due on her own, alongside the remarkable work she did in pairing with her handsome duet partner.

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10) The Shirelles
The Shirelles took over the baton from The Chantels. From extolling passionate, but teenage pleas of wondering about love, came  more adult, sophisticated, and blatant intertwining of sex and love that The Shirelles spun off with “Tonight’s The Night” and “Will you Still Love Me Tomorrow.” It’s healthy to believe that a few guys amongst the millions of women where those who made those records best sellers. “Mama Said” and many other countless musings where heard as templates on how to navigate the adult world for folks of all stripes, including queers wondering, if he’ll/she’ll/they’ll love them once the night met the morning sun.
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So Silky.. So Smooth, like Velvet. Must Be the Velvelettes.

So, sometimes you just have to reach back and find a good jam, right. For some reason The Velvelettes super crisp and clean version of “The Boy From Crosstown” (not to be confused with The Angels single from 1964), which went through 3 changes and to The Marvelettes and Gladys Knight and The Pips before being released in 1968, that came to mind.

And I thought… Well, what a fine time for a post on The Velvelettes.

The Velvelettes was the only “family” Girl Group act during Motowns classic era. Composed of Sisters Mildred and Caldin (Carolyn) Gill and cousins Bertha and Norma Barbee, they formed at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, in 1961. Carolyn recruited her friend Betty Kelley, who in 1964 would leave The Velvelettes to replace Annette Beard in Martha & The Vandellas.

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With Carolyn as lead singer they auditioned for Motown in 1962, and released “There He Goes” on the IPG label (for whatever reason the single was not released on any of the Motown Subsidiaries). Although it didn’t chart, the song was still considered good enough for The Royalettes to cover in 1964.

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The did various demos and first recordings of songs that go passed on to other artists. Some of their best material from this era went unreleased for 40 years, from the “Heatwave-a-like” “You Can’t Get Away” to the absolutely torrid “Stop Beating Around The Bush”

They would have to wait til the fall of 1964 til they got a proper first chance at hit single with “Needle In a Haystack” (R&B#16 Pop#45, 1964), given little promotion it performed a lot better than expected (mind you most Motown promotional dollars were being used to beat back Nella Dodds cover of “Come See About Me”) and for all purposes was the Sister Ship song to The Marvelettes “Too Many Fish In The Sea”

(Here are all the Original Velvelettes, minus Kelley, performing that first hit in 2005).

And then came, to me one of the Best Girl Group Songs ever.

“He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin'”

For whatver reasons in the first few months of 1965 it didn’t manage to break out of the R&B top 20 or past #64 pop…

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but was lamely covered by Bananarama 17 years later. It was followed by the melancholy uptempo ballad “Lonely Lonely Girl am I” and logical follow up to “Needle in a Haystack” , “A Bird In The Hand (Is Worth Two in The Bush”).

In between these singles, like Kim Weston (or Martha & The Vandellas or even The Supremes) more than 2 LPs worth of material was recorded and vaulted, much of it as good or even better than what was released as singles (like “The Boy From Crosstown”) for instance the torrid “Save Me (My Ship Is Sinking)” or “A Love So Deep”

By the middle of 1966, all of the family members of The Velvelettes were tired of touring, and given that most of The Velvelettes were middle class college graduate women with husbands by this point, all but Carolyn had left performing, so she had recruited Sandy Tilley (formerly of The Orlons, Future of The Vandellas) and Annette McMillian (of what I dunno) and they released one more single, the delightfully devotional “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You”

It barely moved into any charts (R&B#43, Pop#102) but 5 years later after becoming popular on Englands Northern Soul Scene, made the UK top 40, peaking at #34.

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The Velvelettes continued to record through 1967, and officially disbanded when Carolyn married future Temptation Richard Street in 1969, leaving more wonderful moments in the Vault, like this splendid more Vietnam relevant version of The Supremes “Your Heart Belongs to Me”

But, on a whim for a Charity event The Velvelettes reformed in 1984 and have been performing regularly (alternating between their normal day lives) for the past quarter century in their original line-up (without the notable pettiness of Motown’s other 3 classic Girl Groups).

So I do have to address one critical slight that is always thrown at The Velvelettes: That they were nowhere near as “unique” as the other 3 Motown Girl Groups, which is a remarkable insult to the versatility and uniqueness of Carolyn Gill’s voice. I think it’s because she does have the qualities of each other groups primary leads, Martha’s power and range, Gladys Horton’s Toughness, and Diana Ross’s sensuality and, well, quite often was probably told “Sing it like (insert current female hit)” with each recording, you can’t fault her for being versatile but identifiable in her own right. Also there’s a large slight toward The Velvelettes Soaring harmonies, notably shown here on “A Love So Deep” (no folks there’s no Andantes there).

So, if you get a chance to see these 4 wonderful women live, treat yourself to the pure joy that still is the Motown sound.

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