music book review: But Will You Love Me Tomorrow: An Oral History of the '60's Girl Groups

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music book review: But Will You Love Me Tomorrow: An Oral History of the '60's Girl Groups

The dedication page in But Will You Love Me Tomorrow: An oral history of the ‘60s Girl Groups reads, “For the women of the girl groups.” This might strike a casual observer as redundant; after all, isn’t that implied in the title of the book? But in much of the existing books on the girl groups, you hear from the men: the producers, the managers, the songwriters, the musicians. In this book, the women’s voices dominate, page after page after page. In other books, every once in a while the writers will throw in a quote from Ronnie Spector or Carole King or Ellie Greenwich (or other women at similarly visible levels) but it isn’t letting all of the women take up significant space. It is a book about them, they finally get to dominate the conversation.

The authors conducted over 300 hours of new interviews with over 100 subjects, conducted between 2019 and 2022. And shockingly,1 the authors of the book are women. Because it’s an oral history, the primary voice is of the interviewees, with the authors responsible for who they talked to, what was included, and how the story was constructed out of all of the interviews. But you will read page after page after page where women are telling their story about their life and work, without a man coming in to affirm their statements or do that thing where a woman/women say/s something over and over again and no one listens to them, but then a man walks in the room and says the exact same thing once and everyone acts like he is a genius.2 

Before you panic, don’t worry, the men are still here. You can’t comprehensively tell the story of the girl groups without producers and disc jockeys and label execs and musicians, most of whom were men. Like seriously, do not panic, no one is writing a history of girl groups without Jeff Barry or Neil Sedaka or Gerry Goffin or Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber. But you also get to learn about Florence Greenberg, who started a record company because she wanted her son, a music major who was blind, to have a good job. Her daughter went to the same New Jersey high school as the women who would become the Shirelles, who sang at a talent show one night. Florence founded Scepter Records and was the first woman to own a major label. And yet, there is no biography of Florence Greenberg (although there was a Broadway show/jukebox musical, which is still not the gravitas of a book), and if you do a web search, everyone will tell you that she was a New Jersey housewife. I am glad to see her title in this book as “Music executive.” As her son puts it, “Well, she was…she didn’t stay a housewife for very long.”

Because the book is an oral history, you’re hearing the story in the words of the people who were there. They’re not filtered through someone else’s value judgements, and by that I honestly just mean, “A man is not interpreting what a woman says was important.” There is no “what she means is…” nor is anyone (again, usually a man) making guesses as to why something happened or why an individual did a certain thing. Have you heard the stories about all of the 50s and 60s groups who didn’t get paid or got ripped off? Here you can get specifics, and get mad all over again at record companies or unscrupulous managers pocketing the cash that belonged to the performers.

Motown and Stax get their own chapters but they do not dominate the book, which would be boring as well as incorrect. There are plenty of books about Motown and Stax, and they are part of girl group history, but they don’t deserve to dominate this particular conversation, so they do not. They get exactly enough, but not too much. The other thing to consider, of course, is that these largely successful (all caveats included) companies have people less willing to talk outside of school. Motown doesn’t get off light but this is a chapter where I wish there was more continuity to guide readers through the conversation; this is part of the trade-off that happens when you present an oral history.

There are also no manufactured happy endings, nor are the sad or bad stories embroidered upon. And there is no shortage of these: payola, rampant misogyny, theft, betrayal, just being a bad person, and Phil Spector. Spector pre-deceased this book so other participants, like the members of the Crystals, Leiber/Stoller, and of course, the Ronettes, get to tell their side of the story without a louder voice shouting them down, and it never ceases to amaze me that with every thing I read about Phil Spector, there is somehow additional material that makes me hate him more than I already do.

My favorite stories: Gloria Jones of the Blossoms talking about her crush on Sam Cooke. Ellie Greenwich telling Phil Spector to fuck off. Billy Joel popping in and out of the book because he is a huge fanboy of this music. There’s a chapter about the Shirelles going to Alabama to participate in an event called “The Salute to Freedom,” which doesn’t get as much attention paid to it compared to other historical recountings of popular culture interacting with the civil rights movement. And I’m always happy to read about any of the girl groups hanging out with the Beatles or the Stones, even if I think neither of those groups did enough to acknowledge the influence the girl groups had on them. I will, however, endlessly read gossipy dish on this subject.

We need as many of these books as possible. We need to hear from the women, in their own voices, facilitated by other women, because I am so tired of having the history of women filtered through the male voice/gaze/viewpoint. You had had your chances, it is time to stop hogging the spotlight.


I am watching: The Wham! documentary on Netflix. I had low expectations and was positively thrilled that this was absolutely fantastic - detailed, sympathetic, sensitive, relying on primary sources, interviews with George and Andrew in their own voices, scrapbooks kept by Andrew’s mum, tons of archival footage. It didn’t try to do too much and ended at precisely the right moment.

honorable mention: Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb - if this particular thing is your jam, it is absolutely riveting.

I am reading: An Atlas of Es Devlin [sorry for the non-Bookshop link but they do not have it for some reason] - okay less reading than picking it up and thumbing through it.

I am listening to: Black Out The Windows / Ladies & Gentlemen, The Twilight Singers. A longer essay on this set is forthcoming, but it is worth every cent I paid. (As I said to a friend when this was announced, “I’d rather fund Dulli’s retirement than buy Jessica Springsteen another horse.”)

bonus anecdote for people who read this far:

A former sister-in-law was notoriously face-blind. You could walk right up to her and she’d stare at you like she’d never met you. She was at Wembley Stadium with her family for a concert some years ago, and while her husband and daughter went in search of food her ten-year-old son needed to use the facilities. She walked over to the gents’ with her son and waited outside. This was, of course, long before the days of cellphones.

After some time, she began to be concerned that he hadn’t returned, and after checking that there weren’t other exits, etc., she steeled herself to ask someone entering the facilities if they could check for her son. She suddenly saw a familiar face and explained her plight. The kind face — she still could not place it or remember his name — assured her he would go in and retrieve the kid, no, it wasn’t a bother, no, he didn’t think she was being hysterical.

A few minutes later, her son comes out, scowling and very cross.

“Mum, why did you send George Michael in to check on me?”

  1. Come on, it is not shocking

  2. I used to do this at Microsoft, when I had something important that wasn’t being heard -- I had a male ally on my team who would, at my request, say the same thing I had been saying, in the exact same way, and every single time without fail, “his” idea would be heard and considered. I did this because I didn’t care about advancing at the company but it’s not a strategy I’d recommend for a whole variety of reasons that are outside the scope of this newsletter.