Lesley Gore, who died on February 16 of lung cancer at age 68, was best known for her hit, It's My Party, which went to #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 and R&B charts in 1963. But the teen singer stood for much more than adolescent anguish and the right to bawl at one's own bash.
Gore was 16 when she recorded It's My Party, her first hit about a "friend" named Judy who ran off with her Johnny at a party she was throwing for her teen friends. By the time Gore graduated from high school, it was all over. While Gore also was a songwriter, penning Out Here on My Own with her brother Michael for the movie Fame, her popularity gained the most traction in the early 1960s, when the songs she sang struck a chord with a relatively new segment of the market.
By 1963, teenage girls had plenty of yearning songs that were recorded by teenage girls. In 1957, the Bobbettes recorded Mr. Lee, one of the first so-called girl group hits. Others followed between 1957 and 1963, including the Shirelles, the Orlons, the Crystals, the Marvelettes and the Exciters. But these all were girls with metropolitan love problems. Meanwhile, most top solo female artists fit into existing slots: Connie Francis was an extension of the pop songbook singer, Brenda Lee was pop with a twang and Annette Funicello was from the beach.
By contrast, Gore was from the suburbs. Though born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gore was raised in Tenafly, N.J., which was just over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. In the late 1950s and early '60s, many families from the city's boroughs moved out to the suburbs as soon as they could afford home-loan payments. The suburbs were perceived to be ideal for raising kids and enjoying lawns, backyard barbecues and the rest of the virtues detailed in magazine ads and on TV sitcoms.
As a visible teen star then, Gore didn't look like a perky button-nose film actress like Connie Francis or a prom queen like Brenda Lee. Gore wore her hair in a mom flip and dressed like a suburban housewife meeting friends for lunch. She was an old-looking 16, as if she already had kids of her own. In the suburbs of major cities in 1963—before teens created their own denim-driven fashion statements in the late 1960s—you dressed like your mom and dad.
But while Gore lacked classic teen beauty she had plenty of adult-like confidence, poise and conviction. Her songs—from Judy's Turn to Cry and Hey Now to Maybe I Know and You Don't Own Me—were delivered with such sincerity that you just figured the events she was singing about actually happened to her. Things that had always seemed trivial to adults ("Don't worry, honey, you'll get over him—you'll see") now had gravitas. [Photo above of Lesley Gore in 1966 by Dan Grossi/AP]
Gore was pure suburban—expressing the anxieties of life in a sterile environment that sheltered teens from bad influences, drugs and crime but not from the pain of callous boys, social status and hard breakups. Instead of singing about a boy she liked or the boy she was going to marry, Gore sang about not wanting to be a loser—a suburban concept if ever there was one. A loser in '63 was someone judged by peers to be unlike everyone else, outside the inner circle and lacking in status. Someone who made a dumb move or was made to look the fool. And there was nothing worse in teen circles in the suburbs than being a loser, especially a loser in love. [Photo above of Lesley Gore with Joe Glaser, left, head of Associated Booking, and Dr. Henry P. Wager, founder of Teen Carnival on March 13, 1964 signing to sing at the New York World's Fair on April 22; photo by Bert Andrews/AP]
Gore struck a chord with girls in cookie-mold communities everywhere—girls who wore curlers at home, owned turquoise Princess phones and slept with stuffed animals won at county fairs. These were newly minted teens who were discovering the joys and misery of attracting and holding onto boys while maintaining good reputations and not embarrassing brothers. A tough task in the suburbs, where life was lived under watchful eyes. As Gore aged and came into her own, she became even more confident about her own sexuality and eventually came out publicly as gay in 2005. Who knows if she knew her own sexual identity back in the early 1960s or how hard it was to deal with the role she had to play as a hit-maker. Back then, in the age of all kinds of repression, Gore gave suburban female teens a voice, showing them they could be better than Johnny and Judy and that through her songs there was hope. For that alone, she'll be missed.
A few words about It's My Party. Gore wasn't the first to record the song. England's Helen Shapiro (above, with John Lennon) beat her to it in February 1963, recording in Nashville. From my article and London interview with Helen in 2011...
When the Beatles tour ended in 1963, Ms. Shapiro flew to Nashville, Tenn., to make an album with saxophonist Boots Randolph and the Jordanaires, Elvis Presley's vocal group. One of the new songs she recorded told of a teenage girl's teary agony over a cheating boyfriend.
But Columbia found "It's My Party" too bratty and held off releasing it as a single. The move was a costly error—allowing Mercury and Lesley Gore to cover the song, which went to No. 1 in the U.S. in June 1963. Sporting a flip hairdo and knit suits way beyond her 16 years, Ms. Gore had all but become Ms. Shapiro in the States.
"There was no rivalry," Ms. Shapiro insisted. "Lesley's version was so much better than mine—it had much more snap and lots more energy."
When I interviewed producer Phil Ramone in 2010, he shed light on the It's My Party recording session, which he engineered for Mercury and producer Quincy Jones. [Above, Phil Ramone at A&R Studios in 1977; photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage]...
JazzWax: You were the engineer on Lesley Gore’s hits in the early '60s.
Phil Ramone: That’s right. She was 16 years old at the time but had all the signs of being a big pop star. Once we finished It’s My Party, we started on You Don't Own Me and all those other songs. Lesley always put herself in a place artistically that would have shocked most other people at that age.
JW: How did It's My Party wind up in your hands?
PR: I got a call from Quincy Jones. He had recorded the song for Mercury at Bell Sound, which was a big pop studio in New York in those days. Arrangers tended to write for that room at Bell, and the engineers there were really good. Quincy told me he needed to do some work on the track but couldn’t book time at Bell. It was a three-track recording, and he said he had to have the record out immediately. He asked if I could cut it that night. Producers wanted records cut fast to get them on the radio as quickly as possible to build buzz and an audience.
JW: What did you tell him?
PR: I said yeah, I had a lathe, which was used to cut blank vinyl records from the master tape. I told him we’d work all night to cut whatever he needed for radio.
JW: What was the rush?
PR: Quincy said that producer Phil Spector was cutting the same song with one of the Ronettes.
JW: How was that possible?
PR: Music publishers were notorious for doing things like that then. They promised you an exclusive, and then you found out everyone had it.
JW: What did you do?
PR: Before we started cutting the records, Lesley needed to repair some of the vocals. Quincy said to me that he wanted to double track it.
JW: What’s that?
PR: Normally you’d copy the recording to another tape and put them together, like the Beatles did, to create four tracks and double the same vocal. I told Quincy that if he was willing to take a risk, I could pull the erase head of the recorder, allowing her to sing right onto her original master. We wouldn't lose a generation, and we'd retain the music's vivid punch. But there was a risk. By running the tape that way, we could wind up erasing the only vocal Quincy had instead.
JW: How did the session work?
PR: Lesley sang to her original vocal wearing headphones. We pulled the erase head to stay first generation. It was crazy to do, but we wound up with much stronger sound and a bigger beat. Quincy trusted me, and Leslie had rehearsed what she was supposed to do. If you listen carefully to the record, there’s a sweet amount of imperfection. But it sounds great. I also remixed it so that it had the right kind of pound.
JW: Why the fuss—why did you want that pound?
PR: The big deal for any of us making records in the early ‘60s, as we switched from jazz to pop music, was to get records to sound louder than anyone else’s without using too much compression to do it. You wouldn’t want to do that on a jazz record because you don’t want to lose a generation. Jazz listeners have sharper ears. When you compressed tape, you wound up with noise on there that sounded like an old AM radio. It really was ugly. Long story short, everything worked out great and Lesley's single was a big hit.
JazzWax tracks: There are many albums featuring Lesley Gore's recordings. For the hard-core fan, there's a five-CD Bear Family box from 1994 (go here).
JazzWax clips: Here's Helen Shapiro's It's My Party, recorded in February 1963...
Here's Lesley Gore's It's My Party, recorded in March 1963...
JazzWax notes: For my Wall Street Journal profile of Helen Shapiro, go here. For my five-part JazzWax interview with Phil Ramone, go here. Remember, this is Part 1. For additional parts, go up above the red date at the top and look for a link to the next part.