THEY’VE GOT THE POWER Ponderosa Stomp’s Girl Group Extravaganza

With Ronnie Spector,
La La Brooks of the Crystals, Lesley Gore, the Angels, Maxine Brown and more on
hand, NYC was awash in a Wall Of Sound.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

Lincoln Center and Ponderosa Stomp, the New Orleans-based
non-profit dedicated to honoring unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll and its
tributaries, did more than just offer a nice tribute with its She’s Got the
Power concert and symposium honoring girl-groups of the early 1960s. (The free
concert occurred on a sizzling Saturday evening at Lincoln Center’s
outdoor Damrosch Park Bandshell; the symposium was in a cool, air-conditioned
atrium.) The full name of the event was Ponderosa
Stomp Presents: She’s Got the Power! A Girl Group Extravaganza.

 

The presenters may have come up with a format and a line-up
for a concert tour as successful at reviving and reclaiming aging 1960s
recordings as Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds tours have been. In this case, the music in question would be the imaginatively-produced
and -written, and passionately sung, American pop-rock of the early 1960s. To
some extent, Broadway has been keeping it alive with musicals like Jersey Boys and Leader of the Pack, but this show worked better.

 

One can easily see a full-sounding, loud but sensitive Wall
of Sound Orchestra – of the kind on display for this show – backing a bevy of
singers who were part of the original movement. And also as occurred at Lincoln Center, a choir of background singers –
voices arranged by Toni Wine (who at this show also took a dreamily
introspective solo on a song she co-wrote back in the day, “A Groovy Kind of
Love”) – could help the featured singers achieve maximum impact with the sometimes-forceful,
sometimes-heavenly beauty of the material.

 

And this show offered the kind of still-powerful singers who
could anchor such a tour in Ronnie Spector, La La Brooks of the Crystals,
Lesley Gore, Maxine Brown and more. (Alas, Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las and
Darlene Love were not at the Lincoln
Center concert, but one
would hope a first-class girl-group tour would include them.)

 

This wasn’t really an “oldies” concert. It was never
sentimental or kitschy; it sought to educate its audience and honor its
performer. The event’s title came from a non-hit single by the Exciters called
“He’s Got the Power” – and the Exciters (with original members Brenda Reid and
Lillian Walker Moss) were there to offer it, along with “Tell Him” and “Do Wah
Diddy.”)

 

The subtle change in title from that Exciters song to the Lincoln Center event – he to she – encapsulated
the deeper meaning of what was going on. While most of the era’s girl-group
songs were about their need for boys, this show was out to view those songs as
part of a time, a scene, when women competed as equals in shaping the artistry
and the business of youth rock. To underscore that, He’s Got the Power included
a tribute to the late Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich, who with
ex-husband Jeff Barry wrote many of the hits that came out of Phil Spector’s
Philles Records and its Wall of Sound productions – “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He
Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” “I Can Hear Music” “River Deep Mountain High” and
more. She was also a studio background singer and vocal arranger, and had a
girl-group of her own (the Raindrops).

 

Highlighting Greenwich’s
role gives intellectual heft to trying to untangle so many of these songs from
the grip of Phil Spector, a man fondly regarded by few these days because of
his treatment of women. That latter point was brought home during a symposium
panel honoring Greenwich,
when participant Seymour Stein – the owner of Sire Records – opined that
Spector didn’t belong in jail for the 2003 murder of an actress. “Whatever
happened was an accident,” he said, with little support from an audience that
mostly ignored him. The most interesting fact to come out of that particular
panel was that Greenwich
considered herself a “writer with a sound” – someone whose written works were
intrinsically connected to the production value of the recordings. Her sound?
The streets of New York.

 

The daytime panels were fascinating. In the first, featuring
members of the (white) Angels (“My Boyfriend’s Back”) and (black) Exciters, the
latter’s Lillian Walker Moss recalled integrating Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl
while on tour with the Beatles in 1964. Her group (along with Clarence
“Frogman” Henry, an African-American singer) was told they couldn’t play the
date because the Bowl was segregated. But the Beatles said they wouldn’t play
if black acts were excluded. “We thought, ‘Wow, we must be some incredible
group if the Beatles said they’re not playing if we’re not playing,” Moss said.
(The Beatles also demanded the audience not be segregated.) 

 

The concert drew some big-time fans. Steve Van Zandt did an
introduction, Paul Shaffer played on stage, and the band – called the
Boyfriends – featured Lenny Kaye, Ira Kaplan and Gene Cornish (of the Rascals).
Jeremy Chatzky, music director for Ronnie Spector’s exciting band and a
bassist, supervised the sterling overall sound. The concert was divided into
two overlapping parts. In the first, which had its own intermission, a parade
of acts sang their hits. It went fast, although the three headliners – Ronnie
Spector, Gore and Brooks, did get more time than the others. In the second part
of the show, most of the acts reappeared in a tribute to Greenwich,
even though Greenwich
songs were included in the first part.

 

Ronnie Spector, who has rebuilt her career by playing her
sublime 1960s Philles recordings with a band that offers horns, string sections
and background singers, was consistently top-notch during “Walkin’ in the
Rain,” “Baby I Love You,” “I Can Hear Music” and even a snippet of Amy
Whitehouse’s “Back to Black.” Gore’s set was a little bit slick, but it did
feature one of the earliest Top 40 hits with a feminist undercurrent – “You
Don’t Own Me.”
It maybe was an anomaly at the time, but it’s a historic marker now. Knowing
it’s her strongest, she saved it for set’s end and the strength and clarity of
her voice reminded the audience the song foretold the future.

 

Brooks, who was just 15 when she sang on Crystals hits in the early 1960s, has had a
struggle trying to be the standard bearer for that Philles Records’ group’s
legacy, as Ronnie Spector has become for the Ronettes’. She’s gotten a late
start, having lived abroad for many years. The Crystals had several girls who could sing
lead, and they were never promoted as stars the way Spector was. And two of their
biggest hits – “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” – were actually
Darlene Love tracks infamously and cavalierly released under the Crystals name by Phil
Spector.

 

But she has a few things going for her, too. She’s tall and
physically fit, able to do bends and splits on stage in her tight bellbottom
slacks. Her voice booms out with breathtaking authority. Also, she’s a New
Yorker, and her between-song raps have a Brooklyn-accented sass that instantly
makes her a hometown here.  Her set
before the Greenwich
tribute warmed up with “There’s No Other” (and she credited fellow Crystal
Barbara Alston for the original lead), “I Wonder,” “Little Boy” and “Girls Can
Tell.” And then “Da Do Ron Ron” thundered.

 

In the first half of this part, it was thrilling to see so
many of woman, more or less marginalized by rock history and the music business
today, get a chance to perform – however briefly – under optimum conditions
before a couple thousand devotees. Age has, obviously, sanded off the
youthfulness of some of the voices, but not the emotional commitment. And they
sang out, with pride in their songs and for their event. In some cases, the
singers took turns on stage backing each other.

 

Among highlights: Margaret Ross of the Cookies (“Chains,” “I
Never Dreamed,” and “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby”), Barbara Harris of
the Toys (“A Lover’s Concerto” and “May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone”), Nanette
Licori of Reparata & the Delrons (“Whenever a Teenager Cries”), and Louise
Murray of the mysterious one-hit-wonders Jaynetts (“Sally Go Round the Roses”).
Also, Beverly Davis reprised a marvelous Carole King-Gerry Goffin song she
recorded in 1965, “Let Me Get Close to You,” and dedicated it to two artists
who also recorded it, Skeeter Davis and Alex Chilton.

 

Two singers whose hits had less girl-group-sound trappings
than the others also got a chance. A wheelchair-bound Arlene Smith of the
Chantels, who predated the early 1960s heyday of the sound, dressed
spectacularly in a sequined violet coat, blasted out “Maybe” so powerfully you
felt a chill on a 90+-degree day. And Baby Washington received strong support
from back-up singers on her ethereally delicate, one-of-a-kind “That’s How
Heartaches Are Made.”

 

Somewhat singularly, Maxine Brown, who recorded for Florence
Greenberg’s important girl-group label Scepter/Wand, sounded changed and much
more adult while doing the introspective “All In My Mind” and “Oh No, Not My
Baby.” And she went far into gospel territory with an extended, grippingly
dramatic version of “We’ll Cry Together” that earned gasps and cheers for its
sermonizing quality.

 

The purpose of the Greenwich
tribute, the concert’s final act, was to remind everyone of her songwriting
contribution. Really, by now, everyone was aware, so it was like a fireworks
display after a winning ballgame, a glittery and sparkling way to salute the
end of a marvelous good time. The Exciters did “He’s Got the Power,” Gore
performed “The Look of Love” and “Maybe I Know,” Ronnie Spector closed the show
with the anthemic “Be My Baby” but also did “Chapel of Love,” which she had
recorded first but was beaten to the Top 40 by the Dixie Cups. And Brooks
rousingly took on Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High,” surprising herself
with just how much earthly grit and heavenly escape she could find in the
classic.

 

Now, if an enterprising booker/concert producer can just get
this on the road, it might be one of the best tours of 2012. It’s such a
pleasure to hear these songs – and see these singers – treated so well.

 

 

 

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