Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Beatles' Secret Disco Past

The Shirelles became the first all-female group to top the US singles charts in the Rock n Roll era when Will You Love Me Tomorrow made the top spot in 1961. The four girl friends had begun singing a capella while in High School in 1958, and entered the end of term talent show performing their own song, 'I Met Him On A Sunday' (Owens/Coley/Harris/Lee) which so impressed one of the other pupils' parents that she signed them to her record label. Yes, her label; Florence Greenberg, a New Jersey housewife who loved Rock n Roll decided that the only way she'd get ahead in the male-dominated entertainment industry would be to go it alone. She put her own money into recording the four pals who were initially named The Poquellos and suggested that they change their name. So they took part of lead singer Shirley Owens' name, added the end of their favourite doo-wop outfit The Chantels, and became The Shirelles. 'I Met Him On A Sunday' was released by Tiara and distributed by Decca, making it into the Top 50, and beginning the career of probably the greatest girl group not to be signed to either Phil Spector nor Motown. After a couple more less successful singles released in 1959 the Shirelles recorded Carol King and Gerry Goffin's 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' in 1960. Shirley didn't like the initial mix though, thinking it sounded like a Country song, so it had some strings added before Greenberg released it on her new label, Scepter (Decca had bought out Tiara on the strength of the success of 'Sunday'). The single was an international hit (making #2 on the UK singles chart in 1961). The hits then flowed; 'Dedicated to The One I Love' (a re-release from '59, Pauling/Bass), 'Mama Said' (Dixon/Denson),—later a hit for Dusty Springfield and later still for Amy Winehouse—'Big John' (Dean), Soldier Boy' (Dixon/Green) and 'Baby, It's You' (Bacharach/David/Williams) all made the Top Five singles chart. The Shirelles also gave Dionne Warwick early professional singing gigs when she stepped in to cover various members during maternity leave in mid-decade.
But what's all that got to do with the Beatles and Disco?
Well, the early '60s girl groups such as the Shirelles, Ronettes, Chiffons, Crystals and Martha Reeves and her Vandellas provided the soundtrack to the first 'discos' which began to emerge out of the supper clubs, nightclubs and members-only night spots in New York, Paris, London and Los Angeles in the days just before the Beatles led the British Invasion of America in 1964. While learning their trade in Hamburg and Liverpool's Cavern Club in 1960-'62 the Fab Four would hear the great soul singles from America blasting out between their performances, and they clearly loved them. They recorded two songs made famous by The Shirelles, 'Baby It's You' and 'Boys' both of which are on Please, Please Me. Also on the Beatles' debut album are their versions of 'Chains' (Goffin/King) by The Cookies (who became Ray Charles' backing singers, the Raelettes) and The Marvelettes' 'Please Mr Postman' (Dobbins/Garrett/Gorman/Holland/Bateman) which was Tamla Motown's first #1 Billboard hit single in 1961.
All four songs were the closest thing to 'disco' staples as existed back then, along with other great singles such as  James Brown's 'Think' (1960, Pauling) and 'Night Train' (1962, Washington/Simpkins//Forrest), The Chiffons' 'He's So Fine' (1962, Mack), Martha & The Vandella's 'Heatwave' (1963, Holland /Dozier/Holland) and The Miracles' 'Shop Around' (1960, Robinson/Gordy) to name but a few. While researching Disco; The Music; The Times; The Era' (Sterling) I found some great photos of Ringo Starr dancing at London's Ad Lib Club in 1963, with beehived women wearing tight dresses and winkle-picker stiletto heels, watched avidly by military-looking young men with short hair and straight spines. The club had pushed tables and chairs away from the meagre dance floor to enable people room to dance. Within a couple more years new clubs would be designed with bigger dance floors and dynamic lighting, one of them in New York would be named Arthur's after Ringo's haircut—when asked by an American reporter at Idlewild airport just after landing in the USA for the first time, 'What do you call your haircut?' the drummer replied, 'Arthur'.
The final disco link between The Beatles and The Shirelles comes from one of the girls' lesser hit of 1962, 'Stop The Music' (McCoy/Denson). The writer and producer was another of Flo Greenberg's signings to Scepter, Van McCoy. He would, of course, grow up to 'Do The Hustle'1975), having by that time written 'I Get The Sweetest Feeling' for Jacky Wilson (1968), and 'Walk Away From Love'' (1975) for the great David Ruffin, as well as having produced The Stylistics' greatest disco hits. 'Stop The Music' contains elements of the string-laden R&B sound that McCoy employed brilliantly on his disco recordings, and which seems to have inspired the great Philadelphia production and writing team of Gamble & Huff—who, coincidentally, produced Laura Nyro's unusual but one of her best albums, 'It's Gonna Take A Miracle' (1971), recorded with Labelle, the first track of which is 'I Met Him On A Sunday'.
Now, if John Lennon had preferred Van McCoy as producer for Let It Be rather than Phil Spector things might have ended very differently for The Beatles.


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