When the Cookies’ Margaret Ross took the stage at BB Kings Blues Club & Grill as part of the “Girl Group Sound Spectacular,” the teenage girl sitting next to us jumped to her feet and let out a piercing “YEAAHHHHH GRANDMA!!!!” How wild, I thought, for this young girl to be watching her 71-year-old grandma sing the songs of her teenage years, fifty years after the peak of her career, to a crowd barely able to contain their excitement. The girl group sound, despite moving further and further away from its heyday, seems to be transitioning from the record-collecting fringes to the mainstream. I remember hosting a girl group party for a ’60s music collective called Spectropop back in 2003. It was an intimate affair, mostly consisting of die-hard girl group aficionados, Spectropop members, collectors, and a few surprise guests like Beverly Warren, Louise Murray of the Jaynetts, and Margaret Ross of the Cookies. Looking around at the audience seated at the vastly larger BB Kings Blues Club & Grill, it’s clear the love for girl groups has grown tenfold since then. Perhaps it’s the unexpected success of documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, or Rhino’s Girl Group Box Set, or the serious efforts of women like Sheryl Farber and Jill Sternheimer, all working their damnedest to bring attention to this remarkable female-centric movement in music that was critically dismissed for far too many years.
WFMU’s Gaylord Fields and Dave the Spazz emcee’d the evening, and were visibly giddy as they introduced each of the nine ladies to the mic. Barbara Harris opened with her group the Toys’ “Attack,” sounding (I kid you not) IDENTICAL to the original records. Dressed in black and gold, she shaked and shimmied her way through four Toys songs, and then introduced her fellow Toys, June Montiero and Barbara Parritt, who were seated in the audience. I was introduced to June Montiero later on in the evening, and may I say that she has been blessed with the some seriously good genes. “If you think I look good, you should see my sister,” she said, pulling out her cell phone to show me her 70-year-old sister who looked no older than 45.
As each of the singers took the lead mic, the others ooooh‘d, aaahhh‘d, and doo-wah-diddy‘d in the background. Beverly Warren wore a smile even brighter than her blazing red suit, and was clearly relishing every minute of the show. Lillian Walker-Moss of the Exciters took on “Tell Him” and “Do Wah Diddy” with the same power and pizazz of her group’s lead singer Brenda Reid. It was hard not to cry during Toni Wine’s tender reading of “Groovy Kind of Love,” made all the more emotional by the fact that she co-wrote the song. She looked truly touched by the impassioned applause. Louise Murray from the Jaynetts and the Hearts towered above the many petite ladies, and seemed to elicit a rather large number of admirers who handed her bouquets of roses as she sang her group’s hit, “Sally Go Round the Roses.” At some point during the set, an over-eager gentleman in the audience took out his tambourine and attempted to play along with the band (which included Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan on guitar). It was cute for one song, but when he seemed happy to continue playing along with every friggin’ song, I was thankful for the lady who tapped him on the shoulder and told him to shut it.
I, and apparently many of those in the audience, have a real soft spot for the Cookies. This may be attributed to their flawless catalogue of singles for Dimension, or their many super pseudo-groups and side projects, or their back-up work on so many East Coast ’60s hits, or perhaps it’s “I Never Dreamed,” the Russ Titelman-penned record that remains one of my favorite girl group songs since I first heard it at age 19. I wasn’t expecting Margaret Ross to sing “I Never Dreamed” nor to announce that Russ Titelman may be in the audience. The combination of the two set my heart a buzzin’ and sent the butterflies straight for my stomach. I could speak for ages about my love and respect for so many of the ’60s songwriters, but no writer moves me more than Russ Titelman. This in itself is quite odd considering songwriting was just a blip in Russ Titelman’s hugely successful career as a record producer. But the records he wrote in the early ’60s– Margaret Mandolph’s “I Wanna Make You Happy,” Darlene McCrea’s “My Heart’s Not In It.” Lesley Gore’s “What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby),” and the Cookies “I Never Dreamed” of course– tap into an emotional place that I didn’t even know existed. I can’t quite put my finger on how or why. It’s pure feeling. After the show, I re-introduced myself to Russ Titelman (I met him for the first time at the Rhino Records’ Girl Group Sounds box set party at the Cutting Room in 2005), and re-gushed (I know, that’s not an actual word) about my love for his songs. Normally I attempt to keep my composure, but in the presence of Russ Titelman, I find it impossible.
Moving on….! The voices in the room ranged from ultra teenage (namely Nanette Licari of Reparata & the Delrons, who sang an adorable version of “Whenever A Teenager Cries”) to deep and soulful, but Baby Washington, looking like an almighty queen in black, went deeper than deep. ”I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face” got off to a wobbly start, but as her deep pipes warmed, it was hard not to be gobsmacked by the ability of a human to make such otherworldly sounds.
You just have to look at Maxine Brown and her deeply expressive face to know she means business. To watch her sing “Oh No Not My Baby” and “All In My Mind” is to watch a master completely at ease with her art. The entire stage erupted during her rendition of “Gin House Blues,” and I found it painfully difficult to stay in my seat. It’s the kind of performance that would propel you to run out onto the street and drag everyone into the club so that they can share in the euphoria. “Look at her!” “Listen to her sing!” “That voice” “That depth” “That heart!” “That soul!” “Those songs!” If only the whole world could’ve seen the talent on display at the “Girl Group Sound Spectacular.” It was spectacular indeed.
p.s. I had also planned on writing about the Darlene Love show this past Saturday night at the Cutting Room (which was SO brilliant!), but I’m afraid I got carried away with this review : )