For a time, harmonizing Black female teens — “girl groups” who wore matching dresses and sang doo-wop — dominated the pop music charts.
There were The Marvelettes, who, while some members were still in high school, catapulted Motown Records into the national spotlight with “Please Mr. Postman” (1960); The Bobbettes, who wrote the hit “Mr. Lee” (1957) about a teacher; The Shirelles, who scandalously broached the topic of sexuality with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (1961); The Supremes, who recorded a string of timeless hits; and scores of other chart-topping but lesser-known girl groups, primarily based in Detroit and New York City.
Writers Emily Sieu Liebowitz and Laura Flam — two friends and longtime fans of this musical genre — have spent the last four years researching, conducting interviews for, and editing a new book called But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?: An Oral History of the ’60s Girl Groups, and the women describe the project as a labor of love.
“We realized that it was a topic that, when covered, is usually buried in the history of producers and record labels and really hasn’t been approached with a human focus on the artists that performed these songs,” Flam says. “So we decided to begin our own project and interview the women ourselves.”
“The girl groups were really the first female voices speaking about female experiences in music,” Flam says
Plus, the groups toured the country, venturing into areas hostile to Black artists. “They really were a part of something that moved the needle, and they should be getting credit for that,” Flam says.
The book’s first chapters focus on the birth of girl groups in New York — specifically, two songwriting epicenters (the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway), where up-and-coming tunesmiths crossed paths with groups looking to perform new material — but Liebowitz and Flam also explore Motown’s distinctive role in music history.
“New York — the whole pop music scene, created for this teenage market — … was like a fever,” Flam says. “All of a sudden, everyone was jumping in and trying to get hits. … You write something, it’s out on the radio three days later, and then it’s gone. And the subject matter — a crush, my boyfriend — were things that were very relevant to people listening to pop music at that moment. But one of the problems that a lot of the girl groups encountered later on was that their fans started to grow and mature, and they, in some ways, stayed in the same place, because their songs were so focused on being youthful.”
For this reason, many members of New York’s girl groups ended up feeling “disposable,” while Motown, as a company, worked hard to build a platform for its artists.
“They nurtured them, they invested in them, and they planned for many years, if not a lifetime, of working with those artists,” Flam says. Part of that investment was financial, including providing dance lessons and finishing school. “And the subject matter of [Motown artists’] songs was more mature. They were seen as more sophisticated, so they were able to grow with their fans in a way that the New York groups weren’t.”
Which is to say, fans could, as they became adults, watch The Supremes make the leap from cute, girlish dresses to chic evening gowns.
Yet because many girl-group artists had been vulnerable young kids at the time of their fame, they also sometimes suffered from financial and sexual exploitation.
“There were really hard days, when we were asking those kinds of questions,” Liebowitz says. “But it’s also an honor to bear witness. Those moments that were hard were also the moments when you felt that the project was most important.”
Not every story told in But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? is straightforward, of course. Some accounts contradict each other, especially when it comes to storied, intergroup conflicts. But the authors see this wide view as a strength, not a weakness.
“The beauty of working on an oral history is being able to present many sides of a story, especially since people remember things differently and there is no exact truth in most things,” Flam says. “Then there’s also beauty in just letting the women speak for themselves and telling their stories in their own voices, with their own mannerisms, their own jokes. … A lot of their kids didn’t even really know that they had been in girl groups when they were younger. … It was so fast. Just a fleeting moment in the larger scale of a long life.”
This story is from the September 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.