Thursday, April 03, 2008

Foolish Little Girl

Sometimes you hear a song that you've known for years, and you are overcome by its brilliance.

I'm talking about "Foolish Little Girl" by the Shirelles. That's right: brilliance and Shirelles in the same thought, and all you high-brows can just go click off, or stick around for the justification.

I've done some homework, wondering what on earth a "shirelle" is. The word is a concoction by Florence Greenberg, the bouffanted white lady from Jersey who discovered the girls and combined the name of the lead singer, Shirley Owen, with the name of the group they most admired, the Chantels.

They were just high school girls harmonizing in the school gym. They took it a step further and had written a song, I met him on a Sunday. Knowing that this song wasn't a product of the Brill Building (as was their hit Will You Love Me Tomorrow by Carole King) makes sense. It proves what I suspected. Its genes are urban do wop crossed with southern creole. Oh to have heard those four girls sing it a cappella while skipping rope.

When the girls first toured, their mothers insisted on chaperones. Etta James and Ruth Brown served in that role. Oh to have had those two guiding my impressionable years. (In later years, an unknown Dionne Warwick sometimes substituted for a child-bearing Shirelle.)

The Shirelles' second #1 hit was Soldier Boy, an icky and pandering effort co-written by Mrs. Greenberg for the girls. This song can be neatly contrasted with a song the Shirelles turned down at the time, He's a Rebel, a stunning thing (by The Crystals, 1962) meant to be blasted over one's steering wheel preferably not while stopped at a light and audible to those in adjacent lanes.

One of the original Shirelles died on stage while performing with the group in Atlanta. Oh to die that way. The remaining three suffered the usual malaise of such groups, resulting in a time when there were three groups touring and claiming to be the Shirelles, each containing one original.

But the song in question, Foolish Little Girl is a stand-out. I would have guessed it had been one of the group's earliest products, but it was actually one of their last hits (a semi-hit, really). The explanation for its clean, fresh and primitive simplicity is that they had just acquired a new producer, this song being their first out-of-the-gate together.

The song perfectly blends and balances the antiphonal call-and-response pattern between lead and back-ups and honors the lyrics rather than inflicting them with meaningless frills and shrills as was all too often the case with girl groups (yes, even the Supremes). Shirley Owen's sonambulistic delivery is perfectly suited to this type of obsessive "love". She is a black female Chet Baker with some wistful hints of Irma Thomas. The back-up Shirelles supply a classic role, that of the chorus in Greek tragedy. They are the voice of reason, counseling Shirley (like Dido in Virgil's Aeneid not wishing to lose a man she has toyed with) to come to her senses and to "be quiet".



evilganome said...

Ah, Tony. This is bringing back a lot of fond memories of the Emerson transistor radio in the kitchen. Don't forget "The Angels" and "My Boyfriend's Back", though if I remember correctly, they were particularly trashy looking, so why the angels, I don't know.

I should add that the verification code is sukdxxtp. Merciful heavens!

Anonymous said...

as Noel Coward wrote in the first act of Private Lives (and I might be off by a word or two, forgive me): "Extraordinary how potent cheap musc can be."