The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

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Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?

The Ronettes, Be My Baby (1963)

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Artist: The Ronettes
Title: Be My Baby
Description: single; album track, Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica
Label: Philles Records
Release date: 1963; 1964
First heard: circa 1969

For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three …

In Pop Goes The Soundtrack, the second episode of Neil Brand’s tremendous BBC4 series Sound Of Cinema, key proponent of the jukebox score Martin Scorsese remembers synching up the pre-credits sequence of his first classic movie, Mean Streets, to a classic pop tune from his childhood. Harvey Keitel’s troubled Charlie wakes up with a start in the middle of the night, gets up, passes the crucifix on his apartment wall to lean into the mirror and see if he recognises himself. He fails, then falls back onto his bed with a distant police siren wailing. As his head hits the pillow, the song strikes up with another start: bap, bap-bap, pow! bap, bap-bap pow!

“The first beats of Be My Baby just emerged,” Marty explains, “and they’re with me all the time.” Even when he’s on set, he reveals, he taps out those three bass drum beats on his right knee and the almighty crack of the snare on his left (“It’s just what I do, it’s become part of my DNA”).

Do it now. bap, bap-bap, pow!

The song itself accompanies an establishing montage of home-movie footage, both real and staged, wherein Charlie poses for the cine camera with assorted “guys from the neighbourhood”. The streets don’t look so mean with that glorious, teetering wedding cake of a pop song serenading them. My guess is that Be My Baby permeated my consciousness via pop radio in the late 60s and early 70s, but it won’t have been until I finally caught Mean Streets on video in the early 80s that the power of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound hit me … and it felt like a kiss. It was, you might say, Scorsese’s firsthand experience of the song as a man on the cusp of his twenties in Queens (Spector, his peer, grew up in the neighbouring Bronx) that provided my own secondhand equivalent in the cleans streets of Northampton. You have to cherish these connections. There is, as I hope we have established, no wrong way to arrive at an appreciation of great pop music.

Spector went to Hollywood, of course, and it is the cinematic drama of his best productions that earn their top billing. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Da Doo Ron Ron, River Deep Mountain High, even the less archetypal My Sweet Lord – these nuggets were embedded into my childhood. Designed to work on radio and jukebox alike, these sonic overstatements came jam-packed. Why use one piano in the studio when you could use three?

Spector’s Gold Star was a palace of excess. That the eights beats that kick off the Ronettes’ definitive two-and-a-half minutes should be big enough to open a movie tells all. Of course there are castanets over the arrangements, which is already pea-soup with percussion; an echo chamber wraps a vacuum of loneliness around Ronnie Spector’s plea, “So won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me”; eleven warm bodies provide backing vocals (including Sonny and Cher, and Ronnie augmenting herself); a full orchestra is wheeled in for the first time, the names of its anonymous virtuosos listed nowhere. They say Hal Blaine (bap, bap-bap, pow!) is one of the most recorded drummers in history. A cast of thousands, indeed, and let’s not forget Ellie Greenwich (also a backing singer) and Jeff Barry, who co-wrote the thing with Spector.

But the casting vote goes to another native New Yorker, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, aged 20 in 1963 and not yet married to the mob. Her life was not a bed of roses, especially as Mrs Spector, but she survived, and look where he is how. And in any case, her promise on Be My Baby to give three kisses for every one hypothetically provided by her prospective “baby” is one of the high watermarks of all recorded pop.

Pow!