There aren’t many opening lines as good as “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.” The song, by Walter Gold, John Gluck, Jr. and Herb Weiner, didn’t need much more than that: what’s gotten her so distraught? “You would cry too if it happened to you.” What? We’ve come into the story at midpoint, like when Dylan opens “All Along The Watchtower” with “There must be some way out of here.” Then we find out what’s been going on. Johnny, the singer’s boyfriend, is missing. No one knows where he’s gone, but word is that he walked off holding hands with Judy, that manipulative slut (we assume), and the next time we see J&J, she’s wearing his ring. Which raises the question, why isn’t the singer, let’s call her Lesley, wearing his ring? “He’s supposed to be mine,” she insists. Maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe that “supposed to be mine” means “in an ideal world,” or “if he knew who I was.” Girl group records in the early ’60s were filled with that sort of projection: I wanna love him so bad, he’s so fine, but he doesn’t even know that I exist. We find out in the sequel, “Judy’s Turn To Cry,” that there really was a pre-existing boyfriend-girlfriend condition, but with only “It’s My Party” to go on, the evidence of Lesley’s spoiling everyone’s fun (go ahead, guys, play my records; I’m going to stand around and cry, but help yourself to more chips), the whole incident could be about an unrequited crush.
Lesley Gore has been celebrated over the last couple of days as a pre-feminist icon because of “You Don’t Own Me” (another dramatic opening line: “You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys”), and good for her for standing up for herself. “Don’t tell me what to do!!,” she yells, and I can imagine that young women in the early ’60s found that pretty daring and empowering (as no one would’ve said then). But it wasn’t typical of Lesley’s point of view as defined for her by the writers who came up with her material. On “Maybe I Know,” she has all kinds of evidence that her guy is unfaithful, but what can she do? “Deep down inside he loves me, though he may run around.” She is either very perceptive, or deluded. “Look of Love,” another classic Gore 45 (it can hold its own against most Spector girl group discs you could name), is Lesley in full tortured mode, watching the guy she digs being clearly smitten with someone else (unnamed this time, but it might as well be Judy, her original nemesis; I think of them as pop’s Betty & Veronica).
One of my favorite non-hit tracks by Lesley is in the vein of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” an early girl group song that addressed what was on the minds of teenage girls caught in a romantic predicament: is this just sex, or something more? Dating back then was a constant game of advance-rebuff-readvance-yield incrementally etc., and yet there weren’t many pop songs that addressed this directly, the stance girls were expected to take. “What’s A Girl Supposed To Do” by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, was cut by The Shangri-Las as well as by Lesley Gore, but neither version was a hit. It’s pretty wonderful. In this scenario, Lesley (or Mary Weiss) meets a boy (at a party? a dance?) and he walks her home that night, and there they are at her door: what next? He looks in her eyes, so she kisses him. Her heart tells her it’s right. “What’s a girl supposed to do but hold him? So I held him.” Lesley could bemoan the complications of young romance (“Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy,” she sang), but she could also be matter-of-fact. A sensible, sensitive big sister. “That’s The Way Boys Are,” she shrugs.
Her Quincy Jones-produced records for Mercury have irrepressible drive, and she went on to make good sides with other arrangers and producers — Jack Nitzsche, Gamble & Huff — but as big a star as she was, and as talented a singer (she did standards like “Fools Rush In” and “Misty” without a trace of awkwardness), it wasn’t a long run of hits. She should have had one with Gerry Goffin & Russ Titelman’s lovely “What Am I Gonna Do With You?” (Lesley is stuck with another guy whose behavior is not beyond reproach). At the same moment “You Don’t Own Me” was all over the radio, along came The Beatles, and although some of her best sides were still to come (“Maybe I Know,” “Look of Love”), she didn’t have another Top 10 single. She came close with a couple of early Marvin Hamlisch tunes, but I don’t think even her biggest fans would rank “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” with “She’s A Fool.”
It doesn’t matter that much. Everyone knows “It’s My Party” — Lesley’s version stomped all over the first recording of the song by Helen Shapiro, and Phil Spector was about to cut it before Q beat him out — and “You Don’t Own Me,” and she had a nice second act as a singer-songwriter and feminist prototype. She was also portrayed, loosely but recognizably, in the movie Grace Of My Heart, by Bridget Fonda (vocals by Miss Lily Banquette) as a closeted lesbian pop star. Gore collaborated on the song “My Secret Love,” and there were stories that she wasn’t happy with how the song turned out, that she insisted that no pop hits in the early ’60s ran as long (5 1/4 minutes) as the one in the film. She’s right. “My Secret Love” would never have gotten airplay on Top 40 radio. But it’s still a well-crafted scene: the songwriters know how they’ve slipped the then-subversive sexual code in, the singer shares glances with her secret girlfriend, the guys in the room are clueless.
I saw Lesley Gore live twice. Once, in the spring of 1964, when she had the unenviable assignment, along with The 4 Seasons, of setting the stage for James Brown and His Famous Flames. The second time was only a few years ago, at an outdoor girl group concert at Lincoln Center. Both times, she ran through her string of hit songs and, undaunted by the musical competition, took control. Just as she did on the ’64 T.A.M.I. Show, again with the Flames extravaganza on the bill. And The Stones, The Beach Boys, Smokey, Chuck Berry. She belonged on that stage, and let no one suggest otherwise.