Like "boy bands," "girl groups" is one of those musical genres that’s difficult to define, but has had an incredible influence on pop music through the years. When rounding up the best 100 songs by girl groups in 2017, Billboard outlined the criteria they used to determine which groups could be considered: “it had to be all-female, it had to have at least three members, and it had to be primarily vocal in nature.”
In addition to the many hits girl groups have churned out over the years, the genre has a rich and storied history. Here are 15 fascinating facts about girl groups through the decades.
1. The Andrews Sisters were the “original” Girl Group.
A Minnesota trio of three actual sisters, The Andrews Sisters mixed swing with an R&B sensibility, and are widely credited as the first “official” girl group. They recorded 600 songs, sold 100 million records, had 12 No. 1 hits, and according to MinnPost, “Forty-six of their tunes made it to the Billboard Top 10—more than those by Elvis Presley or The Beatles.” Their first hit was 1937’s “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” based on a Yiddish tune, though their best-known hit today is probably 1941’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” They became synonymous with the war effort, and frequently performed on USO tours during World War II.
2. The Chordettes sang in the (male) barbershop tradition.
Following on the heels of those other Midwestern divas, The Chordettes were four women from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, who were known for wearing off-the-shoulder dresses. They were also known for their smash 1950s hits “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop” (the latter immortalized in the movie Stand By Me), sung in the barbershop tradition of many male groups at the time, which relied on an a cappella close harmony sound. Typically, barbershop-style bands would be made up of four singers, including a lead who held the melody while the other three harmonized around that melody.
3. The Bobbettes were forced to change the lyrics to "Mr. Lee," but made up for it with their follow-up song.
Originally known as “The Harlem Queens” (they hailed from East Harlem, New York), The Bobbettes had one of the best-known hits of 1957, the inimitable “Mr. Lee.” The song was inspired by a teacher, whom the girls presumably had a crush on (if you listen to the lyrics), but whom they actually loathed. The song initially declared how much they despised him, but they were persuaded to change it. The year 1960, however, saw the follow-up: “I Shot Mr. Lee.” Yowza! But, hey, kind of badass.
4. The Beatles were fanboys of the Shirelles.
Black girl groups ruled the 1960s, and that decade was also the era when girl groups really began to get a foothold as a genre. The Shirelles topped the charts with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin (King's husband at the time). The Shirelles’s best-known hit, “Soldier Boy,” topped the charts at No. 1 in 1962. The Beatles were so impressed by this girl group that they ended up covering their songs “Boys” and “Baby It’s You” on their first LP.
5. The Crystals’s “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” dealt with the topic of domestic violence.
Amy Winehouse mentioned the song as an inspiration for some of her writing, and Courtney Love covered it as part of Hole’s 1995 MTV Unplugged performance. The song, penned by King and Goffin, touched on the important but unsettling topic of domestic violence. The Crystals hated the song: "'He Hit Me' was absolutely, positively the one record that none of us liked," band member Mary Alston said. "We knew in our hearts that it was going to be a controversial piece and argued on several occasions with [producer] Phil [Spector] about releasing it. All I really wanted to know was 'why'? Why would five (possibly four at the time) young girls sing something extraordinary like 'he hit me and it felt like a kiss'—yuk, was what I truly felt." Despite their protests, Spector was adamant and Astor claimed that he "was a master at getting you in the mood for whatever song(s) he was attempting at the time. Since I never wanted to sing lead in the first place, he really had to do a job on me for that one."
Not all of the Crystals’s songs were dark and heavy. They also dropped such beloved hits as “Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)” and “Then He Kissed Me.” Eighties kids will remember the latter song as the one Elizabeth Shue sang into her hairbrush in the opening credits of Adventures in Babysitting.
6. Many iconic musicians consider The Ronettes’s “Be My Baby” the perfect pop song.
Sung by the fabulous Ronnie Spector, who literally helped invent rock ‘n’ roll, “Be My Baby” is considered a classic song by many of the world's most legendary musicians. John Lennon once asked Ronnie Spector to sing it in his ear—and the Beatle reportedly almost passed out. It's also one of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s favorite songs; in 2013, he estimated that he had listened to it more than 1000 times and vividly recalled to The New York Times his memory of first hearing it more than 50 years earlier.
“I was driving and I had to pull over to the side of the road—it blew my mind," Wilson said. "It was a shock. I started analyzing all the guitars, pianos, bass, drums, and percussion. Once I got all those learned, I knew how to produce records." Still, no matter how much he tried, Wilson said he was never able to achieve what The Ronettes had with that song. "I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song and I never did," he said. "I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one."
7. The song title "Stop! In the Name of Love" first came up in a real-life lovers quarrel.
Lamont Dozier was a member of the three-part Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team that worked with The Supremes on many of their hits. Dozier had been cheating on his girlfriend, and she was in the midst of confronting him when he suddenly said, “Stop! In the name of love” in an attempt to calm her down. Realizing the power of the remark, Dozier then set about using it as the inspiration for a new song, which he wrote with Brian Holland and Edward Holland Jr.
Dozier was (obviously) kind of a jerk. However, it was Diana Ross’s matter-of-fact and nearly clinical way of singing about being cheated on that truly made the 1965 song a hit, and imbued it with a steely female vulnerability.
8. The Pointer Sisters’s 1973 song “Yes We Can Can” might have inspired Barack Obama’s future “Yes We Can” campaign tagline.
It was a hit any Gen Xer who grew up in the ’70s would remember—and it seems like Obama certainly did. This dynamic group of four sisters from Oakland—Ruth, Anita, Bonnie, and June Pointer—churned out many an earworm throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
9. The Emotions emerged from the 1960s gospel scene to take over the ’70s disco scene.
The three sisters—Wanda, Pamela, and Sheila Hutchinson—sang in the gospel tradition as children growing up in Chicago. Their song “Best of My Love,” penned by Earth, Wind & Fire members Al McKay and Maurice White, stayed at No. 1 for five weeks in 1977. It was largely considered a disco hit, but, as Stereogum points out, the song contains a particular sound that also heavily influenced early hip hop.
10. The Bangles were influenced by the emerging punk scene.
While disco ruled the ‘70s, punk rock became its own genre during the latter part of that decade and then established a firm toehold in the early ‘80s. The Bangles weren’t part of their native Los Angeles punk scene, but they were influenced by all-girl bands of the era like The Runaways and The Go-Gos. Prince, a genre-bender if there ever was one, penned their hit “Manic Monday,” though their catchiest tune to rock the ‘80s was arguably “Walk Like an Egyptian."
11. Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” didn’t become a hit in the U.S. until The Karate Kid.
The song did well in the group’s native Britain, but it wasn’t until 1984, when “Cruel Summer” was used in The Karate Kid, that it made an impact in the United States. Like the Bangles, Bananarama had a punk rock/New Wave-inspired look and sound.
12. The Spice Girls repackaged the “alternative” Riot Grrrl for a mainstream audience
Like the ’80s girl groups before them, The Spice Girls were influenced by the workings of a much more underground music scene. Riot Grrrl had emerged as a potent early ’90s musical genre and feminist movement, and The Spice Girls brought a watered-down “girl power” to the mainstream in 1996 with their chart topper “Wannabe."
13. Meanwhile—oh yes, son, they’re talking to you—TLC called out the “scrubs.”
Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, otherwise known as the trio TLC, were more concerned about spreading awareness about safe sex (wearing condoms as accessories), challenging assumptions about healthy relationships (“What About Your Friends”), and calling out the eternal bad behavior of dudes (“No Scrubs”).
14. Destiny’s Child created the anthem of the independent woman.
Though they emerged as a sensation in the late ’90s, it wasn’t until Destiny’s Child came out with their hit “Independent Women” in 2000 for the Charlie’s Angels film reboot that the band firmly established themselves as a total powerhouse of the genre.
15. The Pussycat Dolls declared “I Don’t Need a Man,” but they also sang “Don’t Cha.”
“Don’t Cha” was all about a woman provocatively asking a man whether or not he wished his girlfriend was as hot as she, the narrator, was. It wasn’t exactly girl power, but it reflected a messy but real part of real life (see also: Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend.”) And perhaps that’s one of the things that girl groups, at every turn, have always done best.