Somewhere in the middle of mostly male-dominated doo-wop groups, Elvis Presley swiveling his hips and the emergence of rock and roll with the likes of Little Richard, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a burgeoning British invasion of the 1960s, there were the women of girl groups.
All came from different backgrounds but had one thing in common: much like their male counterparts their group name typically started with “The”—The Ronettes, The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las, The Crystals, The Marvelettes, and dozens of other all-female groups of the era. Typically made up of trio or quartet of young women, they sang in harmony about the perfect guy, the one that got away or did them wrong.
Singing songs targeted toward the teen or pre-teen young women of the times, the girl groups of the ‘50s and 1960s covered mostly innocent subject matter like The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals or The Dixie Cups’ dream of marriage on “ Chapel of Love.”
The scene was shifting and the female voice was getting more airplay and beginning to dominate the charts. A new era of female songwriters like Carole King, who penned The Chiffons’ 1963 hit “One Fine Day” and The Shirelles’ 1960 hit “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” when she was just 18, and Ellie Greenwich, who wrote hits “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Chapel of Love,” “Leader of the Pack,” were also coming to the forefront.
Their songs captured a moment in time, of naivete and love and loss and remain classics today. Here are 11 of the top girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s, who all left a mark with their eternal hits.
Originally called The Starlets, The New Jersey trio of The Angels first formed in 1958 and became best known for their 1963 hit “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
Hits: “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “I Adore Him,” “‘Til”
Formed in 1946 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, The Chordettes initially started out singing more folk-driven songs until they tapped into their harmony. After winning a 1949 contest on Arthur Godfrey’s radio program, the quartet became a regular fixture on the show and recorded their debut album Harmony Time in 1950. The group later had their breakout hit Mr. Sandman in 1954, which hit No. 1 in 1955, and a follow-up chart topper “Lollipop” which peaked at No. 2 in 1958.
Hits: “Mr. Sandman,” “Lollipop, “Born to Be With You”
The Chiffons, originating in Bronx, New York, released their first single, “He’s So Fine”, which was written by Ronnie Mack and produced by The Tokens (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and hit No. 1 in the U.S., selling more than one million copies. The group later connected with young songwriter Carole King, who wrote their next hit “One Fine Day” with Gerry Goffin in 1963.
Hits: “One Fine Day,” “He’s So Fine,” “Sweet-Talking Guy”
Martha & The Vandellas
It’s 1957 in Detroit and two years before Motown would emerge, friends Rosalind Ashford, Annette Beard, Gloria Williams, and Martha Reeves, who would move up as lead singer following Williams’ departure were finding their voice. By the time Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records was in full swing, Martha & The Vandellas signed on releasing hit after hit with songs like “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Come and Get These Memories,” “Jimmy Mack,” “Nowhere to Run,” “I’m Ready for Love,” and “Bless You.” The Chiffons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
Hits: “Heat Wave,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Quicksand,” “Nowhere to Run”
Produced by Phil Spector, The Crystals has a steady run of hits from 1961 through 1964 with “He’s a Rebel,” “Uptown,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “There’s No Other (Like My Baby),” ‘Then He Kissed Me,” and”He’s Sure the Boy I Love.”
Hits: “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “He’s a Rebel”
The Dixie Cups
Ellie Greenwich had originally written “Chapel of Love” for The Ronettes, but the song was ultimately recorded by The Dixie Cups and produced by Phil Spector. The song was the group’s first single and their biggest hit. The classic song hit No. 1 in 1964, sold more than one million copies, and led the way for the group’s continued hits throughout the ’60s like “People Say,” “You Should Have Seen the Way He Looked at Me,” “Little Bell,” and “Iko Iko.”
Hits: “Chapel of Love,” “People Say,” “Iko Iko”
Addressing all the teen drama and more tragic scenarios of youth, the New York City-bred pop group The Shangri-Las had more edge but still embodied the youthful strains of love and heartbreak with No. 1 hit “Leader of the Pack,” along with songs like “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and “Remember (Walking in the Sand).”
Hits: “Leader of the Pack,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore
Another Motown-era hit, The Marvelettes first became friends in their high-school glee club coming up in Inkster, Michigan. Originally the group was formed with Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart, and Georgia Dobbins, who was later replaced by Wanda Young. In 1960, the girls auditioned for Berry Gordy who told them they needed to write an original song. In response, Dobbins wrote the group’s biggest hit “Please Mr. Postman,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B chart. The Marvelettes were the first all-female group on the Motown label.
Hits: “Please Mr. Postman,” “Beechwood 4-5789,” “Don’t Mess With Bill,” “Playboy”
Born out of Washington Heights, New York, Veronica Bennett (Ronnie Spector), her older sister Estelle Bennett, and their cousin Nedra Talley made up The Ronettes. Singing since their teens, the trio was first known as The Darling Sisters and changed their name to The Ronettes after signing to Phil Spector’s Philles Records in 1963. The group released hits “Baby, I Love You”, “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” “Walking in the Rain,” and “Be My Baby,” all christened by Ronnie Spector’s tender and tough vibrato. The group released their first and only album Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica in 1964. “Be My Baby” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Hits: “Be My Baby, Baby,” “I Love You,” “Walking in the Rain”
Formed in 1957 by schoolmates Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris, and Beverly Lee in Passaic, New Jersey, The Shirelles released their first single “I Met Him on a Sunday” in 1958. In 1994, The Shirelles were honored with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which was accepted by Owens, Lee, and Coley. “This is dedicated to the one I love,” said Coley as she accepted the award before singing The Shirelles 1964 hit “Soldier Boy” with Owens and Lee. By 1996, The Shirelles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Hits: “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Mama Said,” “Baby It’s You,” “Soldier Boy,” “Foolish Little Girl”
The Primettes formed in 1959 and signed to Motown by 1961 as The Supremes. During the mid-1960s, the Supremes achieved mainstream success with Ross as lead singer, backed by the Motown hit-making Holland–Dozier–Holland as its songwriting and production team throughout the mid-’60s. In 1967, Berry Gordy changed the group name to Diana Ross & the Supremes and in the years that would follow, the Supremes underwent more lineup changes before parting ways in 1977. Ross embarked on her acting and solo career, and Wilson also released two solo albums throughout her career, including an expanded version of her 1978 self-titled debut prior to her death in 2021.
Hits: “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Love Child,” “Someday We’ll Be Together”
Photo: Motown Museum