‘Dreamgirls’ taps into the ’60s girl-group zeitgeist

Pic's music is conjured through a filter of Broadway-styled show tunes

In her memoir, “Dreamgirl — My Life as a Supreme,” Mary Wilson recalled the transformative experience of seeing a “new Broadway musical called ‘Dreamgirls.’

“By the second act I was crying because while many of the incidents depicted in the play could have happened to any number of female singing groups, I knew in my heart that this story rang far truer than the producers could have imagined. There were bits and pieces of my life — and the lives of my two best friends — up there.”

If Wilson saw her life and career unfold before her eyes, the “Dreamgirls” story follows a dramatic arc that has proved surprisingly universal in reflecting the girl-group craze of the ’60s and the common linkage throughout: the controlling Svengali, the ego clashes, the breakout diva, the struggles with personal demons and the changing nature of a music business that left many out in the cold.

The Effie White and Deena Jones characters in “Dreamgirls” were inspired by the Supremes’ Florence Ballard and Diana Ross, respectively, and the saga’s impresario, Curtis Taylor Jr., might be viewed as an amalgam of Motown chief Berry Gordy Jr., record producer Phil Spector and other key ’60s music kingpins. But the Broadway musical-turned-Paramount/DreamWorks release also, in a larger sense, reflects the enduring appeal of a moment in pop when comets, crickets and duck walks gave way to chiffon, crystal and the promise of Shangri-la.

Pop music has always had an address as well as an attitude. In the Jazz Age it was Tin Pan Alley. By 1960, it was 1619 Broadway in Manhattan — the Brill Building — and 2648 Grand Ave., Detroit, the home of Motown. They were song factories rolling out top-40 staples like Chevy Novas.

The birth of the teen girl market sent the post-Elvis-in-the-Army boy crooners into exile. With their first chart topper, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the Shirelles set the template in motion. “It had a profound, spiritual effect on me; it transcended sex, it had … a sound,” exclaims Steven Van Zandt, longtime guitarist for Bruce Springsteen, whose Sirius Satellite Network radio show “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” spins a wealth of classic girl group A and B sides. “It was the arrangement, the production, the fact that great musicians were backing these graceful vocals. And it was one hit right after another; ‘Soldier Boy,’ c’mon, where do I sign up?”

This explosion of sentimentality and sass not only liberated its Revlon-eyed listeners, it was a get-out-of-hell card for young black women. In her liner notes to the Rhino box set “Girl Group Sounds, Lost and Found,” writer Gerri Hirshey has Mary Wells of “My Guy” fame reveal the stark reality: “Until Motown in Detroit, there were three big careers for a black girl: babies, factories or day work. Period.”

Soon, every church social, every bedroom, every high school bathroom resonated with girls harmonizing, searching for that felicitous marriage of pitch, blend and range. Even the Supremes, the most successful girl group ever, struggled mightily to find that winning combination. “Everyone at Motown was calling us the no-hit Supremes,” Wilson says in the “Girl Group” liner notes. “We were the first girl group to sign with the label, but the last to get a hit record.”

Heavenly singers & glittery gowns

Bill Condon, writer-director of the bigscreen “Dreamgirls,” was one of those adolescents struck by the Supremes’ alchemy of longing and heartbreak. “I was 8 years old, glued to my transistor radio, and I heard ‘Where Did Our Love Go,'” he enthuses. “It changed me forever. I begged my father to take me to the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn to see the Supremes, around ’63 or early ’64. Anybody, black or white, could dance to it. And it sounded great on an AM radio.”

If Motown coveted a suave, polished sound that appealed to crossover audiences — a recurring motif in “Dreamgirls” — with its roster of heavenly singers resplendent in glittering gowns, New York City countered with a one-two punch of edginess and insolence. “The Tycoon of Teen,” Phil Spector, headed an all-star lineup of producer-writers who concocted “mini-operas for the kiddies.” They embraced the innocence and anguish of the wonder years and served them up in three-minute passion plays, replete with character, conflict and setting.

Under the stewardship of George “Shadow” Morton, the Shangri-las, four looking-for-trouble teens from Queens, ran the table in 1965 with “Leader of the Pack,” “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and “Out in the Streets.”

Miriam Linna, co-owner of Norton Records, a Brooklyn-based label long associated with artists of the ’50s and ’60s, recalls the period with a girlish glee. “The early rock ‘n’ rollers all wore their hearts on their sleeves; and that made them great boyfriend material,” she says. “But they didn’t sing about me, my loneliness, my sense that no one understood me. And then came the girls, and they’re singing about what I’m feelin’ right now! And it was fashion, it was style. A group like the Shangri-las was way ahead of their time. They were finally in control.”

If just a few years earlier the Shirelles lovingly cooed “Dedicated to the One I Love,” Lesley Gore was now announcing that “You Don’t Own Me.” With the likes of Quincy Jones behind the board, arranger extraordinaire Jack Nitzsche and a minyan of precocious tunesmiths lurking in the rabbit warrens of the Brill on Broadway, it was “a renaissance period that will never be repeated again,” according to Van Zandt. “The best music being made was also the most popular. It was a convergence of opposing disciplines — hustlers who knew how to make great records.”

Motown in spirit

In “Dreamgirls,” the music is conjured through a filter of Broadway-styled show tunes — originally penned by composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Tom Eyen, with additional songs written for the movie — that not only attempt to capture the zeitgeist of girl-group glory but, in a sense, the whole spectrum of black music in the ’60s as it hurtles headlong into the disco era. Beyond the Supremes, “Dreamgirls” the movie offers, at least in spirit, flashes of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and the Jackson 5.

Krieger will be the first to admit that the music for “Dreamgirls” is more Motown in spirit than style. “I defy anyone to find anything that sounds like Motown in my show,” says the composer. “They’re theatrical, character-driven songs. (The music) makes you think of a Motown song — the technicality of the music. It evokes the period.”

Looking back, it is surprising how uninterested Hollywood has been in exploring the cherishable girl-group legacy as fodder for films. Just one title, a mid-’70s release, “Sparkle,” starring Irene Cara and featuring the music of Curtis Mayfield, authentically captured the milieu. Something of a cult favorite today, “Sparkle” also provided the storyboard for an En Vogue video.

With the arrival of “Dreamgirls,” however, the prospect of renewed interest in this fabled past looms tantalizingly near. But, like the songs themselves, it may well be a bittersweet symphony. The artists rarely heard the cha-ching of royalties or enjoyed the respect of their peers. According to Hirshey, “Martha Reeves told me that the Marvelettes name was lost one night in a poker game between Motown founder Berry Gordy and his staffers. ‘That’s how easily your life can get tossed from one place to another,’ she said.”

Andrew Loog Oldham, legendary record producer, author, and host of his own program on satellite radio, was there at the beginning and offers this rueful benediction:

“The memories of our time period remain great and the audio recalls of what our life was about: Dusty Springfield, Lesley Gore, the Shangri-las, the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love. It’s a shame that their collective royalties might just cover a Paris Hilton shopping spree. But if the aforementioned ladies had fun getting the job done, they got the only blessing that’s secure.”

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