Before the Beatles arrived in America, there they were, snapping their fingers, shuffling their impeccably shod feet, sha-la-la-ing and doo-langing all over the airwaves. They were American girl groups, their chiffon dresses and bouffant hairdos masking their young ages. And their hits dominated the supposed fallow ground of early 1960s pop.
The early 1960s have long been maligned as a low period in pop music. The years between the drafting of Elvis and the arrival of the Beatles were filled with insipid teen idols and novelty songs—or so says conventional wisdom. In actuality, the era was filled with great music from the Everly Brothers to Roy Orbison to the Drifters, but no sound captured the country in those years quite like the girl group sound.
From 1960 until just after the British Invasion, the radio waves were filled with the sound of young girls singing about heartbreak, true love, and boys with bad reputations. The songs, crafted by some of pop music’s best writers (including Carole King and Phil Spector), were top-notch, so it’s no surprise that Britain’s future hitmakers would take notice.
The Beatles covered Shirelles hits “Boys” and “Baby It’s You,” as well as the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” but always released their own self-penned songs as singles. Other British bands were different. Time after time, British bands released covers of girl group songs, often eclipsing the original versions by charting higher. Many British bands scored their first American hits with these covers, building their British Invasion on the backs of the girl groups.
Here are six of the best-known examples:
Do Wah Diddy (original version by The Exciters, covered by Manfred Mann)
The Exciters, best known for their hit “Tell Him,” reached number 78 on the Billboard charts with their version of “Do Wah Diddy” in 1963. The following year, Manfred Mann took it all the way to number one.
Time Is On My Side (recorded by Irma Thomas, then by the Rolling Stones)
Irma Thomas recorded her version of this song in early 1964, reaching the Top 40 on the rhythm and blues charts. Just one month after her version was released to radio, the Rolling Stones recorded and released their own version, which reached the Billboard Top 10 and gave them their first big stateside hit.
I Can’t Let Go (original version by Evie Sands, covered by the Hollies)
Young blue-eyed soul singer Evie Sands recorded her version in 1965, although it failed to chart outside of her home turf of New York City. The Hollies released their version in 1966, reaching the Billboard Top 40.
Go Now (original version by Bessie Banks, covered by the Moody Blues)
Bessie Banks reached the R&B Top 40 with her version of this soulful torch song, but the Moody Blues reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 the next year. It was their first U.S. hit.
I’m Into Something Good (original version by Earl Jean, covered by Herman’s Hermits)
Earl Jean, lead singer of the Cookies, scraped into the Billboard Top 40 in early 1964 with her version of this classic Carole King-penned pop song. Later that same year, Herman’s Hermits took it to number 13.
Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat (original version by Goldie & the Gingerbreads, covered by Herman’s Hermits)
Goldie & the Gingerbreads, one of the first all-girl bands who played their own instruments, enjoyed a successful tour of England in 1965. While there, they recorded and released “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” scoring a hit across the Atlantic. Repeat offenders Herman’s Hermits rush-recorded and released their own version in America before the Gingerbreads could release theirs, ultimately reaching number two on the Hot 100.
Jessica Wheeler is the music columnist for AliveTampaBay.