America’s girl groups helped to define a decade. From the girl-next-door Shirelles at the beginning of the 1960s to the gum-chewing Shangri-Las at the tail end of the girl group era, there was a group for every taste. Their songs, tales of love and heartbreak, topped America’s Billboard charts and also proved popular overseas. In France, the new breed of female stars, its yé-yé girls – named after the ‘yeah yeahs’ of rock ‘n’ roll – stepped in to provide translated versions. Here, we celebrate the American girl groups of the 1960s with 30 of the best cover versions by French female singers of the decade.
The 1950s had seen black music taken, repackaged with a white veneer and sold to the masses. However, in the new decade, America’s girl groups helped black music to cross over into the white mainstream. Backed by young, white, often Jewish, songwriters, the groups’ sound was fresh.
Perhaps inevitably, the early success of New York’s black girl groups prompted a wave of white groups and middle-class pop princesses ready to share their hopes and fears on vinyl.
Latent racism in the music industry meant that many of the black groups remained anonymous. Often they were not pictured on their record sleeves, particularly in the early years. The issue was compounded further by the attitudes of producers and labels alike: the songs mattered but the artists were interchangeable. So, the singers who had recorded a song were frequently not the same as those promoting it live on stage or on television. This made it almost impossible to identify with the groups and damaged their careers in the long term.
In France, while some yé-yé girls came and went, for others their early hits were just the start of careers that have lasted decades.
The girl group era in America and the reign of the yé-yés in France came to an end at around the same time, though for different reasons.
In the US, the arrival of the British male beat groups – ‘the British invasion’ – rendered almost all the girl groups outdated. Only Motown, and The Supremes in particular, offered any serious resistance.
Meanwhile in France, home-grown songwriters had been gaining in confidence and popularity, and the idea of translating international hits fell from fashion.
Here, we celebrate the time when America’s girl groups and France’s yé-yé girls collided, with 30 of our favourite French cover versions of US girl group songs. By definition, our choices are highly subjective, but they are presented in alphabetical order of the girl groups.
The Angels were the first white group to top the US charts with a record in the girl group style, My boyfriend’s back. The song was also a hit in France and prompted several cover versions, notably by Sylvie Vartan and Les Gam’s. Our choice is a take on the follow up, I adore him – a song that group member Jiggs Allbut has since said she hated. It is sung by the lucky winner of the Grand challenge scotch 707 competition, Karen Bessy, with the title Je n’aime que lui.
Becky and the Lollipops
Becky and the Lollipops were Ricki Page and her daughters Rebecca and Joanna. They should not be confused with The Lollipops (see below). Bosses at France’s RCA label came across the group’s little-known My boyfriend and thought it would be perfect for their own Ria Bartok. The record-buying public, however, thought otherwise. Nevertheless, the German-born singer’s version, N’y touche pas, continues to delight fans of the genre.
Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans
Phil Spector originally intended Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans as a vehicle for Bobby Sheen but Darlene Love soon found herself sharing lead vocal duties. The group scored a top ten hit with Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, but subsequent singles fared less well and the trio were dropped by their label. In France, their Why do lovers break each other’s hearts became Oui les filles for girl group Les Gam’s. (For more Spector songs, see our Phil Spector tribute special.)
He’s so fine catapulted New York’s The Chiffons to the top of the Billboard charts in the spring of 1963. The group would have more big hits, with songs such as One fine day and Sweet talkin’ guy. (One fine day also catapulted the group into the French charts.) However, some of their best releases – such as What am I gonna do with you and Love me like you’re gonna lose me – proved less successful. Among them, too, is Why am I so shy?, which was covered in France by sister act Les Twins as Je suis timide.
With varying line-ups, The Cookies had been recording since the mid-1950s. However, it is their time at the Dimension label in the 1960s that is their most highly regarded. They scored their first top 20 hit with Chains – reworked here as Chance by Sylvie Vartan. The Cookies went top ten in the US in 1963 with Don’t say nothin’ bad (about my baby), and the group would also record under the name The Cinderellas.
The Dixie Cups
Chapel of love established Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s fledgling Red Bird record label and made stars of its performers, The Dixie Cups. The song topped the Billboard charts, while a French version by girl group Les Gadget, Le pays du rêve, received little more than a Gallic shrug of indifference. The Dixie Cups would score their final hit with Iko iko, a traditional folk song from the girls’ home town of New Orleans. American actress Julie Dassin liked the song so much that she re-recorded it as Aïko aïko (en parlant d’Anna) when she launched a pop career in France in 1968. However, any success she might have enjoyed as Julie D was overshadowed by that of her brother, Joe Dassin.
Strictly speaking, The Essex weren’t a girl group. Of the five former Marines that comprised the group, lead vocalist Anita Humes was the only female. However, their sound is so much of the style as to qualify for this tribute. Their Easier said than done topped the US charts for two weeks in the summer of 1963. In France, Madagascan six-some Les Surfs cut the song as Pas si simple que ça, though not quite with the same level of success.
The Exciters began as an all-girl group, but Herb Rooney replaced one of the members during a session with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The new formation issued Tell him in October 1962. From the first note, it was clear that the group had a hit on their hands. In France, Les Gam’s almost carved out a career from covering the group’s subsequent releases. Even after she went solo, the group’s former lead singer Annie Markan couldn’t resist taking on Run mascara, to make it Fais comme tu voudras. A year earlier, Sheila had scored a massive hit with Vous les copains, her version of Do wah diddy diddy. Tucked away on the same EP was her take on We were lovers (when the party began), À la fin de la soirée.
The Flirtations started out as The Gypsies. However, in 1968, after changing their name and paring down their line-up, they ended up in England where they cut the stomping Nothing but a heartache. Meanwhile, 200 miles away in Paris, Liz Brady was being persuaded by her friend Martine Gautier to skip France for the snowy delights of Canada’s Quebec. There, as hugely successful act Les Scarabées, the pair recut the song as Puisque tu m’as quitté.
The Four Pennies
The Four Pennies were, in fact, The Chiffons. However, Judy Craig sang lead on The Chiffons’ hits, and the group’s record company was unsure of how to promote songs that featured Sylvia Peterson up front. The answer was to credit them to a different act. Cue The Four Pennies. In France, Cambodia-born Tiny Yong tackled their When the boy’s happy (the girl’s happy too), transforming it into Les garçons m’aiment.
Like a number of American girl groups of the day, The Ikettes’ membership was somewhat fluid. In addition to supplying backing vocals and dance routines for Ike and Tina Turner, the group also cut half a dozen 45s. Their finest recording is, arguably, the single Peaches ‘n’ cream. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that French singer Dorine’s finest moment is her cover version, Pêches à la crème.
Signed to RCA Victor, The Lollipops issued Don’t monkey with me in 1964, but are better known for 1965’s Busy signal. The record also gained a release in France, possibly because label bosses figured it would be familiar to record buyers. Beat it girl Gillian Hills had recorded the song as Tut, tut, tut, tut for what is, arguably, her most well-regarded EP. Sadly, however, it proved her last French release.
Martha and the Vandellas
Martha and the Vandellas were one of the Detroit-based Motown label’s most successful acts. Dancing in the street gave the group their European breakthrough. The follow up, Nowhere to run, proved another hit on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, former Les Gam’s lead singer Annie Markan reworked it as Mon obsession me poursuit and the result is her most sought-after recording. (For more great cover versions of Martha and the Vandellas hits, see our Motown girls tribute special.)
Steve Caldwell’s “oh no’s” were added for fun to The Orlons’ recording of Don’t hang up. However, the producers liked them so much that his voice became a fixture in the group’s subsequent releases. The Philadelphia foursome stormed the Billboard charts in the autumn of 1962 with the song, earning themselves their second top ten hit of three. France’s biggest-selling yé-yé girl, Sheila, covered the song as Ne raccroche pas for her L’école est finie EP the following year. The Orlons would also score a hit in France with their Not me, in the summer of 1963.
The Raindrops were a vehicle for songwriter Ellie Greenwich, although the group came about by chance. She and husband Jeff Barry had written the song What a guy for The Sensations, but were pressurised into releasing their demo instead. When it took off, the pair had to come up with the rest of the so-called group for live appearances. The follow up, The kind of boy you can’t forget, proved a top 20 hit – and became Je ne pourrai jamais l’oublier for French girl group Les Gam’s. When Jeff and Ellie joined Red Bird in 1964, they lost all interest in continuing as The Raindrops.
When Phil Spector fell for Ronnie Bennett, it signalled a decline in his interest in his other groups. Each of The Ronettes’ early singles were odes from Spector to his new love. The group’s debut US hit, Be my baby, also proved successful in France, not only for The Ronettes but also for Les Surfs as Reviens vite et oublie – leaving a rival version by Sophie languishing on record shop shelves. Over the border in Belgium, You baby, a track from the Presenting the fabulous Ronettes LP, became C’est pour toi for newly solo chanteuse Ariane. (For more Ronettes cover versions, see part two of our Phil Spector tribute special.)
He doesn’t want you proved the final release for little-known Cleveland girl group The Secrets. On it, lead singer Karen’s friends tell her to forget the boy she loves – he’s not interested. In the French translation, C’est avec moi qu’il a rendez vous, it is singer Nancy Holloway who delivers the bad news to a friend. Either way, it’s a terrific song.
The Shangri-Las’ brand of teary-eyed teen tragedy made them the epitome of both cool and camp. Each release was a soap opera set to a sullen soundtrack. However, after a run of success, the single Out in the streets flopped – possibly because it suggested the girls weren’t as exciting as the boys they were dating, which was at odds with their streetwise image. Over in France, it fared no better for Les Émeraudes as Une autre vie. Similarly, the emotional Past, present and future was no more successful for German-born Uta as Hier, aujourd’hui, demain – in fact, it is the B-side, Baudelaire, for which the singer remains better known.
When they first heard it, The Shirelles complained that Will you love me tomorrow was “too white”. However, the New Jersey foursome soon overcame their reservations when it topped the US charts in the autumn of 1960. The song is regarded as one of the first true girl group records. Here, France’s Jocelyne reworks it as Reviendra-t-il encore. The Shirelles enjoyed further hits, a number of which were covered for the French market by Sylvie Vartan. Among the best is her Ne le déçois pas, a take on album track Putty in your hands. Meanwhile, Tiny Yong scored big with Tais-toi petite folle, her version of Foolish little girl, a song that had already been a hit in France for The Shirelles themselves. Which leaves it to Sophie to tackle the group’s final Billboard top 40 hit, Don’t say goodnight and mean goodbye, which becomes Ton au revoir est un adieu.
Ironically, Motown’s former ‘No hit Supremes’ went on to become the label’s biggest money spinners. The group scored a dozen US chart toppers, beginning with 1964’s Where did our love go. Its success saw Diana, Mary and Florence leapfrog fellow Motown girls The Marvelettes – who had been offered the song originally and had turned it down – in both sales and standing. In France, Annie Philippe was quick to score with her cover version of the soundalike follow up, Baby love. A year later, Stop! In the name of love gave the Detroit trio their only significant French hit – which probably explains why home-grown girl group Les Fizz fared badly with their Stop, tu n’as plus le droit. For many femme pop fans, however, Katty Line’s N’hésite pas quand l’amour t’appelle – originally Back in my arms again – remains one of the best French cover versions of a Supremes record. (For more great cover versions, see our Supremes tribute special.)
Fusing a Motown-style beat with Bach’s Minuet in G Major took The Toys to number two in the US charts. Sadly, a European tour and squabbles between the group’s writers and their manager sapped the life from their chart career. The group, who hailed from Queens in New York City, enjoyed just one further top 40 hit. In France, Les Surfs covered A lover’s concerto in 1966 as Par amour pour toi. The brother-and-sister six-some were at their best recording covers of girl group hits. However, Britain’s beat boom brought to an end the girl group era – and, by extension, that of Les Surfs.
Perhaps this song provides a fitting close to our tribute to the American girl groups of the 1960s. If you enjoyed it, check out our tributes to The Supremes, Motown girls, Motown males and Phil Spector.
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