From the four sleeping surrealists in Ali Smith’s Artful it is a typically typical-Ali short hop, skip and a jump, or a few lines, to a mention of Doris Day singing ‘Let The Little Girl Limbo’ an old Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil song which was lost for forty-odd years. Ali as ever effortlessly makes the quick switch between what is considered serious art (by some) and pop which is said (by some of that ‘some’) to be disposable. Ali does this in an entirely natural, infectious way, sharing enthusiasms in a genuinely nice manner, though no doubt she is thinking: “Has Doris Day ever been mentioned before in an Oxford University Literature lecture? She should be!”
At the back of Artful Ali states that she first came across ‘Let The Little Girl Limbo’ on the CD Where Girls Are Volume 5. It is that sort of small detail that makes the heart glow. This is a record which belongs to a long-running series (they seem to be up to nine volumes) put together and annotated by Mick Patrick and Malcolm Baumgart for the Ace organisation. The series started in 1997, and it is an erudite, diligent scholarly work of love, which in its way, by shining the spotlight on 1960s US girl group and femme pop sounds, offers a direct and sustained challenge to the accepted pop histories.
Some of the titles in the series are themed sets. For example, Volume 2 focuses on Florence Greenberg’s Scepter family of labels and near neighbours Musicor. This includes Goldie and the Gingerbreads’ excellent cover of Mary Wells’ ‘Bye Bye Baby’, along with tracks by Maxine Brown, Nella Dodds, Shirelles, Candy and the Kisses, and many more. It features Diane & Anita’s original of ‘Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways’, the dramatically haunting song written by the enigmatic Fangette Enzel, which was covered theatrically in the UK in 1965 by Tammy St John with a very great Johnny Harris arrangement.
Tammy’s follow-up, another Johnny Harris affair, was a storming cover of The Chiffons’ ‘Nobody Knows What’s Going On (In My Mind But Me)’ which was composed by the even more enigmatic Brute Force. His composition ‘Look In My Diary’ as performed by Reparata & the Delrons was one of the highlights of the first volume of Where The Girls Are.
Volume 3 in the series draws on the Chess family archives, and has a fantastic cover photo of Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jackie Ross, and Fontella Bass pushing a car full of Radiants (of ‘Baby You’ve Got It’ and ‘Voice Your Choice’ fame). Also on the CD are Mitty Collier, Jan Bradley, Tammy Montgomery, Tamiko Jones (Timiko). Among the standout tracks are Jean DuShon’s imperious beat ballad ‘As I Watch You Walk Away’ and, in a similar vein, Carol Vega’s ‘One Little Thing’.
The fourth set in the series shows off Atlantic’s feminine side. Tamiko Jones features again, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles excel with ‘All or Nothing’, Doris Troy’s ‘You’d Better Stop’ is a surprisingly punkish track which was only released in the UK, where Doris made her home, becoming a much in-demand backing singer and sort of part of Dusty’s extended circle. Another highlight is Goldie and Gingerbreads’ ‘Walking in Different Circles’ and they are pictured on the CD cover looking suitably wild in their suede coats and bouffants, and Goldie aka Genya Ravan aptly later produced Dead Boys’ ‘Sonic Reducer’.
Volume 5, the one Ali refers to, is collected from the Columbia vaults and features a host of Brill Building rarities. The cover is quite remarkable, featuring a shot of The Glories wearing what look like x-ray dresses and boots. The whole CD is great, but the sequence featuring the closing eight tracks is remarkable, starting with Marlina Mars’ ‘It’s Love That Really Counts in the Long Run’, a sweet Bacharach & David number produced by Carl Davis and Curtis Mayfield. Then Aretha sings ‘Sweet Bitter Love’, a Van McCoy song which Marcia Griffiths later did a lovely lovers rock version of.
Next up are The Opals with the delightfully intense ‘You Can’t Hurt Me No More’ which Curtis Mayfield wrote and produced, with an arrangement by the great Johnny Pate. It is followed by Erma Franklin getting deep on ‘The Right To Cry’, a Goffin & King song, produced by Bert Berns, presumably very shortly before he died. It is followed by The Little Foxes’ ‘Love Made To Order’ and then Sandi Sheldon with ‘Baby You’re Mine’, written and produced by Van McCoy, her
As the accompanying liner notes point out, The Opals, Little Foxes and Sandi Sheldon all feature on one of the great Kent Records (another branch of the Ace family) CDs, the 1996 set Okeh – A Northern Soul Obsession. That collection majestically closes with Walter Jackson’s remarkably moody ‘It’s An Uphill Climb To The Bottom’, the other song Fangette Enzel is loved for.
Another Goffin & King classic, ‘Wasn’t It You?’, sung by Peggy Lipton, star of The Mod Squad, and later married to Quincy Jones, is the penultimate track. It is the song so closely associated with The Action, and their perfectly poised, elegantly poignant recording featuring Reggie King at his most regal.
The CD closes with the slightly off-kilter, and perfectly in-keeping conceptually, 1971 recording of Laura Nyro and Labelle doing ‘Spanish Harlem’. As the liner notes state about Laura “the Bronx Ophelia”: “She was The Shirelles with lyrics by William Burroughs, the love child of Emily Dickinson and John Coltrane. She was George Gershwin ‘cookin’ with The Miracles’, a youngster who spent many teenage hours with her friends, doo wopping in the subway, ‘looking for an echo’. The notes conclude by saying that Brill Building songs and the girl group sound were cornerstones of her creative ethos.