May 2, 1946– Lesley Sue Goldstein:
“There’s nothing more wonderful than standing on stage and shaking your finger and singing ‘Don’t tell me what to do.”
Oh, my. How many times in my life have I been forced to utter: “I’m Not Just One Of Your Many Toys”? Why, I uttered it to The Husband just this morning.
In those swingin’ 1960s Pop Music had several strong, talented female singers, but Lesley Gore was the one with songs where the lyrics matched-up with their new independent spirit. Her string of fervent, defiant teen anthems started with It’s My Party, next came Judy’s Turn To Cry and finished with You Don’t Own Me, which continued on as a feminist statement.
Gore was born into a middle-class Jewish family in NYC. Her father owned the Peter Pan Underwear manufacturing company. As a kid, she sang all the hottest hits in front of her bedroom mirror: Gore:
“I slicked my hair back in a credible Elvis imitation.”
When she was just 16 years old, a tape of her singing found its way to famed composer/producer Quincy Jones at Mercury Records. He immediately recognized her as a budding star and personally produced the brash tale of young love forsaken, It’s My Party, written on spec by Beverly Ross and Edna Lewis, with its chorus aimed at other teenagers: “You would cry too, if it happened to you”.
After the recording session, she was told not to be disappointed if it was never released, but the record was released the next week. Gore didn’t know it until she heard it for the first time while driving to school. Within a month it was the #1 hit in the USA, selling more than a million copies.
The same team soon released Judy’s Turn to Cry, which continued the plot of It’s My Party (Judy was the girl who had stolen the singer’s boyfriend). Next came another Top 10 hit She’s A Fool, and You Don’t Own Me, which only went to #2 On the US charts, thwarted a little by The Beatles, I Want to Hold Your Hand. All this in just six months.
The songs were released the same time as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, significant because it was a brand new thing for a teen tune to be about a females desire for establishing her own autonomy. It remains Gore’s most enduring hit. It was later covered by Dusty Springfield, Joan Jett and Amy Winehouse, and figured prominently in the film The First Wives Club (1996), as sung by Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler.
An early Feminist Anthem, You Don’t Own Me was actually written for Gore by the male songwriters, Dave White and John Madara, but its sentiments were a perfect fit with Gore’s rather mature view of life and the music business. Despite her considerable success, Gore understood that the record company only thought about record sales generated by guys. Gore:
“They just thought it was easier to sell males. It really got to me after a while.”
Gore continued with lesser hits including Maybe I Know (1964) by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and the demented Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows (1965), the first hit song by Marvin Hamlisch.
During her teenage pop star time, Gore combined her recording career with her studies, graduating from high school in 1964 and enrolling at Sarah Lawrence College, all while racking up impressive sales. Gore graduated with a degree in American Literature. During school breaks, she managed to film two movies aimed at teens and made her television debut playing Catwoman’s assistant, Pussycat, on the popular, campy Batman (1966-68) series.
In the late 1960s, she formed a songwriting partnership with her brother, Michael Gore. Their song Out Here on My Own appeared in the film Fame (1980), which was nominated for an Academy Award. Seeking creative control, Gore left her original label Mercury in 1969, moving to the hipper A&M Records, where she was reunited with Jones as her producer.
Gore continued to perform occasionally in the 1980s and 1990s, usually doing her old hits, but trying to sneak newer material on to her set-lists. Her final album was Ever Since (2005). It was self-produced and released by the small independent Engine Company label.
In 2004, she became one of the presenters of In The Life, a new PBS series devoted to LGBTQ issues. It was a sort sly way of coming out of the closet for Gore. She subsequently said that her gayness had been evident to her family, friends and colegues in the music biz for decades, if not by her fans.
In 2012, Gore adapted You Don’t Own Me for a feminist campaign aimed at persuading women to vote in the upcoming US Presidential election.
Gore appears as a thinly disguised character, played brilliantly by Bridgett Fonda, in a favorite film of mine, Grace Of My Heart (1996), about the music industry and life in The Brill Building. The film deals with the struggles with her sexuality, but in real life Gore didn’t have quite that much struggle.
And I love to be free
“To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please”
Gore was something of an anomaly in the Pop Music world of her time, a solo female artist in an age of girl-groups. She has had 11 tunes in the Top 10. But, she was just a kid when she started a career and Gore grew disenchanted with the challenges of being a woman in a man’s industry. Just think of what she could have done in our era of strong female musicians in control of their own material like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga or Adele.
She continued to take occasional acting gigs, working on daytime soaps All My Children and Days Of Our Lives, on stage on Broadway in a run of the original jukebox musical Smokey Joe’s Cafe (1994) which celebrated the songs of her Brill Building buddies, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. She also appeared in John Waters‘ film Hairspray (1988), singing You Don’t Own Me.
Gore took her final bow a year ago, taken by that damn fucking Cancer. She was just 69 years old. She left behind an unfinished memoir, the hopes of a Broadway musical based on her life, and her partner of 36 years, jewelry designer Lois Sasson.
One of her songs has been a personal anthem for me, sung by your host with conviction and tears many a time when I am all alone in my house. I love her sound. I was crazy for her music in the 1960s and I am crazy for it now.