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 said 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 a new kind of female 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 continues 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 composer/producer Quincy Jones at Mercury Records. He immediately recognized her as a huge talent, a budding star, and he 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 very 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 number one 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 Ten hit She’s A Fool, and You Don’t Own Me, which only went to number two on the USA charts, because it was thwarted a little song by The Beatles called I Want to Hold Your Hand. All this in just six months.
You Don’t Own Me is an empowerment anthem recorded when women in Pop Music were supposed to be submissive and adoring, like in hit songs exemplified by The Chiffon’s He’s So Fine. You Don’t Own Me was released in 1963, the same year as Betty Friedan’s seminal manifesto The Feminine Mystique. Gore’s song made way for other respect-demanding females like Aretha Franklin, Loretta Lynn and Beyoncé. You Don’t Own Me is Gore’s most assertive song. Her first and even bigger hit, It’s My Party, is also a feminist anthem in a way. It’s a memorable manifestation of teen heartbreak, and while it’s weepy, they were at least Gore’s tears, and she owned them. It was her party, and she’d cry if she wanted to.
It was a brand new thing for a teen tune to be about a female’s desire for establishing her own autonomy. You Don’t Own Me was later covered by Dusty Springfield and Amy Winehouse, and figured prominently in the film The First Wives Club (1996), as sung by Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler.
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’s career continued with other 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 she 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). It 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 of sly way of coming out of the closet for Gore. She subsequently said that her gayness had been evident to her family, friends and colleagues in the music biz for decades, if not by her fans.
In 2005, Gore recorded a new album, Ever Since, her first with new material since Love Me By Name (1976). It received enthusiastic reviews. Besides the new songs, Gore included a revised version of You Don’t Own Me. She wrote:
“Without the loud backing track, I could wring more meaning from the lyric It’s a song that takes on new meaning every time you sing it.”
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. That version featured Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Natasha Lyonne, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Gore herself. Joan Jett also recorded a new version of the song.
Gore appears as a thinly disguised character, played brilliantly by Bridgett Fonda, in one of my favorite films, Grace Of My Heart (1996), about the music industry and life in The Brill Building. She co-wrote a wonderful song, My Secret Love, for the movie. 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 Ten. 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 Lady Gaga or Adele.
She continued to take occasional acting gigs, working on daytime soaps All My Children and Days Of Our Lives. She appeared 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, of course, You Don’t Own Me.
Gore took her final bow in 2015, taken by that damn 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.