We love a good girl group – big talent, big hits, big hair, big egos, big bust-ups and big reunions. And none were bigger than the Spice Girls, who personified that “rags to riches” tale of going from “wanabees” answering an advert in the Stage, to not only the biggest girl group of all time, but one of the most profitable brands of the entire 1990s. Of course, they were by no means the first and certainly won’t be the last and the opening of their musical Viva Forever is just the latest chapter in a sixty-year legacy of Girl Power.
The Andrews Sisters – Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (1941)
LaVerne, Maxene and Patty were a hugely successful vocal harmony group, who took the concept of the all-girl group far beyond its novelty music hall/ vaudeville roots into the realms of a global superstardom. As a close vocal harmony group, their brand of swing and boogie woogie helped them shift a staggering 75 million records, aided greatly by an equally successful film career and the support of the Allied Forces, who they entertained across the world. They also set an all too familiar precedent for girl groups when Patty decided to go solo, and law suits ensued and general disharmony prevailed. But they eventually made up and enjoyed a successful career well into the 1960s, and their harmonies still influence everyone from the Puppini Sisters to Christina Aguilera to endless miming drag queens.
The Shirelles – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (1961)
Shirley, Doris, Micki and Beverly went from winning a school talent competition to becoming not only the first African-American group to top the Billboard Hot 100, but the first girl group, period. The ground-breaking act used strings and baião-style to forge a brand new sound, while their naive schoolgirl sound contrasted with the sexual themes of many of their most popular songs. Sadly in 1963 they learnt that the trust holding their royalties until their 21st birthdays did not exist and they were forced to sue their record label. As well as defining the girl group genre, their acceptance and popularity with both black and white audiences predates Motown acts and reflected the civil rights movement of the time. Think Hairspray.
The Ronettes- Be My Baby (1963)
Singing together since they were teenagers, the New York trio of Veronica Bennett (later to become Ronnie Spector), her older sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra became one of the most popular groups of the 60s. Produced by Phil Spector, they had a huge string of hits including Be My Baby, Baby I Love You, (The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up and the Grammy-winning Walking in the Rain. And for those gay trivia fans among you, Cher was also a studio backing singer on most of their singles. The girls became known for their big hairdos and outrageous make-up (later influencing Amy Winehouse) and also for a string of celebrity boyfriends, much like girl groups today! After meeting the Beatles, Ronnie briefly dated John Lennon and Estelle went out with George Harrison, while the trio become the only girl group to ever tour with the Fab Four on their 1966 American tour.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas – Dancing in the Street (1964)
A huge international success on the Motown Records label, where would shocking and camp 80s music videos be without David Bowie and Mick Jagger covering their biggest hit? As well as recording the label’s anthem with Dancing in the Street, their string of hit singles also included Nowhere to Run, Jimmy Mack, and (Love Is Like a) Heatwave – the first single said to define to Motown sound (mixing up doo-wop calls, vocal responses, gospel influences and jazz overtones). At the cusp of the 1970s, Motown boss Gordy focused almost all of his attention on the career of the Supremes and Diana Ross’ blooming solo career and it’s no secret that the show and film Dreamgirls took inspiration from this period. Backstabbing and diva tantrums within the group, as well as actual full-on stage fights led to sackings, walkouts, various line-up changes and the eventual demise of the group.
The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go? (1964)
As their name suggests, the Supremes were not only the most successful Motown act, they remain America’s most successful vocal group ever, having amassed 12 number one singles including Where Did Our Love Go?, Baby Love and Stop In The Name of Love. After being put through Motown’s in-house finishing school and image department (think X Factor makeover), they emerged as an incredibly stylish act, each with their own unique identity thanks to clever marketing that saw each member of the group pictured separately on the debut album cover, with their signature above it. Sadly infighting, substance abuse, legal battles and a solo career for Diana Ross lead to the break-up of the original band in 1977. However they soldiered on with more line-up changes than the Sugar Babes and it’s ironic that when Ross did perform with the Supremes again in the noughties, it was with two members she had never actually sang with before.
Labelle – Lady Marmalade (1974)
During the 60s and 70s, Labelle had more reinventions than Kylie, going from a doo-wop group, into rock and funk and eventually some fairly “out there” glam rock, with their sound inspired by Marc Bolan and David Bowie and their look straight out of Elton’s wardrobe. Their flamboyant style, which consisted of metallic clothes, complimented by feathers and silver platform boots, saw them gain international recognition, as did their biggest hit, Lady Marmalade. Famed for its seductive chorus – “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” – trivia fans may be interested to know this is a line borrowed from the promiscuous Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Patti LaBelle went on to achieve huge solo success, while the song has of course been covered by everyone from All Saints, to a superstar girl group made up of Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa and Pink.
Sister Sledge – We Are Family (1979)
Sang by Kim Sledge, Debbie Sledge, Joni Sledge and Kathy Sledge (yes, they are all sisters and their name really is Sledge), their album We Are Family also featured other disco hits including He’s the Greatest Dancer and Lost in Music. The single, We Are Family has been featured in everything from Private Benjamin to The Full Monty and our personal favourite, The Birdcage in a remarkable scene that sees Gene Hackman in drag! It’s also been covered by some other famous girl groups, including the Corrs and the Spice Girls. Bucking just about every trend in the genre, the girls have never had a major bust up, have never split up, have never sued their record label and still perform together today!
Bananarama – Venus (1986)
Siobhan, Keren and Sara’s first brush with fame was collaborations with Fun Boy Three on T’aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It) and Really Saying Something. The hits didn’t stop during the early eighties with songs like Shy Boy, Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye, Robert De Niro’s Waiting and Cruel Summer, the latter of which was featured in the hit movie The Karate Kid. As well as defining the decade in terms of dubious tomboyish fashions, they were the only artists to appear on both Band Aid and Band Aid II versions of Do They Know it’s Christmas. The late 1980s saw Stock Aitken Waterman take over their song writing and huge hits including Venus, I heard A Rumour and Love in the First Degree. However the camp direction the band were taking didn’t suit Siobhan, who left to form Shakespears Sister. Bananarama still hold the Guinness Record as the all-female group who have had the most chart entries in history.
Destiny’s Child – Independent Women (2000)
After years of limited success as Girl’s Tyme and the obsessive efforts of their manager Matthew Knowles (Beyoncé’s father, who even gave up his job to help push the group into the big time), they were eventually got a record contract as Destiny’s Child, a name taken from a passage in the Book of Isaiah. After having number-one singles with Bills, Bills, Bills and Say My Name, two members of the group tried to sack Beyoncé’s father, leading to their own dismissal. However the group’s most famous incarnation is as a trio made up of Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams and Beyoncé. Their third album, Survivor contains huge smash hits including Independent Women (from the film Charlie’s Angels) Survivor and Bootylicious. After their fourth album Destiny Fulfilled which took their world-wise album sales to more than 40 million, the band have taken an ongoing hiatus to concentrate on their highly successful solo careers.
The Spice Girls – Wannabe (1996)
Forget other girl bands currently making comebacks, the statistics alone for the Spice Girls read like one of Simon Cowell’s wet dreams, all the more juicy as the group were put together by his arch nemesis and fellow pop Svengali Simon Fuller. Their first single Wannabe went to number one in more than 30 countries, while their debut album Spice sold more than 28 million copies worldwide. As well as selling an estimated 75 million records over their career, the group turned Girl Power into marketing magic with a ridiculous amount of products and endorsement and a hit film with Spiceworld. Interestingly it was a Smash Hits article giving the group members the nicknames of Baby Spice, Scary Spice, Ginger Spice and Sporty Spice that did more to promote the band than any expensive PR campaign. Eventually the Spice Girls suffered familiar girl group demons, with in-fighting, the sacking of their manager, Geri packing her Union Jack dress and leaving. Still 2012 is the year for a triumphant return, with 750 million people worldwide watching them sing their medley of Wannabe and Spice Up Your Life, the most tweeted moment of the whole Olympics.