Magic Colors of Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore Magic ColorsThere is much more to Lesley Gore than her defiant party-piece.  Take ‘feminist anthem’ You Don’t Own Me, or Sometimes I Wish I Were a Boy, both 1964 singles.  The titles alone imply an unconventionality born not just out of being a woman in a notoriously male dominated business but also Lesley as both Jewish and gay (she came out in 2005).

I was intrigued to find out how Lesley Gore responded to the changing musical and social climate of the late 60s.  The answer lies within Magic Colors: The Lost Album [Ace CDCHD 1307] a 2011 release which gathers together material from 1967-69 (though it’s worth mentioning that all 25 tracks have been previously released, many as singles, some as part of a 1994 box-set).

Lesley Gore needed a new sound in 1967 and found it in California Nights, a surf-pop-soul blend shot through with sunshine pop written by Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Liebling and produced by Bob Crewe.  It reached No 16 in the US.  Lesley gives an endearing lip-synching performance of ‘California Nights’ as Pusseycat in Batman.

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Music in colours

The follow-up Summer and Sandy distils California Nights heady ingredients still further thanks to ssshing waves, mandolin-like beach guitars and lyrics extolling ‘salty air and harbour lights on lazy summer’s nights – top down, beach bound’.  Despite the effervescent pzazz, to an ever more psychedelically switched-on audience, Summer and Sandy would have felt stranded in the girl group era.  Those wooh! wooh! vocals give the game away.  It’s strange and incredibly unfair that with a male vocal, such a song would become surfer-pop almost by default but with a female vocal – and given Lesley’s back catalogue – Summer and Sandy might as likely be dismissed as a girl-group throwback.  Anyhow, heard several decades on it’s the carefree vibe of these records which is their greatest appeal.  Summer and Sandy reached No. 76 on Billboard in 1967, underlining Lesley’s dwindling chart success.

Follow-up to ‘Summer and Sandy’, Brink of Disaster (co-written by Bread-to-be member James Griffin along with Michael Gordon) comes with another elaborate production and some ear-catching voice-of-conscience vocals but wasn’t up to the standard of Summer and Sandy.  It reached No 82.

During August and October 1967, Lesley recorded a number of songs, some of which became singles but an intended album, Magic Colors, never materialised.  The Ace compilation, to which Magic Colors lends its name, offers an imaginary sequence of the album across its first ten tracks, with the running order chosen ‘for optimum listening pleasure’.

Aside from Summer and Sandy and Brink of Disaster, the highlights for me are the youthful excitement of Mann and Weil’s opener It’s a Happening World (a B-side for Lesley but a hit for The Tokens) with its nod to Feelin’ Groovy;  Magic Colors (perhaps as close as Neil Sedaka got to ‘psychedelic’), Teddy Randazzo’s ‘You Sent Me Silver Bells’ (dating from 1966 but not released until 1969) and Eric Woolfson and John Carter’s faltering He Won’t See the Light.  All are enhanced by the renowned musicianship of LA’s Wrecking Crew.

The CD release then adds a further fifteen bonus tracks, some of which actually eclipse the first ten making up the imaginary Magic Colors.

Alan Gordon and Garry Bonnor achieved great success in penning She’d Rather Be With Me and the evergreen Happy Together for The Turtles.  Although their Small Talk failed to chart for Lesley in 1968, they recapture the feel good mood of those earlier singles.

With its easy beat and overlapping soft harmonies (nice use of brass too) it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Say What You See included on Bread’s first album (it was co-written by Rob Royer).

Lesley tries her hand at Laura Nyro-style ever changing time, tempo and dynamics in self-penned Ride a Tall White Horse (with brother Michael on piano) and there are three Gamble and Huff productions of which Look the Other Way is especially good, its full sound underscored with harpsichord and sax, some tell-tale cymbal work and a great lead-off.  This G&H threesome are the most obvious attempt so far to direct Lesley into a more full-blooded soul sound.

As a whole, this collection shows a search for new directions, Lesley trying on different songs for size but never quite arriving at an overall definitive sound to carry her into a new decade.   It’s worth remembering that she was only in her early 20s at the time and her voice, though in fine shape, is so suited to the girl-group sound that she doesn’t quite inhabit a more mature style (though big ballad I Can’t Make It Without You is undeniably arresting).  I’d like to hear To Sir With Love and How Can Be Sure and forget all about Lulu and The Young Rascals but I can’t.

The 70s: Someplace Else Now

Four singles followed in 1970/71 and then 1972 brought the album Someplace Else Now.   With all tracks written or co-written by Lesley and with a stripped down but gospel-soul-pop sound, it feels like this was a more concerted attempt to establish herself as a serious singer-songwriter.

I’ve heard only the unusual, introspective She Said That and The Road I Walk where Lesley’s voice takes on a sometimes Helen Reddy inflection.

In retrospect

Only Summer and Sandy is truly essential here (as is California Nights though this falls just outside the CD’s remit).  Still this welcome compilation allows an overdue  release for a neglected album and sheds light on the lesser known sounds of Lesley Gore’s long career.

Meanwhile, I don’t think there’s much doubt that You Don’t Own Me will lend support to future feminist causes and It’s My Party will accompany many more celebrations to come.

Lesley Gore – 2nd May 1946-16th February 2015.

Track listing

1. It’s a Happening World – (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, 1967)
2. Magic Colors – (Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, 1967)
3. Where Can I Go – (Lesley Gore, Michael Gore, 1968)
4. Brink of Disaster – (Jimmy Griffin, Michael Gordon, 1967)
5. On a Day Like Today – Bodie Chandler, Michael McKendry, 1967)
6. I’m Fallin’ Down – Lesley Gore, Michael Gore, 1967)
7. You Sent Me Silver Bells – Teddy Randazzo, Victoria Pike, 1968)
8. He Won’t See the Light – (Eric Woolfson, John Carter, n/d)
9. How Can I Be Sure – (Felix Caveliere, Edward Brigati, n/d)
10. To Sir With Love – (Mark London, Don Black, n/d)
11. Summer and Sandy – (Bob Crewe, L. Russell Brown, Raymond Bloodworth, 1967)
12. Small Talk – (Alan Gordon, Garry Bonner, 1968)
13. Say What You See – (Tim Hallinan, Robb Royer, 1968)
14. Me Gives Me Love (la la la) (Ramon Arcusa, Manuel De La Calva, Michael Julien, 1968)
15. Brand New Me – (Gary Knight, Francine Nieman, 1968)
16. I Can’t Make It Without You – (Gary Geld, Peter Udell, 1968)
17. Look the Other Way – (Mikki Farrow, Thom Bell, 1968)
18. Take Good Care (of my heart) – Cindy Scott, Mikki Farrow, Thom Bell, 1968)
19. I’ll Be Standing By – (Cindy Scott, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, 1968)
20. Ride a Tall White Horse – (Lesley Gore, Michael Gore, 1969)
21. 98.6/ Lazy Day – (George Fischoff, Tony Powers, 1969)
22. Summer Symphony – (Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, 1969)
23. All Cried Out – (Buddy Kay, Phil Springer, 1969)
24. One By One – Marvin Hamlisch, Howard Liebling, 1969)
25. Wedding Bell Blues – Laura Nyro, 1969)