Thursday, February 19, 2015


With the wind chill making it seem like zero (and the night promising an actual record low of just 4 above), friends, relatives and loved ones gathered at a funeral home in Manhattan today. They were saying "Goodbye Lesley." And here, I add: "Goodbye Tony." It's a song you can download or listen to on line, via the link below.

This odd blog doesn't deal with ordinary hits (of which she had many). One of the more obscure items in the Gore collection is "Goodbye Tony." No other words in the song are in English. It's her rather sweetly sung German-language version of one of her most menacing anthems, "You Don't Own Me." Oddly enough while the original was performed with raging power, the German version is much softer and more sorrowful. This is a bit surprising since German is "a rather brutal language" (as Max Prendergast phrased it).

One of the more underrated singers in the rock world, Lesley Gore (Lesley Sue Goldstein, May 2, 1946 – February 16, 2015) seemed like just another amateur, ala Little Eva, when she became a sensational star in 1963. She was only 16, hitting the Top 20 with a literal cry-baby novelty called "It's My Party." As unlikely is it might seem, the wizard behind the curtain was Quincy Jones. Somehow he knew just what white America wanted to hear, and with the help of Ellie Greenwich, the veteran songwriter-producer, he made this catchy-naggy pop squeal a hit. The unknown singer had been taking voice lessons and making experimental demos thanks to her affluent father, Leo Gore. Not long after Lesley's birth, Mr. Gore had the family name changed from Goldstein to reflect his Russian heritage. Or at least, the first syllable of it.

In this era of 45 rpm singles, the biggest demographic was now teenagers, and most especially teenage girls. They pushed Fabian into the Top 10, and Rydell, Anka, Avalon, and other pretty boys they wanted to swoon over. They also liked teen girls who could be role models and sob sisters, from Connie Francis to Donna Loren. Perhaps the queen of them, for a few years at least, was Lesley Gore. They related to her and this song about being dumped at her birthday party. They were glad to see, from the fan mag photos, that Lesley was sort of pretty, but not the hated prom queen type. She was believable as a victim.

Also in 1963, Gore followed up with her "answer" song, the triumphant "Judy's Turn to Cry." In 1964 she offered the surprising "You Don't Own Me," as dark and menacing as any Shangri-Las number. It proved she had the pipes for a dramatic vocal. As the years passed, that song became a feminist anthem (just as the Shangri-Las became remembered as "liberated" ladies.)

Teen agony remained Lesley's specialty with 1964's "I Don't Wanna be a Loser" and the better, haunting "Maybe I Know." To get ridiculously analytical about it, the zeitgest heped her existential enigma over a frustrating romantic purgatory, with listeners internalizing her threnody.

The song had simple lyrics: "Maybe I know that he's been a'cheatin', maybe I know that he's been untrue. But what could I do?"

This kind of song had the co-eds nodding and buying, but there was enough vulnerability to make most any boy take notice, too. As in, "Maybe I could get her on the rebound," or "Gee, girls don't have it so easy after all." Her pain was everyone's pleasure.

Lesley continued to vacillate between teen anguish and utterly stupid pop tripe and had another Top 20 with "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" in 1965. That one was penned by the nephew of Quincy Jones' dentist, one precocious kid named Marvin Hamlisch. A number of songs in 1966 "failed to chart," as the pinhead never-was losers like to say. At least she kept trying and didn't just go buy somebody else's music at a boot sale, smugly self-congratulating on being a mediocre nobody.

In 1967, Lesley became "Pussycat," hench-girl to Catwoman on the old "Batman" show. 1967 was also the year of her last Top 20 hit, the Marvin Hamlisch variation on "California Dreaming" called "California Nights." The next year, 1968, she graduated college and wasn't so concerned with show biz. Which is a shame, because after all those years she no longer needed to be double-tracked. She had developed a great stage presence and could drive the crowd wild with an emotional, defiant ballad. Let's say she was so good that nobody ever remarked on her being Jewish.

In the 70's and 80's she put out a few solo albums, but so did Lou Christie and so many others. They, and Lesley, became locked in a time capsule and fans mostly wanted to see them at oldies shows, doing THE HITS.

Circa 2004, she hosted "In the Life," a PBS-TV series about lesbian issues. (OK, hackies, you've been waiting for it: Lesby Gore.) By then, one could quietly ease out of the closet and, if anything, develop new fans. Janis Ian, a two-hit wonder ("Society's Child" and "At Seventeen") found herself in demand at coffee shops and small venues, and Lesley also found the supportive lesbian cult backing her up, as well as some more affluent fans. She performed at upscale niteries such as (Michael) Feinstein's in Manhattan, where the cover charge and price for drinks and food could bankrupt the average person. The crowd would sit politely through the newer songs, many co-written by Lesley, then get juiced on the crowd-pleasing oldies, and absolutely cream over that now lesbian-feminist rallying cry: "You Don't Own Me."

When Lesley died, her last effort, the 2007 release "Ever Since," was on eBay and Amazon for about $4 and no takers. It had a rather haggard looking Ms. Gore on the cover, a fresh version of "You Don't Own Me" to try and get some sales, and was issued by one of the smaller indie companies.

I'm not sure what Lesley's legacy is, and if many people care about her few Top 40 hits (or her hundreds of songs on albums that fans love so much). Maybe you had to be East Coast to identify with her a lot, or you had to grow up with her. She might be, like Petula Clark and "Downtown" or even Nancy Sinatra and "Boots," just a footnote to rock critics who would rather write about Aretha and Janis. But here's something: you can always tell it's Lesley Gore when you hear her. If stardom involves being unique, Leslie was, and remains, a star.

For fans of irony, let's note that she supplied the music for a tune called "IMMORTALITY."


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