Lesley Gore’s star burned brightest in that last era of rock before the British Invasion, during which she not only survived but flourished. Think of her as an artist about the age of Lorde rocketing to the top of the charts in a music culture still dominated by adult opinions and blessings. JFK was in the White House and she has three songs on 1963’s Top 100. Elvis had two. “She’s a Fool” was number 14. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was number 80.
Get past the hair and makeup, it’s not a John Waters movie. This is not what everybody looked like, this is how a teen star was presented. Father knew best, going against the grain was what Eddie Haskell did. Sure Bob Dylan had released “The Freewheelin'’” but he was still mostly known as the guy who wrote great songs for Peter, Paul and Mary.
Everything is clean-cut, adult approved, homogenized, safe as milk. The Beach Boys may hot rod, but they have short hair. TV is "Petticoat Junction," "My Favorite Martian" and "Bonanza." "The Group" dominates the best seller list. Scandal is what you get when you rub Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton together.
Drop into this mix a Jersey teen who is declaring that it’s her party and she can cry if she wants to? What kind of attitude is that, young lady? Her discoverer and producer Quincy Jones rushed “It’s My Party” out a week ahead of the Phil Spector Crystals version, and the Tenafly teen planted her flag in the tear stained birthday cake.
And then, as that song cooled, she swung the other fist with a million-selling retribution “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” Revenge? What could be next?
Next was arguably the first pop feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me,” a song penned by John Madara and David White. At 17 she got all the way to #2 on the pop charts with it, blocked from the top spot by “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Had she never recorded another song, we’d be remembering Lesley Gore today. As she told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune five years after publicly coming out as gay in 2005:
“As I got older, feminism became more a part of my life and more a part of our whole awareness, and I could see why people would use it as a feminist anthem… I don’t care what are you are — whether you’re 16 or 116 — there’s nothing more wonderful than standing on the stage and shaking your finger and singing, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’”
From there she starred in the concert motion picture "The T.A.M.I. Show" that we mostly remember today for its James Brown performance. She played an antagonistic kitty on "Batman."
Lesley Gore’s last big hit, “California Nights,” came out a couple of months before Sgt. Pepper in 1967. She continued her studies at Sarah Lawrence College and graduated in 1968. She wrote music with her brother for the 1980 film "Fame." She hosted episodes of the PBS LGBT newsmagazine “In the Life.”
From '60s teen sensation to modern times activist, Lesley Gore, who died yesterday at age 68, owned it all with grace, class and style. And she herself was never owned.
Here’s the Gore you shouldn’t miss: