The 1960s present some of the best examples of how music and social movements can express or anticipate one another, and of how this connection can exist even when musicians are not consciously engaging in social commentary. Between 1955 and 1965, activists mainly sang freedom songs and folk spirituals during civil rights marches and acts of civil disobedience. Yet popular music was a sharper barometer of social changes in race relations during these times, despite the fact that social issues were consistently avoided in pop music until the later years of the 1960s. As the Civil Rights Movement later confronted the limits of integration, liberalism, and non-violent tactics, black popular music shifted toward a funkier, more assertive sound that did address the socioeconomic realities of the urban ghettos.

Music critics and historians often refer to the early 1960s as a barren period for popular music. The burst of vitality unleashed by rock ‘n’ roll had expired by the end of the 1950s. The blues and R&B were also declining in popularity, especially with young people. Jazz was continuing to transform into something more like an art form than popular music.  The most innovative development was the birth of soul in the late 1950s, originating in the mixture of gospel and R&B by Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. In the early 1960s, teen idols, doo-wop groups, and surf music dominated the Billboard charts.  Many black musicians aspired to cross over with music that appealed to whites, and most singles that reached the charts had smooth singers singing love songs accompanied by string instruments. Crossover also went in the other direction, as blacks bought the music of white artists to an extent unmatched after the mid-1960s; a total of 175 white musicians scored Top Ten hits on the R&B charts between 1956 and 1963. The white artists with multiple hits on the R&B charts during this time included Rick Nelson, Connie Francis, The Everly Brothers, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin, Dion, Paul Anka, Brenda Lee, and, above all, Elvis Presley. In short, “between 1956 and 1963 black audiences throughout the nation were supportive of black and white styles which had been quite deliberately shorn of some of their ‘blackest’ musical and lyrical characteristics.”

The quest for crossover success in black popular music paralleled the integrationist efforts of the early Civil Rights Movement.  Black musicians and the movement both took numerous measures to appear respectable and non-threatening to whites.  Nevertheless, both encountered entrenched and often violent opposition.   Musicians faced the longstanding racist fears about the social mixing of white and black youth and the seduction of white women by black men. In the 1950s, rhythm & blues singles by Joe Turner, Fats Domino, and Little Richard were more successful when covered and sanitized by white musicians.  The opposition to Nat King Cole—perhaps the mildest, least threatening black musician of the 1950s—illustrates the depths of racist hostility and the limits to crossover success in these times. Cole became the first African American to host a television show in 1956, but NBC canceled it after only one year because the network was unable to secure sponsorship from advertisers, who feared boycotts. When Cole headlined a “Record Star Parade of 1956” that included black and white musicians, racists physically attacked him while he was on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. The assault baffled Cole: “I have not taken part in any protests. I haven’t said anything about civil rights. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?” Even the most compliant acts of integration were subject to violent reaction in the 1950s.

In starting the Motown label in 1960, Berry Gordy, Jr.’s ambition was to transcend this racial divide, appealing to white and black audiences alike to become “the sound of young America.” Although the sound of Motown was rhythmic and passionate, Gordy’s strategy was to maintain a clean, safe image among his artists, steer clear of controversial topics, and release songs dealing with the universal experiences of love, romance, and heartbreak. Motown soon became a dominant force in the music industry: 79 of the label’s records reached the Top Ten of the Billboard charts between 1960 and 1969. Motown enjoyed unprecedented success in reaching a biracial audience during the 1960s.  But like the Civil Right Movement, whose ascent it followed, Motown eventually ran up against the limits and contradictions of integration and assimilation.  Motown soon found itself in competition with labels like Stax that were not afraid to deliver a less processed sound, and Gordy would eventually be compelled to abandon his policy that prevented artists from addressing the conflicts and controversies of the times.

In the early 1960s, the domesticating, sanitizing influence of ambitions for crossover success was especially prevalent in sexual expression. Distancing themselves from the macho aggressiveness of an earlier generation of bluesmen, male vocal groups and pop artists mainly sang about insecurity, tenderness, and faithfulness.   Yet the messages of crossover pop were more complex when sung by women and primarily addressed to a young female audience. A wave of “girl groups” formed after the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”—a song co-written by a white woman (Carole King) but sung by four black teenaged girls—reached #1 on the Billboard pop charts in 1961. Along with the Shirelles, the girl groups who had multiple hits between 1961 and 1964 included the Angels, the Chiffons, the Cookies, the Crystals, the Dixie Cups, the Marvellettes, the Ronettes, and the Shangri-Las. Both black and white girl groups sang lush ballads which expressed conventional, middle-class ideals of love and romance.  The Marvelletes were Motown’s first girl group, and the Crystals and the Ronettes sang some of the first hit singles produced by Phil Spector.

The Shirelles, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”

The music and lyrics of the girl groups were certainly subdued in comparison to the black women who sang the blues in the 1920s, whose songs shunned domestic ideals while emphasizing the more carnal and fleeting side of sexual relations.  Nevertheless, they were socially significant because they represented young female perspectives on dating, romance, and sex, as the title “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” suggested.  Their songs addressed an audience of young women growing up in a society that was drifting away from the repressive norms of the 1950s. As Susan Douglas explained: 

Even though the girl groups were produced and managed by men, it was in their music that the contradictory messages about female sexuality and rebelliousness were most poignantly and authentically expressed. In the early 1960s, pop music became the one area of popular culture in which adolescent female voices could be clearly heard. They sang about the pull between the need to conform and the often overwhelming desire to rebel, about the tension between restraint and freedom, and about the rewards—and costs—of prevailing gender roles. They sang, in other words, about getting mixed messages and about being ambivalent in the face of the upheaval in sex roles.

These cultural contradictions of gender imploded in the late 1960s when they were exposed by the nascent women’s movement, just as the liberal limits to racial equality pushed the black struggle beyond assimilation and integration.  The girl groups of the early 1960s foreshadowed the emergence of second-wave feminism and consciousness-raising groups toward the end of the decade.  As Douglas put it, “While girl group music celebrated love, marriage, female masochism, and passivity, it also urged girls to make the first move, to rebel against their parents and middle-class conventions, and to dump boys who didn’t treat them right.”