Six Damn Fine Degrees #46: The Shirelles’ “Boys”

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

“What’s your favourite Beatles tune sung by Ringo” is – it should be said – quite a niche Fab Four related question. But for me the answer is 1963’s “Boys”, his track on their first album Please Please Me. It’s a great little stomper of a rock tune, grabbing the listener’s attention from the very start, and holding it for its brisk running time of under 2½ minutes. It’s also fun, with Ringo playfully grinning as he sings his way through a chorus that goes:

Well, I talk about boys (yeah, yeah, boys)
Don’t ya know I mean boys (yeah, yeah, boys)
Well, I talk about boys, now (yeah, yeah, boys)
Aah, boys (yeah, yeah, boys)
Well, I talk about boys, now (yeah, yeah, boys)
What a bundle of joy! (yeah, yeah, boys)

It’s a surprisingly subversive lyric at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. But where did it come from? The answer is that it’s a cover of a 1960 hit for an American group: the Shirelles, an outfit that practically wrote the book on what it is to be a “girl band”. Formed by school friends Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris, Shirley Owens and Beverley Lee, they tapped into the emerging teenage market with tunes like “Boys2, extolling the pleasures of youthful hedonism. They are probably most famous for “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” – the first record sung by an all-black all-woman group to top the US charts.

The fact that so many white American teenagers were getting their kicks to successful black artists like the Shirelles did not go down well with large sections of white America, who saw in the emerging soulful rhythm and blues black artists a threat to their segregationist worldview. And this was to prove incredibly useful to a whole wave of bands emerging in the United Kingdom that were happy to perform and cover these very same tunes – often when the original was still in the charts. These young white “foreign” bands were initially seen as much less threatening, and their cover versions – or original imitations – were to herald the Sixties “British Invasion” of the American music scene.

This, sadly, had a detrimental effect on the careers of bands like the Shirelles. To try and appeal to white audiences they had been marketed as safe and unthreatening, which now seemed square compared to the scream-inducing new imports. In April 1966 they left their record label, discovering that nearly all the money they had earned had been squandered by its owners. In comparison, the same month saw the Beatles release Revolver to commercial success and critical acclaim, turning their back on the short, direct tunes like “Boys” for the indulgence of psychedelia.

“Boys” is still an odd choice of tune though, and while the Beatles make some concessions, changing the gender references in the verses, they always maintained that they kept the chorus intact without really realising that it had a homosexual undertone. (Is it even an undertone? I mean, it’s so obvious it’s basically the tone.) This does not seem credible, though. The band began covering the tune during their days in Hamburg, playing seedy nightclubs in the disreputable Red Light district of the city. In such venues on the fringes of society, a band on stage celebrating “Boys” would be flaunting a knowing wink to some of their audience. The fact that it had been a staple in their set for several years by the time they recorded it meant it even predated Ringo joining the band, with sources suggesting Pete Best sang the tune in those early days on the Reeperbahn.

Both versions are great and worth a listen. The original Shirelles version can be found here, while the Beatles cover version can be found here here. But there is something weirdly and depressingly illuminating about the whole affair: that a section of White America was (and almost certainly still is) so wrapped up in their prejudices that they’d prefer a tune celebrating the hedonistic thrill of kissing youths to be sung by a white, mop-topped male drummer than by four pioneering black female artists.

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