Various Artists – Lipstick, Powder & Paint (review)

Various Artists – Lipstick, Powder & Paint – A Decade of Girls 1953-1962 (Fantastic Voyage) review

It’s amazing to think back to a time when women were a mere footnote in the music business.  Heck, they were relegated to the title of “girl singer” in the Big Band era, and weren’t even allowed to join the Musician’s Union.  Lipstick, Powder & Paint is a three-disc collection that traces those early steps the ladies took to gain their independence.

Disc one begins in the early Fifties – pre-rock n’ roll, but post big band; the charts were dominated by sweet vocalists and corny songs like “Bimbo” by Ruby Wright.  Rosemary Clooney’s “This Ole House” features the deep singing of Thurl Ravencroft, who would go on to voice Tony the Tiger, but the song is still hokey.  The DeCastro Sisters’ “Teach Me Tonight” was certainly scandalous back in the day, but is pure white bread now, while “Hearts Made of Stone” by the Fontane Sisters does feature a great honking sax solo.

Then Ruth Brown’s “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” comes along and blows everything to shreds.  With gritty guitar and a pumping bassline, this sounded downright dangerous compared to everything else, and was a huge leap for girl power.  The black artists were definitely allowed to show deeper emotions during this period. Yet, some of this began to rub off on the white singers – as evidenced by “No More” by the McGuire Sisters, with it’s wild horn solo.  And, while Peggy Lee was great – sitting next to Lavern Baker’s “Jim Dandy,” she doesn’t have a chance.  One of the surprises of disc one is “A Poor Man’s Roses,” a rockin’ number from Patsy Cline.

Then, like a beacon of light in the darkness, “Maybe” by the Chantels arrives – and the women have finally found their sound.  Pounding piano and wordless background vocals makes it pure rock n’ roll, while lead singer Arlene Smith evokes more emotion than any guy could ever muster.

Highlights of disc two include the deep throated vocals of Sarah Vaughan on “Broken-Hearted Melody” – there’s nothing shy about her delivery.  Betsy Brye’s version of “Sleep Walk” proves that there really were lyrics to the instrumental classic from Santo & Johnny.  Dodie Stevens’ “Pink Shoe Laces” was another step toward rock n’ roll fashion.  Alma Cogan’s “Just Couldn’t Resist Her With Her Pocket Transistor” is a hoot, while one wonders how “I Shot Mr. Lee” by the Bobbettes actually got released back then!  By the time “Dum Dum” from Brenda Lee shows up near the end of the disc, we are really cookin’: here’s a young girl with confidence, grit, and a seductive quality.  The stop/start beat makes it a standout of this collection.

Nancy Sinatra gets out the Go Go boots for “Cuff Links and a Tie Clip” on disc three.  “A Thousand Stars” by Kathy Young & the Innocents is a rock n’ roll standard, while  “Mama Said” shows that the Shirelles were on another level completely from everyone else.  Eve Adams’ “Kookie Talk” is another fun one.  Rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson shows off her gentle side with “Right or Wrong,” while “At Last” from Etta James is a stone-cold classic.  A very young Carole King turns in “Nobody’s Perfect” – not showing any evidence that she’d become one of the biggest singers of the early Seventies.

Pop became more sophisticated at the dawn of the Sixties, represented by Phil Spector’s production of the Crystals’ “Oh, Yeah, Maybe Baby,” and the Motown sound of the Marvelettes “Beechwood 4-5789.” Other fine examples of girl group bliss were “Chains” by the Cookies and “Bobby’s Girl” by Marcie Blane.

From the timid early steps to confident hitmakers, Lipstick, Powder and Paint chronicles the influential early days of the female side of pop music.  —Tony Peters