From Flanagan and Allen through to OutKast – via the Everley Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel and Wham! – the history of popular music is replete with acclaimed and influential male-vocal duos. And there have been plenty of male-female duos to impress the critics as well: Sonny and Cher, the Carpenters, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye with a succession of partners, Serge Gainsbourg with anyone he could get his hands on.
The female vocal duo, on the other hand, has never been very highly rated as a format for serious music. In an attempt to remedy that neglect, here are some examples of the form, spanning a fair range of styles and – let’s be frank – quality. The criteria for selection are they must be just female vocal duos, with no other credited performers, who recorded in Britain. I’m also restricting myself to acts who had chart success, even if only briefly.
These songs are listed in chronological order. It’ll probably take us three posts to get through the whole story, but by the end we may have discovered something about this somewhat overlooked tradition. Or we may not.
The Caravelles: ‘You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry’ (1963)
We start at the top with one of the few really great cover versions in early British pop. ‘You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry’ was best known as the b-side of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1956 hit ‘Sixteen Tons’, which is presumably where Lois Wilkinson and Andrea Simpson, a pair of teenage office workers in London, found it.
They took it to the manager and producer Bunny Lewis, who teamed them up with Harry Robinson of Oh Boy! and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be fame, and the result was a complete reinvention of the song. It used to swing at the intersection of jazz, blues and country; now it was pure pop, the high echo-laden harmonies giving it a wistful, dreamy quality, while the delivery of ‘baby’ as ‘bay-ay-ay-by’ paid testimony to the influence of Adam Faith.
It was a big hit, getting to #6 in Britain and then doing even better in the US, preceding the arrival of the Beatles by a few weeks and reaching #3. On the strength of the record, the Caravelles appeared on the first Beatles gig in America. Several records followed (documented here), though commercially nothing ever worked again.
Sue and Sunny: ‘Let Us Break Bread Together’ (1969)
Under their stage-names Sue Glover and Sunny Leslie, the sisters Yvonne and Heather Waterman sang backing vocals on hundreds of records and dozens of hits – most famously on Joe Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ but also on some of the best records of the glam rock era, including classics for Mott the Hoople and T. Rex.
In their own right, sadly, they had no such success. Their first single, under the name of the Myrtelles, was released in 1963, when Sunny was just 12-years-old, and there was a succession of others that failed to make any impact.
Some fans have an affection for their incarnation as the Stockingtops, purveying an ersatz Northern Soul on records like ‘I Don’t Ever Wanna Be Kicked By You’ (written and produced by Kenny Lynch in 1968, with arrangement by John Paul Jones). My own favourite, though, is this single, an African-American spiritual*, adapted and produced by Bobby Scott (I assume this is the same man who co-wrote ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’). Sunny, in particular, had a beautifully soulful voice and this sort of track is meat and drink to her. The same quality can be heard soon after in her duets with Tony Burrows at the front of the original Brotherhood of Man – but there the writing and arranging simply weren’t as good. This is the real stuff: classy middle-of-the-road pop. It wasn’t a hit, though.
* My thanks to Andy Lewis for pointing out an error in an earlier version of this.
The Pearls: ‘Guilty’ (1974)
The first version of the Brotherhood of Man (#10 in Britain, #13 in the US with ‘United We Stand’) was eclipsed here by a completely new, Eurovision-winning line-up that happened to share the same name. And that reflected the transient nature of mainstream pop in the early 1970s. At a time when rock bands were spending months holed up in rural retreats, pursuing authenticity and consuming vast quantities of drugs, someone had to make quick, cheap hits to keep the industry in profits. And so a handful of session musicians and singers appeared in varying combinations under a succession of band names, the personnel pretty much interchangeable.
The Pearls were one such b(r)and. Their first hit was an okay cover of the Martha and the Vandellas song ‘Third Finger, Left Hand’ (1972) and was sung by Sue and Sunny. Since the sisters had too much other work on, however, they were replaced on subsequent releases by Lyn Cornell and Ann Simmons, both formerly of the Vernons Girls.
And in this incarnation, they had their biggest hit with ‘Guilty’, written by Ron Roker and the great Gerry Shury. It’s a lovely little song that ranks as one of the better British knock-offs of Motown, bouncy and breezy with a hook that spelt out the title – which is always a good idea. The whole thing was tailor-made for a Pan’s People dance routine.
Among the Pearls’ other work was ‘Doctor Love’ (1974), a song written by the legendary Biddu. He obviously felt that its failure to chart reflected badly on the public, since he gave us a second chance to embrace it with Tina Charles – her disco take on the song was a hit in 1976, but wasn’t a patch on the original.
Snatch: ‘All I Want’ (1978)
So what have we learnt so far? Well, this was a great time for solo female singers in Britain (Petula, Lulu, Dusty, Sandie, Cilla), and in America it was the golden era for girl groups with the Ronettes, Chiffons, Supremes and the rest. But no one was much interested in the female double-act or knew what to do with them.
The format lacked both the fragile glamour of the solo singer, and the gang cool projected when you had three or four women in the line-up. Record companies didn’t tend to give them much promotion and they didn’t sell many records. Even the Caravelles, with that triumphant debut, couldn’t build a successful career out of it.
But then punk happened. And punk was more open to the idea of women in rock. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the female duo found a new, much artier expression in the form of Snatch.
Both Patti Palladin and Judy Nylon were American ex-pats living in London, who’d been hanging around art/rock/hippy circles for some years. They’d collaborated with Eno on ‘RAF’ (the b-side of ‘King’s Lead Hat’ in 1975) and you can hear his influence on this masterpiece, which exists somewhere between Here Come the Warm Jets and the Desperate Bicycles. The music – played by members of Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers and Roogalator – is an absurdly basic steal from ‘All Day and All of the Night’, with variation coming from abrupt changes in instrumentation. What really makes it, though, is the deadpan, relentless, almost mechanical vocal, sung in unvarying unison. The b-side was titled ‘When I’m Bored’, but they sound like that already. And they sound dangerous. If the Shangri-Las projected an image of riding pillion to leather-clad delinquents, Snatch gave the impression that they carried their own switchblades and wouldn’t mind using them – if only they could be bothered.
The record got to #54 on the British charts. There was one further single, more than a year later, and then they went their separate ways.
Blonde on Blonde: ‘Whole Lotta Love’ (1979)
And finally (for now) a dictionary definition of moving from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Because art-punk with attitude is all very well. But if you really want to sell records by a female duo, surely the best idea would be to get a pair of Page 3 models – then you could hint at a soft-core Sapphic eroticism. Better still, give them a disco version of a Led Zeppelin classic to sing to. What could possibly go wrong?
Actually, there’s nothing much to fault in the concept. After all, it’s essentially the blueprint for Samantha Fox’s career, and she made some very entertaining records. But Fox was a trouper who would throw herself heart and soul into selling trash. Jilly Johnson and Nina Carter – the constituent members of Blonde on Blonde – couldn’t quite bring themselves to do it. They looked embarrassed rather than enthusiastic. They also had an annoying indecision about whether to take their jackets off or not.
They made several records and – as you’d expect – inspired some impressive column inches on the part of tabloid editors, somewhat more perhaps than their music deserved. Despite which, it’s rather pleasing to note that they didn’t have any success at all in the British charts. With crashing inevitability, this footage comes from German TV; they were much more popular there. They went down very well in Japan as well.