By Blase DiStefano
Unless you’re of a certain age, you’ve probably never heard of Lesley Gore. However, you may have heard her song “It’s My Party” (“and I’ll cry if I want to/Cry if I want to, cry if I want to/You would cry too if it happened to you”). It was a huge hit in the early ’60s, and the singer followed soon after with “You Don’t Own Me,” one of the first feminist anthems. The lyrics say it all: “You don’t own me/I’m not just one of your many toys/You don’t own me/Don’t say I can’t go with other boys/And don’t tell me what to do/Don’t tell me what to say/And please, when I go out with you/Don’t put me on display ’cause/You don’t own me/Don’t try to change me in any way/You don’t own me/Don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay.” That the singer was gay makes it all the more appealing.
Trevor Tolliver, one of Lesley Gore’s biggest fans and the author of the new book You Don’t Own Me, answers a few questions about the singer’s songs and her life.
Blase DiStefano: How did “It’s My Party” come about, and what major songs were on the charts at the same time?
Trevor Tolliver: Lesley Gore’s demo recordings had made their way to Quincy Jones at Mercury Records, and he liked the style, purity, and talent in the 16-year-old’s voice. After listening to a pile of potential songs to record for the label, “It’s My Party” managed to stay at the top of the list, and it was recorded in late March 1963. (By the way, the story of a girl throwing a tantrum at her birthday party was inspired by the true story of the bratty daughter of one of the songwriters.)
Jones found out that super-producer Phil Spector had just recorded “Party” with The Crystals, who were a hot girl group at the time. Not to be bested, Quincy Jones and engineer Phil Ramone stayed up all night pressing copies of Gore’s version and sent it out to the major radio stations. In just a matter of weeks, “It’s My Party” was a national and worldwide hit and a cultural phenomenon, which faced worthy competition on the charts from Little Peggy March (“I Will Follow Him”), The Chiffons (“He’s So Fine”), and The Crystals (“Da Doo Ron Ron”).
“You Don’t Own Me” seemed to be the first song by a female singer to finally state the obvious. How was it that Gore recorded it, and what was the response to the song?
One afternoon while Gore was relaxing by the pool at a Catskills resort where she was performing, two Philadelphia songwriters, David White and John Madara, approached her and played an acoustic version of their new song, “You Don’t Own Me.” She loved the force and bravado behind the lyrics, and took the song to Quincy, who agreed to produce the unusual track.
Since other songs at the time cast girls in subservient, weak roles, “You Don’t Own Me” was a colossal hit that seemed to speak to young female fans who desperately wanted and needed to hear a stronger message. The song soared to #2, sandwiched between the first two singles from The Beatles.
As hugely popular and respected as the song was, Gore was disappointed to be forced back into more tepid musical territory, reinforcing her widely accepted image as a victimized girl with perpetual dating crises and chronically abusive boyfriends.
When did Gore realize she was gay, and who was the first person (or persons) she told?
Gore says she adored both boys and girls, but it wasn’t until her acceptance to Sarah Lawrence College when she felt she could explore that part of herself she’d kept hidden from the glare of the spotlight.
Gore wasn’t allowed to decide when the time was right for her to come out on her own terms. In the early 1970s, she was forced out of the closet when an anonymous letter was delivered to her parents, tattling that she’d been spotted emerging from a gay and lesbian bar. By now she was in her early 20s and much more certain and confident, so she didn’t deny the accusation. She led an openly gay life from that point on.
Her parents struggled initially, but I’m sure their concerns were smoothed over with help from the calm and diplomatic presence of Lesley’s younger brother Michael, with whom she always enjoyed a close and loving friendship. He stayed by her side through the process and gave her the support she needed to be able to come to terms with her true personal and sexual identity.
At what point in her career did she meet Lois Sasson? Tell me a little about that relationship.
Gore and Sasson met as early as 1969, and although they enjoyed a brief relationship then, a restless Gore ended up leaving New York for California to focus on herself, her career, and her latest comeback.
After writing, recording, and releasing two extraordinary (but ultimately failed) albums in the 1970s, Gore returned to her roots on the East Coast to reunite with Sasson and work on the motion-picture soundtrack for Fame with her brother, Michael. The two remained inseparable for over 30 years, and that relationship was a source of strength, comfort, excitement, and peace for Gore.
As a devastating postscript, the two were planning to legally marry in the fall of this year, but Gore passed suddenly in February from an aggressive form of lung cancer.
Speaking of relationships, how did you meet Gore, and how long did you know her?
I had seen Gore perform twice over the years, and both times I had the pleasure of meeting her afterward. In 2013, I approached her with a draft of my book, and although she declined to participate because she was at work on her own biographical stage musical, she didn’t discourage my project, and even remained in contact with me throughout the remainder of 2014.
Those of us who had the honor of knowing her even briefly were touched by her generosity and her kindness. Anyone who was able to meet her was delighted to learn that she was exactly what they would have hoped her to be in person.
I wanted my book to celebrate her amazing talent and indomitable spirit, and I hope it prolongs the conversation about Lesley Gore and the amazing body of work she left behind.
You Don’t Own Me by Trevor Tolliver is published by Backbeat Books (backbeatbooks.com).