When Lesley was four, her brother Michael was born. As he grew up, he shared her interest in music. "My parents bought an upright piano and he sat down and started playing with both hands. He would get the bassline going, playing melodies with his right hand. Shortly after he started playing he began writing and then we began writing and arranging songs together. That was pretty much how I spent my childhood. Every afternoon when we got home from school, we would go downstairs for a couple of hours. We played everything from Chuck Berry to Eydie Gorme songs and Nelson Riddle arrangements."
Lesley's talent developed at summer camp talent shows and in school. "When I went to high school in Englewood, they had a wonderful choir where they sang more religious songs than I had ever been exposed to. It really broadened my interests in terms of my ability to read music." In addition to joining the school chorus and choir, Lesley formed a girl group with her friend Mary Lombardi. "All they did was Shirelles songs…I'd suggest another song and these other two girls would say, 'What do you mean?' It was a wonderful concept!"
At 15, Lesley had her first paying gig when the singer for her cousin's band was sick and couldn't perform at a wedding. Her father said she could fill in if she finished her homework. "Every time they'd point to me, I got up and sang. I had a great Italian meal and drank beer for the first time…I made five or ten bucks. Suddenly I understood what it was like to be in front of an audience, what it was like to try and hold them, what it meant to learn different songs and jump from one to another. Four or five hours had gone by so quickly, and I realized my concentration had been enormous and I had been completely into what I was doing."
The same cousin who had a band helped Lesley come to the attention of Mercury Records. His brother was a boxer represented by an agent, Joe Glaser. Lesley recorded a couple of demos with her vocal coach and Glaser was impressed enough to play them for label chief Irving Green, who passed them along to his head of A&R, Quincy Jones.
Not long after, Lesley was singing with her cousin's band at the Prince George hotel in Manhattan. Jones was there to hear the band. "I sang a couple of songs and the next week I got a call from Quincy asking if I'd like to come in." Gore met Jones in his cubicle at Mercury's Fifth Avenue office. "We spent a couple of hours playing at the piano and then I was asked to record four sides and I jumped at the chance."
In February 1963, a chauffeured limousine pulled up in front of the Gore home in Tenafly. "I was impressed that he came with a driver," Lesley told me. "I hadn't seen that a lot. I discovered later that Quincy doesn't drive."
The Gore family helped Quincy carry in two large boxes of demos he wanted Lesley to consider for her upcoming recording session. "They were heavy," she recalled. "He had listened to all 200 up front…the very first one he played was 'It's My Party.' I said, 'This is not bad but let's listen to the rest.' We did, and it was the only one that we both liked enough to commit to."
"It's My Party" was written by John Gluck, Jr. and Herb Wiener and publisher Aaron Schroder brought in a third writer, Wally Gold, to help them finish the song. They had a female singer record a demo, which found its way to Jones as well as producer Phil Spector and British vocalist Helen Shapiro, who was in Nashville to record an album for release in the U.K. Shapiro was the first to record the song, which appeared on her 1963 album Helen in Nashville.
Lesley wanted to record her four sides the day after Jones showed up at her house, but there were more meetings in New York to listen to more demos and Jones had a busy schedule with live performances on the road. Finally, a session was scheduled for 2pm on March 30. Lesley remembered what it felt like to walk into the studio at Bell Sound. "There were more people in that room than I had ever seen. I couldn't figure out what the heck they needed me for. The entire orchestra was set up with two microphones over them and there were 12 background singers, men and women, surrounding one mic. Everyone was out in the studio having a great time and I had to go into this little booth and put on a headset. So I was isolated from everyone from the beginning."
The first song recorded was "It's My Party." Jones shortened the long intro to an attention-grabbing two-note blast. "I remember drinking a Coca Cola and looking out the window after the first verse thinking we were in the instrumental. Quincy stopped the take and said, 'Little Bits, you just swallowed the second verse.' Whoops! We did it again."
The other songs recorded that day were "Hello Young Lover" and "Danny," both written by Paul Anka, and "Something Wonderful," a Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II composition from The King and I. "There was no overtime," Lesley said. "I was out on the street at 5 o'clock. My head was spinning, like, what happened? It was amazing. I went off to the movies with some friends that night in New Jersey and Quincy hosted an evening for Charles Aznavour at Carnegie Hall. That's the night Spector arrives on the steps and tells him he's cutting this great song with the Crystals…Spector tells him that the song is called 'It's My Party.'"
Later that night, alarmed that Spector would release the Crystals version and get the hit on "It's My Party," Jones returned to Bell Sound and picked up the master tape to Gore's recording. He asked engineer Phil Ramone to meet him and they made 100 copies of "It's My Party" to send to radio program directors across the U.S.
Seven days later, Gore was driving home from school listening to New York radio station WINS in her car and she heard disc jockey Murray the K play her version of "It's My Party." At first she thought someone else had recorded her song. "I had never heard myself on a small speaker, so I wasn't sure it was me. It took me until the middle of the second verse to realize I knew every inflection."
Things moved quickly. The single debuted at No. 60 on the Hot 100 for the week ending May 11. "My father would come home with the trades every week and Morrie Diamond from Mercury's promotion department would call my father and give him the numbers. It was very exciting." In its second chart week, "It's My Party" shot to No. 26, then to No. 9 and then to pole position. "It was No. 1 in all three trades and on all three radio stations in New York, which was my barometer. I realized it was big in Baltimore and Detroit and getting a lot of airplay, but other than that I couldn't imagine what was going on." Four weeks after her 17th birthday, Lesley Gore was famous all over the country. "It was like a dream come true. I was a little shocked. I was very nervous about performing because I had no technique. But I was willing to learn."
"It's My Party" was only in stores for a week and a half when Jones called the singer and said it was time to record an album. On May 14 they started recording the album that would be titled after the phrase Gore made famous in "It's My Party": I'll Cry If I Want To. Songwriter Gluck was in the hospital with hepatitis and wasn't available to write any follow-up songs but his friend Beverly Ross teamed up with Edna Lewis to continue the story of "It's My Party" with the vengeful "Judy's Turn to Cry." Gore thought it was "nerdy" to have a sequel. "After I lived with it for a while, I thought it was a good song. If I figured out what I was saying and that I would have to live with it for the rest of my life, I might not have made that decision. It was made on a visceral feeling for the song at an age when I could sing that and really mean it."
"It's My Party" was No. 5 on the Hot 100 when "Judy's Turn to Cry" debuted, eventually peaking at No. 5. Gore's third single, "She's a Fool," also peaked at No. 5. Gore was one of 1963's hottest new artists and that meant a music publisher like Don Kirshner would ask his writers, like Neil Sedaka, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, to submit songs for the teen star. That's how Gore found the song that charted as the flip of "She's a Fool," "The Old Crowd." "We were in Kirshner's office. Gerry and Carole walked in, sat down and sang this sucker and I said, 'I love it.'"
Lesley found her fourth single by herself. "I was up at Grossinger's Resort [in the Catskills] doing a record hop…these two guys from Philadelphia came up to me at the pool and invited me into this cabana to listen to a song. They played "You Don't Own Me" on a Saturday and on Monday I had them meet me after school in Quincy's office. They performed it for Quincy and he was convinced." The two songwriters were Dave White (of Danny and the Juniors) and John Madara and their feminist anthem gave Gore the second-biggest hit of her career, peaking at No. 2 but unable to climb any higher as the Beatles took over the No. 1 spot with their first American hit, "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
The hits kept coming for Gore, as songs like "That's the Way Boys Are," "Maybe I Know," "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" and "Look of Love" worked their way up the charts. Eventually other producers took over the reins from Jones; Bob Crewe helmed Gore's last top 20 hit, "California Nights."
After a long run on Mercury, Gore recorded some singles for Crewe's own label, named after himself. In 1972, she signed with Motown's west coast imprint, MoWest, and released a more mature singer/songwriter set, Someplace Else Now, featuring songs Gore wrote with actress Ellen Weston. Three years later Gore reunited with Quincy Jones for an A&M album, Love Me by Name.
In 1980, Lesley's younger brother Michael was asked to compose music for the motion picture Fame. Lesley co-wrote two songs for the soundtrack: "Out Here on My Own" and "Hot Lunch Jam." "Fame brought me back to New York," she told me. "I had been living on the west coast but didn't feel connected to my friends and family. In the summer of '79, Michael enticed me to come back at least for the summer." And that is where she lived the rest of her life. During those years she became an LGBTQ activist and hosted the PBS series about gay issues, In the Life. While she never pretended to be straight, she didn't make a public statement about her sexuality until she talked about being a lesbian in an interview on the AfterEllen website in 2005.
Gore was working on a memoir and a Broadway musical about her life when she died of lung cancer in a Manhattan hospital on Feb. 16, 2015. The news stunned her fans around the world, as there had been no prior public statements about her declining health. She left behind a legacy not just of finely-crafted pop songs, but the first feminist top 40 anthem that is still relevant today and a lifetime of activism from campaigning for Robert Kennedy for president in 1968 to her later public stance for LGBTQ equality.
Fred Bronson has had a lifetime love affair with the music of Lesley Gore. He was a high school student when he first interviewed the singer at NBC in Burbank while she was guest starring on The Andy Williams Show to sing "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows." Years later, when she was headlining a bill in Las Vegas with singer Peggy March, he reminded Gore of that decades-old meeting. "You're my Almost Famous!" she exclaimed, referencing the 2000 Cameron Crowe film. "Yes," he replied, "and you're my Led Zeppelin."