(Above: Lesley Gore as Pussycat, 1967)
I will freely go on record as saying I like Lesley Gore records. There. It’s out there.
Sure, the songs are sometimes over-simplistic. They’re often dismissed as watered-down tales of high school romance that devolves into fights (“Judy’s Turn to Cry”) and frustration about the egghead not noticing her (“Wonder Boy” – captured here in a great early video). But they’re just as much about dealing with the uncertainty of change and growing up (“The Old Crowd“) and standing up for yourself (“You Don’t Own Me.”) They’re also lush orchestrations and productions created under the watchful eye/ear of Quincy Jones, who discovered Gore. As Lesley’s career progressed they grew more complex: consider one of her first recordings at 16, “Fools Rush In.” Now contrast that with “Brink of Disaster,” a record that should have been a huge hit, if there were any justice in the pop charts.
One of her later recordings, and her last big hit, is one of my favorites – and there’s a TV history connection to it. Fifty years ago today, on January 19, 1967, Lesley made a guest villain appearance on Batman. She played the role of Pussycat, a sort of co-villain assisting Catwoman. But Lesley wasn’t really there to act – her main purpose in the episode was to debut her new single, “California Nights.” The TV effort helped to prop up Lesley’s concluding Top 40 career, and the song made it up to #16. That was the end of the line, though, and Lesley’s string of hit records ended at the age of not-quite-21.
Over the years I played a lot of records over and over to the point where I can’t hear them anymore. I’m a serial button-pusher: get me to the hook, and then let’s move on to something else. I don’t think I’ve ever turned off “California Nights” before the finish. There’s just something soothing about the record. In the middle of a dark, cold, Michigan winter… to think of the beach, and summer, and relaxation…. and then the crescendo brings us to the chorus. It’s three minutes of pop art.
To see the clip from Batman, click here.
To just warm up and hear the studio version of the song, click here.