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The Vernons Girls

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Biography

You won't find the Vernons Girls listed in most girl group registers, mostly because they were British, and weren't so much a group as a corporate-sponsored entity that happened to do girl group-type songs later in their history and chart a few records in the process. But the Vernons Girls are worthy of mention due to their longevity across nearly a decade of the most extraordinary changes in British popular music, coupled with their eventual embrace of girl group sounds. Their origins go back well before the advent of rock & roll, to early-'50s England, which was then very much an economic backwater -- it's easy to forget today that rationing, as a consequence of the Second World War and its aftermath, didn't come to an end in England until 1953, eight years after the end of the war and, ironically, well after it had ended in Germany and Japan. In this stunted business environment, entrepreneurs were always scrambling for angles that would give them an edge, and the Vernons Football Pools reasoned that the company could get press and publicity exposure by organizing a girls choir to perform in various venues, prominently displaying the Vernons name. It wasn't a terribly good idea, but it did find traction in the mid-'50s as British popular entertainment slowly made room for a budding youth culture, oriented toward skiffle music and young vocalists (including Cleo Laine and Petula Clark). With the advent of The 6.5 Special and Oh Boy! on British television in 1956 and 1958, respectively -- both television variety shows aimed at a youth audience, with the latter focused on rock & roll -- the Vernons Girls, now more of a group than a choir, became regular backup singers. And out of that engagement, they even got a contract from EMI's Parlophone label. They still didn't sound very distinctive, however, until the end of the 1950s when the Vernons Girls became a trio and began aiming for the youth market. This classic lineup consisted of Maureen Kennedy, Jean Owen, and Frances Lee, with Lyn Cornell coming in as a replacement and Joyce Barker (future wife of Marty Wilde and mother of Kim Wilde) passing through. Their names weren't used on the records where they only provided accompaniment, where, if they were billed at all, it was simply as "Two Vernons Girls" or "Three Vernons Girls." They didn't succeed in charting records of their own until 1962, when they were signed to Decca. Their cover of the Drifters' "Lover Please" sold well enough to ride the best-seller lists for nine weeks, and the Liverpool-style "You Know What I Mean" made the U.K. charts two separate times in 1962. Unfortunately, like a lot of English acts that really didn't control their repertory or their direction, the Vernons Girls were at the mercy of producers who didn't always clearly see the direction the public's taste was taking. So their competent cover of "The Loco-Motion" was followed by a very, very dopey-sounding "Dat's Love" and several sub-Connie Francis-style teen pop efforts. There was no consistency to their work, which wore out any welcome that they might have had from the listening public, and certainly no thought given to what was happening to music around them. By the end of 1963, when they were doing novelty songs like "We Love the Beatles," the Vernons Girls were quaintly anachronistic holdovers from a pop music world whose landscape was already being shaken seismically by the Beatles et al. They tried hard with "Do the Bird," which had a hard-rocking beat and what could pass for a soulful sound, especially the lead singing, but it barely registered on the charts. An almost equally deserving record, "I'm Gonna Let My Hair Down," disappeared without a trace. And then their next single was an annoying novelty number called "Mama Doesn't Know" -- with repertory like that, they were doomed, even as they tried various new sounds, even opting for something akin to Dusty Springfield's Wall of Sound accompaniment. The sheer inconsistency of their records probably contributed to their eventual demise. The Vernons Girls vanished in 1964, although their ex-members remained in the business, singing in various vocal groups -- most notably the Breakaways, whose accompaniments graced dozens of fine records by other artists (including the pre-King Crimson trio of Giles, Giles & Fripp) -- for years to come. Some older British listeners retain a fondness for the Vernons Girls, however, and the group's best records remain listenable and enjoyable over 40 years later. ~ Bruce Eder
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