Some radio stations refused to play it because of the sexual voltage of the lyrics. It’s ranked 126 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (“Like a Rolling Stone” is number one). It’s the first song by an African-American all-girl group to go number one on U.S. pop charts and stay near the top for more than ten weeks. But when she first heard the song played for her, Shirley Owens, who was supposed to sing it, thought it sounded “too country.” She changed her mind only after the producer added a string section.[i]
Scepter Records released the song in November 1960 as “Tomorrow,” but on later pressings the title was lengthened. The B-side was the now-forgotten “Boys.” Together, the song titles tell a story as laconic as Hemingway’s apocryphal six-worder: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” “Will you love me tomorrow?” is the question. “Boys” is the answer. What can a girl expect from a boy? Even if Tony Orlando, recording under the very odd name Bertell Dache, cut a response called “Not Just Tomorrow, But Always.”
The authors of Inside the Hits: A Generation Seduced by Rock and Roll describe the song as a “ritualistic, perhaps genetically-programmed”[ii] post-coital exchange between a girl and a boy (though to me it seems more like a pre-coital one). It’s the girl who does all the singing. The boy is silent, unless you project him into the flourish of strings that responds to each line of the second verse.
Is this a lasting treasure?
[ _ _ _]
Or just a moment’s pleasure?
[_ _ _ ]
If you visualize the song as a conversation between teenagers who’ve just had sex, or are about to have it, in a parked car or on a beach blanket spread on an asphalt roof under a swollen midsummer moon, the boy might very well be quiet, hoping that if he kept his mouth shut the girl in his arms would take his kisses as a yes.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” has been covered at least fifty-eight times, by interpreters who include Brenda Lee, Ben E. King, Dusty Springfield, Lesley Gore, Cher, Linda Ronstadt, Roberta Flack, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Millie Jackson, Neil Diamond, Elton John, the Afghan Whigs, Patti LaBelle, the Bee Gees, Bjorn Again, Norah Jones, Diana Reeves, Bryan Ferry, Jennifer Peña, Lauryn Hill, the Swedish singer Lykke Li, and French yé-yé star Francoise Hardy. The most improbable of those covers may be the one by Maureen Tucker, best known as the drummer for the Velvet Underground, the moodiest Amy Winehouse’s.[iii] The most logical is the version Carole King recorded on her multi-platinum 1971 Tapestry, though maybe King’s version shouldn’t be considered a cover at all, since she co-wrote the song in the first place. At issue is what we mean by the original of any song, or at least any pop song, and who can truly be called its creator.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s recap of its composition reads like a fairy tale:
Consider one day in the collaboration of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, in the fall of 1960: somehow, between Carole King looking after their six-month-old baby and taking Don Kirshner’s call about how he needed a song for the Shirelles by tomorrow morning and then going out to play mah-jongg, and Gerry Goffin doing his day’s work at the chemical plant and meeting up after work with the bowling league and then coming home late to find Carole’s message on the tape recorder along with the rudiments of her melody, somehow—separately, and then by the end of the evening working together—the two managed by 2:00 A.M to produce a song called “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The Shirelles recorded it, with the violin and cello backup that had been added as an afterthought, and it went to number one.
None of this explains how the song was actually written, but as O’Brien notes, “The process by which . . . songs happen remains mysterious even when the circumstances are laid out.” [iv]
At the time, King was only eighteen. Goffin was 21. After she delivered the song to Kirshner at Aldon Music, she drove to Gerry’s workplace in a limousine, got out, and told him to hang up his lab coat. They’d never have to work again. Kirshner had just given her a check for $10,000. [v] The more practical-minded Goffin didn’t actually quit until the record had sold a million copies.[vi]
On the original recording, the suspense of the lyrics’ unanswered question is heightened by the aural drama of the arrangement, the prancing habanera rhythm (da-da-da-DUM-da, da-da-da-DUM-da), the way the music gathers density as different instruments come in: first, piano (played by King), snare drum, bass, guitar, and Owens’s voice, mixed up front. A second, tremolo guitar enters, holding each chord an extra beat, then the rest of the Shirelles singing three-part harmony, and at last the swooping violins and cello. Although the song maintains the same tempo throughout, it feels like it’s accelerating. Owens sings smoothly, with barely any melisma, only what Inside the Hits’s authors call “the heartfelt joy and insecurity of a young girl in love.”[vii] But the “sha, da, dap, shap” of the backup vocal holds a hint of erotic menace. The tension between Owens’ legato and the staccato backup is like the tension between the sinuous reeds and the percussion and castanets in Ravel’s Bolero, a piece of music that used to affect me so powerfully when I was little that I had to run out of the room whenever my parents put it on the stereo, not knowing if I was scared or excited.
The sexual voltage I mentioned will feel pretty low to listeners who’ve had their circuits shorted by Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne, barely enough juice to charge a cell phone with. Even by the late sixties, say, seven years after its release, O’Brien recalls that “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” seemed to him, “at callow moments, like something out of an early Joan Crawford movie, if not a Samuel Richardson novel.”[viii] But remember that Richardson’s heroine dies after being abducted, raped, and disgraced. So tell me now, and I won’t ask again. The words have the fatalism of somebody steeling herself to jump over a cliff at whose bottom lies her ruin. Of course, in 1960, having sex before marriage could ruin a girl, with a finality that the contemporary Christian right can only dream of. That knowledge is what gives the song its real urgency, the urgency of desire poised against the equal and opposite force of fear. Even if you never knew that fear, even if you grew up after the Pill, after escort services advertising in the newspaper, after Madonna, after Christina, after Lil Kim and Britney, after Bob Dole ogling Britney in a TV commercial, you recognize it when it’s real. Will my heart be broken?
In the Shirelles version, the fear is offset by the exhilarated rush of the strings, though just after Owens asks if her heart will be broken, those strings sound like they’re laughing. In 1960, a pop song wasn’t supposed to be a downer (not even “Teen Angel,” a song about a girl run over by a train; she died trying to retrieve her boyfriend’s ring, which means she really loved him). You come away from the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” feeling buoyed, happy, wanting to dance, maybe wanting to fuck. So what if somebody’s heart gets broken?
You may also want to fuck after listening to Amy Winehouse’s cover, titled “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” which she recorded for the soundtrack of the second Bridget Jones movie, Bridget Jones and the Edge of Reason. It’s a bitter pill placed inside a scoop of Miracle Whip, but some aphrodisiacs taste bitter. And it’s not devoid of sweetness. Winehouse’s grainy contralto wouldn’t be as affecting as it is if it didn’t have honey in it, and the horns that come in on the third verse are sweet, too. If the strings on the Scepter recording seem to speed the song up, the horns on the Winehouse version slow it down. In some ways, Winehouse’s cover might be a deliberate inversion of the Shirelles’ original, languid rather than urgent and with a lot of air between the instruments where the original makes a gesture toward Phil Spector’s wall of sound. It’s a song of experience recalling a song of innocence, and calling to it. It’s music to listen to late at night in a night-fog of alcohol, dope, or sex, the sex you just had or the sex you’re dreaming about having, maybe the sex you had years ago, with somebody you once loved. You think about it as you lie on the sofa in the dark, looking up at the ceiling. A while later, your downstairs neighbor starts pounding on his ceiling with a broom, and you get up and turn off the stereo, not in the mood to get aggravated. Then you lie back down.
The central difference between the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and Amy Winehouse’s lies in the respective psychological contexts of the title question. When Owens sings “Will you still love me tomorrow?” she really doesn’t know the answer. Maybe the point of the backup vocal is to embody her indecisiveness, the fact that she is of two minds. When Winehouse sings it, she knows the answer. The answer is no.
Or do I just think she knows? And how much of that is because I first heard the Winehouse cover in the summer of 2011, after the years of overdoses and arrests and trips to rehab, after the tabloid photos of blood-and-mascara-smeared fights with her ornamental twit of a husband, and barely a week after her death from alcohol poisoning at the age of twenty-seven? (The coroner’s report listed her blood alcohol at five times over the legal driving limit.) I can’t say, any more than I can say how much of what I feel about the Shirelles’ version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” comes from knowing that a young couple in Brooklyn wrote it together over an afternoon and night between mah-jongg, bowling, and taking care of their baby, and not long after that became rich. More important is that I heard the song over and over during my childhood, when it helped form my first ideas of what it might mean to be a teenager, even if those ideas were later supplanted by other ideas, embodied in songs like “Satisfaction” and “My Generation.” In those later songs, fear was almost absent, unless it was the fear of not getting what you want. Desire had won.
Apart from recordings of willfully obscure originals (Metallica’s remake of Budgie’s “Crash Course in Brain Surgery” comes to mind), covers are cantilevered things. Part of them seems to hang in mid-air. In reality, it rests on an invisible base of memory. Even as we listen to those songs, we’re also hearing their prototypes, or our memories of those prototypes. To listen to Cat Power sing “Satisfaction” is also to hear Mick Jagger sing it. The White Stripes terror-stricken rendition of “Jolene” calls up the breathless, racing delicacy of Dolly Parton’s original. The memories may be only half-conscious, and they comprise not just the actual music but the circumstances in which we once listened to it, especially the enchanted circumstance of youth. Isn’t that why people listen to oldies stations? “Oldies” used to mean songs of the 1950s but, in obedience to the shifts of its demographic, came to include music from the sixties, seventies and, increasingly, the 1980s, though the preferred term is no longer oldies but “classic hits.” The defining words of “My Generation” are “Hope I die before I get old.”
The memory of music goes down very deep, deeper even than language, maybe even to the very bedrock of personality. Oliver Sacks has observed patients with advanced dementia come alive when they are played songs they knew when they were younger, as in this video of a man in a nursing home reanimated by music from his youth. “A common thing in Alzheimer’s is to lose one’s memory for events and really to lose one’s autobiography, to lose one’s personal memories, and they can’t be accessed directly,” Sacks says.[ix] “But personal memories are to some extent embedded in things like music and especially in songs one knew. . . . So the past which is not recoverable in any other way is sort of embedded as if in amber in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while.” Cover songs do something like this, albeit less dramatically. They connect us with our past. They connect us with our past selves, the selves we outgrew and discarded, the selves we abandoned in shame, the selves we betrayed.
Amy Winehouse’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” touches me partly because I hear in it the echoes of the Shirelles’ version, and the painful resolution of the earlier recording’s tremulous suspense. With her beehive and Nefertiti eye-makeup, Winehouse consciously styled herself after the girl group singers of the 1950s and early sixties. Ronny Spector is supposed to have looked at a picture of her once when she didn’t have her glasses on and mistaken the English singer for her younger self. Winehouse’s cover is a bad girl’s appropriation of a song made famous by good girls (because the Shirelles were good girls, you could tell from the earnestness of Owens’s vocal, and the song was evidence that even good girls wanted sex), but an appropriation without mockery. It’s like the moment in a movie when a gun moll tries on a nice girl’s party dress and wistfully looks at herself in the mirror. Of course she only does this in secret.
It’s just as true that covers retroactively alter our sense of their originals. The only way I can now read the Shirelles’ version is through the dark lens of Winehouse’s. One also has this experience with literature; I can’t read Poe except through Nabokovian lenses, or Faulkner except through Marquezian ones. But music delivers the experience in a way that’s more immediate and primitive and ineluctable. Anybody can put down a book, but nobody can un-hear a song, even if he only half-heard it in the first place, drifting from a transistor radio at the beach. Maybe especially if he half-heard it. “The way the Shirelles and other recording artists of the Brill Building era made their presence known was sheer osmosis,” O’Brien writes. “Their records became part of you before you had even become conscious of their existence as separate songs.”[x]
In this way, the cover song behaves like one of those theoretical particles that are thought to move backward in time, or like a temporal black hole that bores a tunnel from the present into the past. Throw something into that hole—a melody or even the fragment of one, a guitar lick, a drummer attacking the off-beat, the way a singer pauses before hitting a word (say, the way Lou Reed, on a live version of “Femme Fatale,” hesitates before the “tease,” becoming in that instant the woman he’s singing about even as he mocks her and the poor clown who’s dumb enough to fall for her)—and it spurts out decades earlier, as if, when Carole King was humming into a tape recorder in her kitchen (maybe you can hear a baby cooing in the background), a ghost from the future was standing in a corner, eyes ferocious with makeup, watching her. Maybe the ghost mouthed words that hadn’t been written yet. It wasn’t King who would write them, it turns out, but Goffin. Goffin was the lyricist.
Of course, if an emissary from the future made a visitation anywhere, it wasn’t in King’s room but in mine, the one I had as a kid, which had toy guns hanging from a pegboard above the bed and a portable record player on which a few years later I’d play the first album by the Velvet Underground, the first album I ever bought with my own money. Truthfully, I can’t remember the first time I heard “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” or even the first ten times. I may have danced to it once with a girl at summer camp; she probably wasn’t thinking about giving herself to me. What I do remember is almost certainly contaminated by the future. Why else would I be so moved by the song’s innocence? Innocence isn’t moved by itself. Behind Owens’s untrained contralto, I automatically hear Winehouse’s, suppler and more confident, coming from places the other singer hadn’t been. Will you love me tomorrow? I, too, know the answer.
[i] But from the start of her career, Owens seems to have been constitutionally diffident. She recalls that when Florence Greenberg, Scepter’s owner and, as it happened, the mother of a friend at Passaic High, first asked the future Shirelles to audition in her living room, the girls said, “Nah, we don’t want to sign a record contract. We just want to fool around. We all felt so silly singing for our friend’s mother, everybody saying, ‘You start, no, you start.’” Wayne Wadhams, David Nathan, and Susan Gedutis Lindsay, Inside the Hits: The Seduction of a Rock and Roll Generation (Boston: Berklee Press, 2001) 59.
[ii] Wadhams, Nathan, and Lindsay 61.
[iii] Maybe Lykke Li’s rendition is moodier. With its unaccompanied piano (you could take a long drag of a cigarette between each chord) and sepulchral echo, it might be played over the closing credits of a Mario Bava horror movie. But to me, “moody” signifies multiple states of feeling that morph quickly and unpredictably, and Lykke Li sings just one feeling: the necrophilic longing of a living person for one of the dead.
[iv] Geoffrey O’Brien, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Originally published in The New York Review of Books, Dec. 15, 2005. Reprinted in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006: The Year’s Finest Writing on Rock, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Pop, Country & More. Mary Gaitskill and Daphne Carr, eds. (San Francisco: Da Capo, 2007) 127-129.
[v] Rachel Louise Snyder, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” Salon, June 19, 1999. Available at http://www.salon.com/1999/06/19/king_2
[vi] Carole King, A Natural Woman: A Memoir (New York: Hachette, 2012) 97.
[vii] Wadhams, Nathan, and Lindsay 61.
[viii] O’Brien 129.
[ix] “Oliver Sacks. Musicophilia. Alzheimers” (video). Available at the author’s website. http://www.oliversacks.com/videos/assorted-videos/
[x] O’Brien 129.