Monday, September 21, 2020

The Life and Times of Lesley Gore

"With songs like "It's My Party," "Judy's Turn to Cry" and the indelibly definant single "You Don't Own Me," all recorded before she was 18 - Ms. Gore made herself the voice of teenage girls aggrieved by fickle boyfriends moving quickly from tearful self-pity to fierce self-assertion."

- John Parles, New York Times obituary, February 16, 2015

When Lesley Gore passed away in 2015, the headline on her New York Times obituary called her "the Voice of Teenage Heartache."  Lesley's music struck a chord with teenage girls of the early 1960s.  They identified with the lyrics of her songs because she expressed their .adolescent angst.

Lesley Gore was born Lesley Sue Goldstein on May 2, 1946 in Brooklyn, New York, to a middle-class Jewish family.  She was the daughter of Leo Goldstein and Ronny Gore.  Her father, Leo, owned the Peter Pan swimsuit and underwear manufacturing company. He later became a prominent brand licencing agent in the clothing industry.  Soon after Lesley's birth, the family changed their surname to "Gore," her mother's birth name.  

 Lesley grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey, wanting to become a singer.  As a child, she sang the latest hit songs in front of her bedroom mirror.  When Lesley was still  a junior at the Dwight School for Girls, an independent preparatory school  in Englewood, New Jersey, her vocal coach recorded a demo featuring Lesley's piano and voice recordings.  Those domos reached jazz composer and record producer Quincy Jones, who worked at Mercury Records.  When he received the tape, he was impressed.

Jones became Lesley's mentor and her friend.  He recognized 'her potential for stardom and produced her March 30, 1963 recording of "It's My Party." "He released the record within a week when he learned that the Crystals were also recording the same song.   It's My Party" was a smash hit and 15-year-old Lesley, still a high school junior, had herself a number one single in the United States.  It sold over a million copies and was certified as a gold record.  Mercury Records wasted no time in signing the teenager to a five-year contract, which was renewed in 1968.  

"It's My Party" was the first of a string of other hits for Lesley, including its sequel, "Judy's Turn to Cry," "She a Fool," "You Don't Own Me," "That's the Way Boys Are," "Maybe I Know," "Look of Love," and "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows."  In November of  1963, Lesley's second studio album, Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed Up Hearts was released.  It did not sell as well as her debut album, It's My Party, although it featured "She's a Fool," "You Don't Own Me" and an early version of "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows."

"Lesley recorded "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," a Marvin Hamlisch composition, in May of 1963.  Although originally released for Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed-Up Hearts, it wasn't released as a single until later, to coincide with Lesley's performance of the song in the 1965 film Ski Party.

On October 13th, 1963, Lesley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, where she performed "It's My Party" and "She's a Fool."  Also featured on the Sullivan show that night were Tony Bennett, Frank Gorshin and Bob &Ray.

In 1964, Lesley sang "Judy's Turn To Cry" live on the musical variety show Shindig, hosted by Jimmy O'Neill.  She appeared on Shidig again on April 7, 1965 and sang "The Look of Love," "Gee Baby I'm Sorry," and "All of my Life."  Other guests on that same show included Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers and Martha and the Vandellas.

In 1965, Lesley performed "It's My Party" on Hollywood A Go-Go, a Los Angeles-based music variety show that ran in syndication in the mid-1960s.  The show was hosted by Sam Riddle, with music by The Simmers and dancing by the Gazzarri Dancers. 

 In 1964. Lesley came out with a feminist anthem  "You Don't Own Me." eight years before Helen Reddy released "I Am Woman."  In 1971, Helen sang "I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore  . . . "  In 1964, Lesley sang "You don't own me, I'm not just one of your little toys . . . And don't tell me what to do, don't tell me what to say . . . "

"You Don't Own Me," written by John Madara and David White, was a change of direction for Lesley Gore.  It presented a more confident, independent side of the pop star.  She was moving beyond her image as a voice for teenage girls with boyfriend problems.  In 2010, Lesley told The Minneapolis Star-Tribune that when she first heard "You Don't Own Me." she "thought it had an important humanist quality."  "As I got older," she continued, "feminism became more a part of my life and more a part of our whole awareness, and I could see why people would use it as a feminist anthem.  I don't care what age you are, whether you're 16 or 116, you should be shaking your finger and singing, 'Don't tell me what to do.'"

Lesley Gore graduated with honours from Dwight School in June of 1964, and continued making singing appearances after high school   At the height of her career, however, Lesley turned down a Broadway play and a television series in order to further her education.  She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, where she studied British and American English literature.  She chose to do so because she thought it would be "very foolish of me to leave school to go into such an unpredictable field on a full-time basis."  

While attending college. Lesley Gore did not stop performing entirely.  She gave some concerts on weekends or holidays.  She also guested on television occasionally.  She appeared in the 1965 beach party film The Girls on the Beach in which she sang three songs: "Leave Me Alone," "It's Gotta Be You," and "I Don't Want to Be a Loser."  In 1966, Lesley made her acting debut  in the final episode of TV's The Donna Reed Show in which she performed "It's My Party" and "We Know We're in Love"  The episode, entitled "By-line -- Jeff Stone." (Season 8, Episode 27, Air Date: March 19, 1966), is about Jeff Stone's  (Paul Peterson) attempt to have a song he's written performed by someone big in the music business.  That's where Lesley Gore, playing herself, came into the picture.

Lesley appeared in two consecutive 1967 episodes of Batman, the television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  She guest-starred as Pussycat, a henchwoman of the villainous Catwoman, played by Julie Newmar.  The first of the two episodes is entitled "That Darn Catwoman" (Season 2, Episode 40, Air Date: January 19, 1967) and the second one is entitled "Scat! Darn Catwoman" (Season 2, Episode 41, Air Date: January 25, 1967).  In the January 19th episode, Lesley lip-synched to the Bob Crew-produced tune "California Nights," another Marvin Hamlisch composition.  "  In the January 25th episode, she lip-synched to "Maybe Now."

Lesley Gore on Batman, 1967

Lesley with Burt Ward as Robin on Batman

Lesley graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1968 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature.  That same year, she became politically active by supporting Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.  For most of her life, Lesley was a advocate for progressive causes such as the abolition of the death penalty and the advancement of rights for women and gays.

Lesley's music of the early 1960s went out of fashion during the latter part of hat decade.  However, she kept working in movies, on television, and in theatres and clubs.  After her contract with  Mercury Records ended,, she began writing her own music, which she hadn't done earlier.  Lesley was changing and maturing, and the material that  publisher were sending her was too similar to her early hits of the 1960s.

In 1970, Lesley relocated to California.  She also signed with Crewe Records, reconnecting  with Bob Crewe, who had produced her 1967 album California Nights.  From 1970 to 1971, Crewe released four singles with Lesley, including a duet with Oliver.  Unfortunately, however, Crew experienced financial difficulties and went bankrupt.

 In September of 1972, Motown Records  released Lesley's album Someplace Else Now  The album contained songs that Lesley wrote herself  or with lyricist Ellen Weston, an actress who starred in television series S.W.A.T..  Lesley and Ellen collaborated on over 60 songs together over time.

Lesley worked with Quincy Jones again for a 1975 album called Love Me by Name, which contained her own compositions and included guest performers such as Herbie Hancock.  Neither album had much impact. 

In 1979, Lesley left California and returned to New York City, where she continued to perform her oldies.  She also appeared in musical theatre, including a Broadway production of the hit musical revue, Smokey Joe's Cafe.  In 1982, Lesley's album, The Canvas Can Do Miracles was released.  It was an album of various pop hits of the 1970s.  

Lesley co-wrote a song entitled "My Secret Love" for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart.  The film has a subplot about a young singer named Kelly Porter (played by Bridget Fonda), who is a closet lesbian.  The character is partly based on Lesley herself.

In 2004, Lesley Gore began hosting the PBS television series In the Life, which dealt with LGBT issues.  The following year, in an interview with the cultural website AfterEllen (, Lesley told Ellen DeGeneres that she was a lesbian and that she had been in a relationship with high-end jewellery designer Lois Sasson since 1982.  She stated that she had been aware of her sexual orientation since the age of 20.  She described the music business as "totally homophobic," but said she never had to pretend to be straight.  "I just kind of lived my life naturally," she declared.  "I didn't avoid anything.  I didn't put it in anybody's face."

Lesley's 2005 album, Ever Since, her first album of new material since 1975's Love Me by Name.  It contained cabaret-style songs and a remake of "You Don't Own Me."  On July 30, 2011, Lesley was a headliner at the "She's Got The Power! A Girl Group Extravaganza," an outdoor concert at Damrosch Bandshell, Lincoln Center, New York.  The concert was advertised as "a celebration of the Girl Group sound and the women behind the unforgettable hits."

On February 15, 2015, Lesley Gore died of lung cancer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.  The next day, her partner, Lois Sasson, confirmed the 68-year-old's passing.  Lois told Closer Weekly that "it came pretty fast."  She stated that in January, Lesley "had a pain in her back - she went for an MRI and we found this horrible tumor on her spine."  Prior to her illness, Lesley  had been writing a memoir and a Broadway play based on her life as a teenage singing star.


Lesley younger brother, Michael Gore, was born March 5, 1951 in Brooklyn, New York.  He and Lesley composed the ballad "Out Here on My Own" for the soundtrack of the 1980 film Fame.  Michael composed and produced 'On My Own," while Lesley provided the lyrics. "Out Here on My Own" received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song in 1981.  As it turned out, Michael and lyricist Dean Pitchford won the Oscar for Best Original Song for Fame's theme song.

As of this writing, Michael Gore is 69 years old.  Besides his work on the musical film Fame, Michael also composed the theme and score for the 1983 hit movie Terms of Endearment, starring Shirley MacLaine and Debra winger.  

Michael Gore

* Lesley performed in the October 1964 all-star concert show, the T.A.M.I. Show, which featured a number of rock and roll and R&B musicians from the United States and Britain. The concert was held at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.  It was later shown in  theatres across the United States.

* Despite being a famous pop star in the 1960s, Lesley Gore was not a wealthy woman when she died.  Manhattan court files reveal that she left $50,000 to Lois Sasson, her longtime partner.  In her five-page will, filed in 2012, she bequeathed her entire estate to Sasson.  If Sasson predeceased her,. the inheritance would go to her brother, Michael.  At the time of Lesley's death, her mother, Ronny Gore, was her only other survivor.

 Of the size of Leley's estate, Lois Sasson told The Post, "She didn't understand money, she didn't understand business, but she was a great artist and a magnificent human being."  Sasson went on to say that Lesley "was a big star star in the 1960s and they didn't give you royalties."

Lesley Gore in later years

SOURCES: The New York Times; "Lesley Gore, Teenage Voice of Heartache, Dies at 68," by John Parles, February 16, 2015; Alma, (, "Lesley Gore: The Jewish Feminist Lesbian Pop Star Ahead of Her Time," by Amy Salitsky, November 13, 2016; Page Six, "Lesley Gore leaves meager $50K estate to longtime partner," by Julia Marsh, April 1, 2015; Closer Weekly exclusive, "Lesley Gore's Partner Reveals New Details About the Singers Sudden Passing," February 24, 2015;  "Lesley Gore International Fan Club Biography 2015; Wikipedia; Internet Movie Database (MDb)

- Joanne