They sure don’t make girl groups like they used to. Rather, “they” never made girl groups at all, since the original girl groups made themselves. Back in the Sixties, female singers would join forces because they knew each other from church, or attended the same high school, or lived on the same block. Often they were sisters, cousins, or best friends. They coalesced the same way garage bands do: organically, at somebody’s house, without a huge marketing machine behind them. Thus, they were a far cry from their modern, prepackaged counterparts — outfits like Danity Kane, the Pussycat Dolls, or Richgirl — which formed at the behest of some deep-pocketed producer or choreographer. If only we could go back to the old days.
Such is the sentiment of local singer Katie Guthorn, who specializes in the old girl-group style. Guthorn spent 25 years singing with the twelve-piece band Big Bang Beat (formerly Zazu Pitts Memorial Orchestra) and starring in the satirical revue A Karen Carpenter Christmas, which made fun of classic Yuletide TV specials. Last year, she and Aurora Theatre artistic director Tom Ross came up with the idea of manufacturing their own gal-pal pop trio to sing all the greatest hits. Guthorn shanghaied her longtime friends Darby Gould (of Jefferson Starship the Next Generation) and Star Search chanteuse Carol Bozzio Littleton, and the Coverlettes were born. They made up a fake backstory about being three sisters from “the bad side of Vermont” — i.e., the side that borders New Hampshire — donned matching beehive wigs and spike heels, and took the stage at Aurora last December. The show was a hit.
The Coverlettes are, in essence, a postmodern experiment. They’re a fictitious group that pretends to be realer — i.e., from humbler beginnings — than the real fake groups. As such, they’re pretty believable. Guthorn arranges all the vocal parts, transposing from song charts or listening to old Phil Spector tracks and boiling down the original twelve-part harmonies. (Most of those Sixties records featured twelve singers in a room with several horns and a rhythm section to create Spector’s signature “wall of sound.”) The Coverlettes’ version is a lot leaner, setting three vocalists against a piano-bass-drum trio led by Randy Craig. But the look is totally authentic. All three Coverlettes are about five-foot-seven, but measure well over six feet with their stilettos and six-inch hairdos. “We looked like drag queens,” said Guthorn, recalling the original photo shoot. This year’s show features 35 songs (some sampled, some in verse-chorus form), three costume changes, and a narrative that starts off one year into the group’s career. Guthorn said she’s charmed by the Coverlettes’ girl-group genuineness (however contrived). “I always liked these songs, and the girlfriend quality of those groups,” she said. “They had a whole history before they made records.” The Coverlettes Cover Christmas runs through December 27 at Aurora Theatre (2081 Addison St., Berkeley). $25-$28. AuroraTheatre.org