It wasn’t exactly a feminist anthem. And “Johnny” was definitely a “he,” not a “she.” But over the decades, Lesley Gore, once a 16-year-old recording artist who wailed about a breakup in the overnight hit single “It’s My Party,” became a feminist, an open lesbian and an independent thinker.
She grew up in a time when differences weren’t readily accepted — though, once she found herself, she said she was never willing to hide.
“I just kind of lived my life naturally and did what I wanted to do,” she told the entertainment site After Ellen when she came out in 2005. “I didn’t avoid anything, I didn’t put it in anybody’s face. Times were very different then, so, you know, I just tried to live as normally as humanly possible. But as truthfully as humanly possible.”
Gore, who was most famous for “It’s My Party” — followed by its sequel, “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” and her anthem “You Don’t Own Me” — died on Monday from lung cancer. The 68-year-old was reportedly a nonsmoker.
“She was a wonderful human being — caring, giving, a great feminist, great woman, great human being, great humanitarian,” Lois Sasson, her partner for 33 years, told the Associated Press.
Born Lesley Goldstein, Gore was a 16-year-old student with a smoky voice when she first caught the attention of uber-producer Quincy Jones. In 1963, he helped her record her first hit “It’s My Party,” which embodied teenage angst and, nearly overnight, climbed to the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. In the next two years, she recorded other hits such as “She’s A Fool,” “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” which Marvin Hamlisch co-wrote, “That’s the Way Boys Are” and “Maybe I Know.” Sometimes naively — or maybe knowingly, as in the lesser-known 1964 song “Sometimes I Wish I Were a Boy” — many of her compositions took on gender.
Among them was a much bolder statement: “You Don’t Own Me,” a song that would become a common thread throughout her life.
You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys
You don’t own me, don’t say I can’t go with other boys
And don’t tell me what to do
And don’t tell me what to say
So just let me be myself
That’s all I ask of you
I’m young and I love to be young
I’m free and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please
“As I got older, 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,” Gore told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2010. “I don’t care what are you are — whether you’re 16 or 116 — there’s nothing more wonderful than standing on the stage and shaking your finger and singing, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.'”
It seemed the song had become her personal mantra.
Unlike many other artists her age, the Brooklyn-born, New Jersey-raised singing sensation rejected a life on tour for a college education. When she turned 18, she decided to major in English and American literature at Sarah Lawrence College.
“The record company wasn’t thrilled, my agent wasn’t thrilled — but I sensed very early just how fickle this business is,” she told the Sacramento Bee. “I had a good brain in my head and I saw it was an opportunity to cloister myself.”
“It would have been very foolish of me to leave school to go into such an unpredictable field on a full-time basis,” she said at the time, according to the New York Times.
Gore kept her name alive by appearing on musical variety shows such as “Hullabaloo,” “Shindig!” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
While in college in 1967, she released her last top 20 hit called “California Nights.” She graduated the following year — a time when music started moving from girl-pop to psychedelic rock. Her music career began to suffer and she turned to performing in television, movies and on the stage.
“She was a serious artist that was way ahead of her time,” Ronnie Spector, leader of 1960s girl-group superstars the Ronettes, said in a statement, according to the AP. “She had a certain sound. But you want to be able to do new things too, and it can be hard on an artist that is so identified with a specific sound. Although she wasn’t in a girl group, Lesley was definitely a huge part of that era. But she continued to be creative, and kept looking ahead, and that’s how I will remember her.”
Gore played the Pink Pussycat in the 1960s TV series “Batman.” She booked small gigs. She wrote songs that never caught on. Then in 1980, she and her brother, Michael, co-wrote the Oscar-nominated single “Out Here On My Own” from the film “Fame.”
But she was more than a singer and songwriter.
In 2005, Gore spoke publicly for the first time about her sexuality when she hosted several episodes for a PBS series called “In the Life,” a news magazine that highlighted gay and lesbian issues. She talked about her partner, Sasson.
“I decided to host a couple of the ‘In the Life’ programs,” she told the New York Times in 2005. “And I did that really as a result of meeting a lot of young gay people in the Midwest who really had nothing to relate to. At least I felt this program is presenting them with some options.”
“I saw what a difference a show like ‘In the Life’ can make to their lives in some of these small towns where, you know, there are probably two gay people in the whole damn town,” she added in an interview with After Ellen. “It’s made real inroads for them. They come and talk to me about this stuff, so I know how important it is.”
That same year, Gore returned to the studio to lay down her comeback album, “Ever Since,” re-recording the song that perhaps started it all, “You Don’t Own Me.” But, this time, “it feels more like part of a conversation than a declaration of independence,” the New York Times said at the time.
“When I heard that song at the age of 17, it felt like a humanist song to me,” she told the newspaper. “I could see a guy singing that to a young woman as easily as I could see a young woman singing it to her boyfriend or father.”
Record executive Blake Morgan helped her produce her new album.
“She was a broad, she had moxy, she was tough,” he said, according to NPR. “She had all of that. And she had a strength. … There was something incredibly compelling about just who she was, on or off the record.”
“I have to say that when I first started singing, I didn’t think it was a very noble profession,” she told the New York Times in 2005. “I worked for people like Robert Kennedy and I thought: ‘Wow, that’s what it’s about. That’s how you change the world.’ And then I watched that disintegrate in front of my eyes, and it was very discouraging.
“But I have found over 43 years that I really rather love what I do. And it really does keep me in touch with people, in a way that a lot of people don’t get a chance to be in touch with people. So I have a newfound love and respect for my career.”