The fifties and sixties had some incredibly weird musical conventions and subgenres. One of the more perplexing ones comes out of the girl group phenomenon and can be summed up thus: “My boyfriend is an a-hole, but he treats me okay, so I’m good with him being an a-hole.” We see this theme pop up to greater or lesser degree in “He’s A Rebel”, “My Boyfriend’s Back”, and “Leader of the Pack” which is actually a two-for-one in also being part of the “My boyfriend/girlfriend dies in a horrific way before the song ends” movement. Yet the song that I have been hearing more of, inexplicably of late, is “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby)” by The Cookies.
The song, when heard with today’s ears, sounds willfully ignorant. The first run in the tune concludes with the line, “‘Cause he is good, he’s good to me…that’s all I care about.” That’s a taste of the mindset of the protagonist, a sort of blind love because the guy hasn’t hit her (yet), but he definitely is a known bad-ass. The protagonist herself might be a bit of a bad-ass too, judging by the second run where she sings, “He’s true, he’s true to me; girl, you better shut your mouth.”
The symbol of the “bad boy” as personified by Marlon Brando in The Wild One or James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause are clear inspirations. No question that the disenchanted tough guy/bad boy has always been the focal point of a young girl’s affections. She thinks, “He’ll beat a man to death in my honor” and, at the same time thinks, “My love will tame him.” This dichotomy has been around a very long time, so that isn’t really what makes these songs — and this song in particular — so strange.
It is the vocal delivery. That perfectly bland, passionless singing that is actually kind of chilling. The truth is likely more that the musical arrangement had already been worked out, and the lyrics were dropped in the laps of the singers less than an hour before. The delivery doesn’t speak to, “If you mess with my man, or imply he is anything less than what my idealization suggests, I will beat the snot out of you.” Instead, it is so blase and casual one thinks, “These girls beat the snot out of people as a regular matter of course. Defending the boyfriend is just an excuse.” Don’t blame The Cookies because this is probably only a third or fourth take on a track they just learned. Obviously they’re going to sound dispassionate, but because of the tension being expressed in the words mixed with the lack of tension in how the words are being sung, something is just seriously off with the combination.
It doesn’t have a patch on today’s “I will cut you, bitch” ethos, but I have to think that in its day, people would have at least done a double-take on that “you better shut your mouth” expression.
“Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby)” went to #3 on the U.S R&B chart, and #7 on the U.S. Pop chart in 1963. That was pretty much the highlight of The Cookies’ direct-spotlight career, but they cannot be considered “one hit wonders” by any stretch. A previous iteration of the group was a primary backing unit for Atlantic Records, and members of The Cookies were a part of The Raylettes, who backed up Ray Charles. And whether or not you know of “Don’t Say Nothin’ (Bad About My Baby)” or of The Cookies themselves, you have heard them before, and probably a lot. Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”, “The Dreamer” and “Bad Girl” all were backed by The Cookies prior to their breakout single. Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” as well.
Yet it is that vaguely threatening, yet bloodless, “you better shut your mouth” that will be what The Cookies will be mainly associated with.