The Singer Not the Song
By Margaret Moser
JUNE 14, 1999: In 1957, a young fashion model named Gloria Stavers was offered the position of subscription clerk for a teen idol magazine called 16. Suffering from a variety of health problems and anxious to bolt from a nowhere marriage, she swallowed her pride and took the job. In the time-honored tradition of the young and ambitious, Stavers then parlayed the grunt-level position upward; by the end of 1958 she was editor-in-chief of a monthly publication with 250,000 readers. More importantly, what she did with 16 forever altered the female psyche in America. If Stavers wasn't the first female rock & roll journalist, she was certainly the first woman to wield power as such in the music press. Sing it with me, children: G-L-O-R-I-A.
The North Carolina-born Stavers was ill educated for the job of editor/journalist, but she took to it with the chutzpa of a professional. Her radar was acute, sharpened by rubbing elbows with the rich, famous, and beautiful during her modeling days, and then honed on lovestruck teenage girls who were pouring their hearts out to their idols through letters to 16. Her savvy was self-taught when it came to helping create stars, guiding and advising careers. In the world of Gloria Stavers, 16 promised pubescent intimacy and delivered it without fear of moral compromise.
In fact, Stavers' instincts were well-honed enough for her to recognize that most little girls' idol dreams began at the crossroads of Hollywood and vinyl. Through her reign at 16, she fed her young, almost exclusively female readers a steady diet of television, radio, and movie stars through regular features like "40 Intimate Questions" or "Fab Pix." Early 16 readers adored Troy Donahue, Paul Petersen, Paul Anka, Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell -- such clean-sounding young men! Even the girls had bouncy names: Annette! Shelley Faberes! Sandra Dee! Connie Stevens! The magazine was packed full of big black-and-whites pictures ("Kute-n-Kuddly Pix") and later, color pinups of the male stars, advice columns emphasizing character and inner beauty from female stars, glossy interviews, and always the contests: "You Can Be 'Miss 16'!" "Win a Record Hop for Your School!" and "Would You Like to be Friends With Annette?"
There were acts whose careers seemed tailor-made for 16: Fabian, Paul Revere & the Raiders, David Cassidy. There were names that are long forgotten now, but that got loads of ink then: singer Andy Williams' adorable but talent-free twin sons David and Andy; TV stars Sajid Khan and Luke Halpin. Stavers successfully rode out the biggest cultural shifts in music, moving from the scrubbed, homegrown appeal of Fifties idols like Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley to the Beatles and Dave Clark Five and back again with Donny Osmond and Shaun Cassidy. It's fair to say that a small but not insignificant bridge was crossed when Stavers single-handedly offered up the Jackson 5 as heartthrobs for white teen girls across America.
It wasn't all bare-chested teenage boys, however; sometimes there were men. In the Sixties, Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy, Jonathan Frid and David Selby of Dark Shadows, Tom Jones, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s David MacCallum got ink and wild pix. (16 should have been the last place to look for an obit on beat comic Lenny Bruce, but there it was, at the editor's insistence.) Faced with the nearly impossible task of making starlets and girl singers as marketable as teen idol boys, Stavers nonetheless championed the female faces of the times; in the Fifties and Sixties, it was Annette, Connie Francis, Hayley Mills, and Patty Duke. In the Seventies, 16 pushed Susan Dey, Maureen McCormick, La Toya Jackson, Marie Osmond, Farrah Fawcett, and Kristy McNichol to the forefront. In Stavers' world, idolatry was glorious and gender didn't matter as long as it photographed well and the girls responded.
Stavers was no saint, though, terrorizing underassistants from both coasts ("Do I have to do your fucking job for you, man?"). She was known to rage over personal quests, threatening to print Paul Revere's real name if he didn't play a benefit for a dying girl (he was born Paul Revere Dick). Nor was Stavers above dipping her pen in company ink: She slept with a few of the idols between 16's pages, as well as with Mickey Mantle, it is rumored. But Stavers wasn't about wielding pussy power even though she had it. She was about ambition and drive and being the first to get the story right. She preached correct spelling (three Es in Paul Petersen's last name), getting the facts and getting them right, but she knew when to stop pushing. When she quite literally missed the boat for a Rolling Stones party, she effectively blew off the band in the pages of 16, though neither suffered -- proof enough that puppy love wasn't for everyone.
Without being conscious of it, Stavers was a pioneer in rock journalism's infancy. By the mid to late Sixties, writers like Ellen Willis, Karin Berg, and Patricia Kennealy were making names for themselves with their bylines even though it was still a man's world they all worked in. One measure of Stavers' begrudged success was the disgraceful portrayal of her in the hideously flawed 1980 theatrical release The Idolmaker. The film boasted a killer soundtrack but was betrayed by a lousy script, the thinly disguised Stavers character played as a ruthless pop-press prima donna. It should have portrayed her as a woman completely in love with her job and the world she created for adolescent girls.
In 1975, music was changing once again. For Gloria Stavers, it had always been the singer not the song, and disco was faceless. The teen idol heyday was waning, reflected by 16's sales, which had dropped to about 500,000 monthly. Stavers had other things she wanted to write and left 16 over an editorial dispute. She was smart enough to know when to quit; perhaps she sensed that the next wave was not going to translate into teen dreams. If so, she would have been right. The new sound was once again coming from across the Atlantic. The British were about to invade America once again, only this time they were wearing black leather instead of Redcoats or Beatle boots. Punk was about to explode.
But the Little Girls UnderstandThere was one brief and somewhat tarnished moment during my adolescence -- somewhere around 1966-1967 -- in which I couldn't distinguish between the inherent value of the Velvet Underground versus the Monkees or Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention and Paul Revere & the Raiders. That confession is not alarming in view of my age (13 going on 14), but consider the circumstances and suspend revisionism. The late Sixties were the last gasp of true Top 40 radio: At one point in the summer of 1966, for instance, Lee Dorsey's soulful "Working in a Coalmine" was wedged in on the charts with the Sandpipers' sappy "Guantanamera" and ? & the Mysterians' still-vibrant "96 Tears." A similar week in 1967 saw the innocence of the Turtles' "Happy Together" and the sheer exuberance of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels shadowed by the call to arms of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." Those were the days when 16 magazine was selling over one million copies a month to teenage girls just like me.
16 came into my life in the summer of 1966, when I moved to San Antonio. The city seemed very foreign and suburban compared to New Orleans' atmospheric charm and beauty, and I didn't know a soul. I was supremely bored in that sullen manner that identifies adolescence and whiled away the hot days listening to the radio and reading the teen magazines I charged to my parents' account at the neighborhood drugstore. Carnaby Street and anything with the faintest whiff of Limey origin was hot. I devoured every magazine with anything about England and pop music, but 16 was the best. They knew what I wanted: photos and dreams. I wrote an elaborate essay to win a date with the Monkees' Peter Tork, because I imagined him as the perfect boyfriend -- cute, smart, good sense of humor, plays in a band. Dear 16, the essay began. I recently departed my beloved England where my father worked on Harley Street and we have moved to Texas. It is so uncivilized here, but I have found one thing makes life truly bearable -- the Monkees.
I was so saturated in my fantasy world by the time school started, I began eighth grade speaking with a fake English accent, complete with details gleaned from magazines. I had decided I would be more interesting if I were mysterious. Mysterious meant foreign to me and England happened to be The Place. I changed my professor father's previous place of employment from Tulane to Oxford and began spinning the web. What in hell made me think I could get away with this? As it happened, I was one of several students who did this, only to be tripped up by a true Brit. Fortunately, the teachers who were so charmed by our lilting accents and tales of Mod and Merrie England mercifully forgot our continentalism when the accents went the way of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich after the first week.
Nevertheless, if the real world wasn't living up to my standards, I'd bloody well make it conform. Thus, my allowance was funneled into buying singles and issues of 16 and other teen magazines, with which I covered the walls of my bedroom with pictures of my beloved Monkees, Raiders, and Rolling Stones. This was my refuge, my haven, and I stayed there after school and evenings, hidden from the painful reality of a new junior high school in a new city where I felt out of place and rejected. It was here, in this shrine of post-pubescent pathos, that I hid from the bad grades, the miserable days in class, the damning notes from my parents asking to see my teachers, writing essays that were never finished, trying out makeup I wasn't allowed to wear. Unrequited love at school meant public jeers if anyone saw the names I furtively scribbled on book covers. At home, Davy Jones' declaration of love comforted me and hey, Herman wanted me to be his bird! Dear 16, I wrote. If I win the contest to spend the day with Mark Lindsay, I just know he would fall in love with me. My father's yacht is big enough to sleep all of the Raiders.
My paper world crumpled the day I got caught with a slam book. Slam books were a particularly cruel invention in which a notebook containing the names of students was passed around for the purpose of soliciting anonymous comments. Predictably, these could get cruel and taunting, especially for those unfortunates who had to slink past the gaggle of cheerleaders and pack of jocks whose self-appointed purpose was to stand outside the cafeteria during lunch and loudly criticize those who did not meet their standards. The only antidote to being the object of their hoots was if someone geekier walked by and distracted them. As a first-class dork, I hadn't yet learned to turn that rejection into rebellion -- I hadn't quite gotten what the protest and rebel songs were about yet, and I yearned harder for their superficial acceptance. Naturally, I believed a slam book would be the key to my popularity.
Instead, it brought me infamy, as the math teacher collected the slam book from Glenda Goolsby, who promptly rolled over on me and squealed. The teacher turned it over to the principal, who called my parents in for a conference. My parents, in turn, blamed rock & roll and stripped clean the walls of my bedroom. I came home that afternoon filled with dread and found my world gone. The men don't know, but the little girls understand, I'd heard sung in some croaky old blues song. Suddenly it made sense.
"Earth-shattering" is a mild term for the way I felt. Destroyed. Devastated. My parents had invaded the double life I had fancifully created for myself, took my albums and 45s, my stacks of magazines, my radio and record player, my writing, every shred of evidence of my other, imagined but more exciting life. It hardened my little girl's liquid heart in a moment, surrounding it with a hard candy shell. I would never again be so innocent.
"Lies," bellowed my father, waving the slam book with a fierce look and pointing to a magazine essay I had been writing the night before. This one was to win a trip to England. Dear Mod Street, it read. As I recently moved to Texas for my health, my fondest desire is to see London once more. The doctors don't recommend travel, but if I win, I trust Mater could persuade them.
"Lies," hissed Mater, giving me a withering stare.
I wanted to die.
16 ReduxThe infatuation with 16 ended not long after my parents sterilized my room. The next time I got in major trouble, it was for sneaking out of my bedroom window to meet my boyfriend. Now that I was in ninth grade, 16 seemed just a tad too gushy for increasingly discerning tastes more atuned to Jimi Hendrix and Cream than the Monkees and Raiders. The next stop for 16 was David Cassidy, Donny Osmond, and the Jackson 5. I would be off on Laura Nyro, Fairport Convention, and always, the Stones. I kept getting older, 16 stayed the same age.
The punk British invasion of the late Seventies got the same warm welcome from me as the first one, this scene all the more delicious for having lived through the Sixties. 16 magazine had long dropped off my radar, but every punk zine I picked up, from Austin's Sluggo to England's Sniffin' Glue to Seattle's Chatterbox, consciously rejected the mannered rock journalism of Rolling Stone and gleefully emulated the worshipful abandon of 16. After seeing a picture of Leif Garrett taped to the wall of Raul's stage at a Huns show, I rushed out and bought an issue of 16, sending away for T-shirts for a few friends and me. The red-and-white logo, unchanged since my pre-adolescence, announced that 16 magazine keeps me on top of the stars! I wore mine soon after, meeting John Cale at his hotel to do just that.
Gloria Stavers didn't live to see her work acknowledged the way it deserved to be. By the end of the Seventies, she was probably beginning to be affected by the cancer that finally killed her in 1983. She didn't see the Eighties wave of teen idols like Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block, this version of teen dreams molded by MTV, but she would have known instinctively how to present them. She would have known how to keep the mystique of N' Sync and Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys sparkling until they did what all teen idols eventually do -- grow up into adults.
In Who's Your Fave Rave?, the loving but unflinching book about life at 16, former editors Danny Fields and Randi Reisfeld reveal high regard for Gloria Stavers. Dave Marsh gushes in his introduction about her intelligence, her looks, her savvy. But I don't remember her getting that kind of acknowledgment in her lifetime. I remember 16 being sneered at by the music press at large for its unabashed worship of all things young and pretty, for its unconditional embrace and acknowledgment that teenage love is real. It was the anti-standard for rock criticism, but its acceptance of an impressionable readership who simply loved and wanted to be loved made its enthusiastic approach guileless. That understanding existed because of one woman.
Sic transit Gloria Stavers.
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