Bobby's One Hit Wonders, Volume 34: Girls Next Door - Slow Boat To China

With the latest installment of our bi-weekly series, Bobby looks at the curious case of 80s band Girls Next Door, who recorded multiple albums yet only scored one Top 10 hit, "Slow Boat To China" Continue on here to read about the band's history and to hear "Slow Boat To China."

If groups with long-term success in country music are a rarity, then all-female groups with long-term success are far further up the scale. Even some of the most iconic all-female groups of the genre — the Dixie Chicks, the Judds, etc. — did not have particularly long-lived careers, though their impact was unmistakable. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that no other girl groups even existed in country music (and one would get a reprimand from me for overlooking SHeDAISY), but the rarity of that particular subgenre can make such oversight understandable. However, there was at least one girl group out there to shake things up: the Girls Next Door.

In 1984, Mary Tyler Moore — yes, that Mary Tyler Moore — founded the record label MTM Records, whose main specialty was country music. Among its first signed acts was Girls Next Door. The group had been assembled in 1982 through the suggestion of record producer Tommy West, who suggested that an obscure backing vocalist named Doris King start a group. Chosen to round out the ranks were alto Cindy Nixon, and sopranos Diane Williams and Tammy Stephens. Through the next several years, the wheels got turning, and the Girls honed their craft on the road (in addition to rejecting their working name of Belle, which had already been taken by another act) before that first single came out.

Their debut single was a fairly strong one. "Love Will Get You Through Times of No Money," despite its obvious and unwieldy hook ("…better than money will get you through times of no love"), told a story that has been done before but always seems to work: "we're poor, but we've got each other." It had a respectable showing of #14 on the country charts. After it came the Girls' only Top 10 hit, the #8 "Slow Boat to China." With a shiny production and a clever lyric about a breakup — "You told me, take a slow boat to China / Well I did, baby, nothing could be finer / I'll take a slow boat to anywhere away from you" — "Slow Boat" had all the makings of a hit. 

Now, if the concept of a four-woman vocal group in country music seems familiar, that should be no surprise — the Forester Sisters followed that exact template. And their "Mama's Never Seen Those Eyes" hit #1 on June 21, 1986. Other all-female acts found on the charts in mid-1986 included The Judds, whose "Rockin' with the Rhythm of the Rain" (#1 on August 9) is indicative of their trademark fiery uptempos anchored in Wynonna's sturdy contralto. Not that solo female competition was lacking, either. On the September 6 chart, the week that "Slow Boat" reached its peak, the Girls were right above pop singer (and future "Bobby's One Hit Wonders" candidate) Nicolette Larson's duet with Steve Wariner on "That's How You Know When Love's Right" and Janie Fricke's "Always Have, Always Will," while a few spaces higher at #4 was Reba McEntire's "Little Rock," which would ascend to #1 the very next week. Also that next week, the Girls fell from the Top 10 while the Foresters ascended to #7 with "Lonely Alone," which would go on to #2.

And while the comparison to Christy, June, Kathy, and Kim Forester (who debuted a full year prior) were unmistakable, I feel that the Girls set themselves apart. The Forester Sisters' song choices were comparatively more country-sounding (it helped that they were produced by J.L. Wallace and Terry Skinner, formerly of the short-lived Muscle Shoals group Bama), their voices were lower, slightly huskier, and less expressive. By comparison, the Girls' voices were high and sweet, but balanced by enough Wynonna-esque sass and force to prevent sugar shock.

The Girls Next Door's next two chart entries were "Baby I Want It," which I could not find a recording of, and "Walk Me in the Rain." A sax-drenched love ballad with a spoken interlude, it was a more downbeat approach than their first two hits, but it still sounded every bit as pretty with their sturdy harmonies. Still, it was a fitting closer to the album, and successful enough to give some momentum for the second disc.

"What a Girl Next Door Could Do," the title track of that second album, was a good choice. With its guitar and Dobro fills, and one of the strongest bass lines I've ever heard in a country song, it boasted even more energy and spunk than their first few singles. However, it inexplicably petered out at #43, and "Easy to Find" went nowhere. Closing off their MTM career was "Love and Other Fairy Tales," which never appeared on a full album due to MTM abruptly closing in 1988 — blunting albums by Becky Hobbs and Judy Rodman in the process. (In fact, I would say MTM's former staff fared the best out of the closure, as both Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill formerly worked for MTM.) "Love and Other Fairy Tales" had a little less of the pop gloss of their previous releases, no doubt hinting at the shift back to neo-traditional country that the genre was undergoing at the time (outside the use of a harpsichord, at least), but the lighter production still fit the Girls like a glove. 

The Girls weren't without a record deal long, as they transferred to Atlantic by 1989. The change in labels also swapped out Tommy West in favor of Nelson Larkin. Leading off their only Atlantic album was "He's Gotta Have Me," which continued in the same, slightly more stripped-down sound of "Love and Other Fairy Tales." Finishing off this album was perhaps the only dud of their singles, a cover of obscure R&B group Champaign's 1981 ballad "How 'Bout Us" that lacked the original's silky-smooth, sultry charm, instead drowning the song in keyboards. (Larkin must've had a thing for ruining 80's songs, as he was also responsible for Robin Lee's weak cover of Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet.") Afterward, the Girls Next Door were no more. A May 2011 entry in the Ada Evening News (Oklahoma) mentioned that the Girls took time off in the 90s to raise their families, and that they performed one reunion concert in 2011, but so far, no other sources have arisen to prove that this was anything more than a one-off.

The Girls Next Door are certainly an act who deserved better. Although their main "hook" — four women singing together — had already been claimed by the Forester Sisters, the Girls' sound had enough variations to make them not sound like Forester wannabes. However, the fact that they were not on a major label may have doomed them out of the gate; MTM seemed to have very little follow-through in any of the acts that they did break through, and the abrupt closure left nearly their entire roster floundering in the process. (I've also noticed that most of the MTM acts did not chart in Canada for some reason.) Their sole album for Atlantic wasn't quite as strong, and it was probably doomed from the start due to Atlantic's inexperience in the field of country music, as it wasn't until 1991-92 that they began to prove themselves with the likes of Tracy Lawrence, Neal McCoy, Confederate Railroad, and John Michael Montgomery. Still, the Girls did stick around long enough to get to three albums, which is more than most one-hit wonders can claim, so it's clear that they at least had something going for them besides being four attractive women — namely, strong singing voices and song choices.