October 23, 1940– Ellie Greenwich:
“There were very few women who played piano, wrote songs and could go into a studio, work those controls and produce a session. I wasn’t your typical after-singer, as we called them, who could go in and read that piece of music on the stand, do 17 songs in three hours, boom-boom-boom. It was a whole different thing. I’d go in, think of the background parts, and put them down myself. I learned about overdubbing. Back then they’d call me the Demo Queen. Many different publishers would hire me to record demos of other writers’ songs.”
I have enjoyed a longtime fascination with the inner-workings in the heyday of the life at the Brill Building and the advancement of the American Popular Song as an art form.
If you don’t know, The Brill Building is an office building located at Broadway and 49th Street on the island of Manhattan. It is famous for housing music industry offices and studios where some of the most popular American tunes were written.
In the 1960s, the Brill Building contained 165 music industry businesses. A working musician could find a publisher, printer, cut a demo, promote the record and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within the same building. The creative culture of the independent music companies at the Brill Building gave birth to the influential “Brill Building Sound”, a style of popular music, songwriting and recording created by its talented artists and producers. Those songwriters included: the teams of, get ready for it: Burt Bacharach / Hal David, Gerry Goffin / Carole King, Jerry Leiber / Mike Stoller, Barry Mann / Cynthia Weil; plus Neil Diamond, Laura Nyro, Neil Sedaka, Paul Simon, and Phil Spector. All under the same roof!
“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours.”
Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time includes six tunes by Greenwich and her husband/writing partner Jeff Barry, more than by any other songwriting team. They had 17 singles on the Pop Music Charts in 1964, surpassed only by Lennon/McCartney. Oh, how I love these tunes.
In 1962, songwriter Jerry Leiber discovered Greenwich when she was just 21 years old, singing at a piano in the Brill Building. He thought that she sounded alot like Carole King, but looked like Judy Holliday. She was wearing a blazer over a prim blouse with a Peter Pan collar, with her hair teased into a platinum helmet. Very Mad Men.
Her first success was the dance song Hanky Panky, which did well for Tommy James and The Shondells. It topped the American pop charts.
Although 1964 was the year The Beatles conquered America, it was also the height of the Greenwich-Barry hit factory. The Dixie Cups had a Number One hit with her Chapel Of Love, and Greenwich had her own first Number One with Do Wah Diddy, which also a huge hit for Manfred Mann. She soon followed with Da Doo Ron Ron (written and recorded in a single day).
Greenwich said that both Da Doo Ron Ron and Do Wah Diddy were rooted in the tradition of the nursery rhyme: Greenwich:
“Everybody of every age can sing them because they are so easy to remember.”
Greenwich was born in Brooklyn. At 14 she formed her own group, The Jivettes, singing at schools and hospitals. Still in her teens, she started writing her own songs. Rejected by the Manhattan School of Music because it did not accept accordion students, Greenwich studied piano at Queens College.
She found a place at the Brill Building working with the songwriting partnership of Leiber and Stoller, selling her songs for $25 apiece.
In the enjoyable, highly readable Always Magic In The Air: The Brilliance Of The Brill Building Era (2006) by Ken Emerson, there is an anecdote where Greenwich played some of her songs to the legendary producer and professional crazy person Phil Spector, who seemed more interested in his own reflection in a mirror than in the young songwriter. Greenwich said:
“Listen to me, you little prick, did you come to look at yourself or to hear my songs?”
In 1963, after Spector had recorded her brand new doo-wop song Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts? for The Blue Jeans, Greenwich, hearing her work on the radio for the first time, was so thrilled that she crashed her car into a toll booth.
And Then He Kissed Me and Da Doo Ron Ron were both recorded by The Crystals, with Spector as producer. Then came Be My Baby, a huge hit for The Ronettes, reaching Number Two on the charts.
Spector’s collaborations with Greenwich/Barry were already waning by 1965. A week-long session between them produced only three songs, but one of those songs was a little ditty called River Deep/Mountain High, recorded by Ike and Tina Turner in February 1966, which, perhaps more than any other Spector production, defined his famous Spector “Wall of Sound”.
Greenwich recorded one of her own songs, You Don’t Know, and there was talk of publicizing her as the “American Dusty Springfield” and giving her a tour in Britain. But the record flopped, and the idea was dropped. In 1965, Barry and Greenwich recorded their own song, Our Love Can Still Be Saved, which won decent airplay. The song says it all; Greenwich divorced Barry in 1965.
Although the Greenwich/Barry duo stopped writing tunes together after their marriage, the pair continued to have success as the producers of early Neil Diamond‘s hits. Greenwich had discovered Diamond and persuaded Leiber and Stoller to give him a songwriting contract. With Diamond and Barry, she formed a company to publish and promote Diamond’s songs. She produced, engineered and sang backup on most of Diamond’s first decade of recordings.
In the late 1960s, Greenwich again tried again to launch a solo singing career, but she suffered a nervous breakdown. She turned to writing and singing commercials and jingles. She still provided back-up vocals and arrangements for diverse artists such as: Dusty Springfield, Bobby Darin, Lou Christie, Frank Sinatra, Electric Light Orchestra, Blondie, and CyndiLauper.
She should have had a career like Carole King, but it never happened for Greenwich. Working in showbiz can really kill your spirit.
A Broadway revue of her music, Leader Of The Pack (1984), starring Darlene Love, who recorded many of Greenwich’s hits under various names, played for a year to mixed reviews, but has become a reliable choice for high school productions.
Greenwich took her final bow in the summer of 2009. I really love her and when I heard the news, I shed a tear and then played her hits all afternoon, especially loving Bette Midler‘s cover versions. Midler has always been a big fan of Greenwich.
Greenwich was a member of the American Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. She virtually defined the dominant girl-group sound of the era. Besides the hits mentioned, this is the legacy that she left us with: The Letter, Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home), Leader Of The Pack, What A Guy, I Can Hear Music, Baby Be Mine, A Girl Like That, Chapel Of Love, Don’t Stop My Heart, I Wonder, Take Me Home Tonight, Going To The Chapel, plus dozens of other hits and countless jingles and commercials.
Her New York Times obituary claimed that Leader Of The Pack is her most famous song. I am not sure about that, but I think that Be My Baby is the greatest single of all time to not get to Number One on the Billboard charts.
In 2000, Greenwich wrote:
“… and you know what’s happened to me… back then I was just doing what I was doing. I was young, it was exciting, and I cried when I heard my songs on the radio. But I don’t think it was until many years later—when I see how the songs have lived on—that I really understood. When I hear ‘Be My Baby’ now, I get goose bumps. I really do.”