An oral history of the Brill Building. The most fun set of interviews I’ve ever conducted. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”) are authentic hepcats, exuding tons more cool than people a third of their age. I arrived at Leiber’s house in Venice, CA, to find Stoller in the kitchen, preparing pastrami sandwiches for their lunch: a lovely glimpse of their unbroken partnership. Deli sandwiches, as you’ll see below, were a big part of Brill Building culture.
I supplemented my own interviews with those conducted by a brilliant young documentary filmmaker named Morgan Neville, who, at the same time I was preparing this article, was filming a series of Brill mini-docs for A&E’s Biography program. Morgan generously gave me his transcripts, which included interviews with a few people (such as Little Eva and the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss) who I didn’t get to.
The early 1960s exuded bigness and tidiness. Bigness of outlook, of ambition, of Impala tail fins, of turbine beehives atop ladies’ heads. Tidiness of sensibility and appearance: the decade hadn’t yet gone all pubic and patchouli-scented, and a hat-wearing populace still thronged the city streets. The Brill Building sound, as heard in such songs as “On Broadway,” “Up on the Roof,” “Be My Baby,” and “This Magic Moment,” was the sound of bigness and tidiness, of exuberance underpinned by professionalism—the fulcrum between the shiny craftsmanship of Tin Pan Alley and the primal energy of 60s soul and rock. It represented the last great era of assembly-line-manufactured pop—before the success of the Beatles and Bob Dylan lent a stigma to not writing your own material, and before prefab pop’s current comeback as joyless song-product written and produced by reclusive Swedes for Orlando-farmed hunks and totsies.
The amazing thing about the Brill Building milieu was that its songs, which week in and week out dominated America’s Top 10, were by and large written by a small clutch of young men and women working out of warrenlike offices in Midtown Manhattan, and that most of these songwriters were Jewish kids from Brooklyn—an awesome concentration of cultural power in a few knish-eating precincts. Three of the most prominent songwriting teams happened to be young married couples barely into their 20s: Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” “Up on the Roof”), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”), and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (“Be My Baby,” “Chapel of Love”). Another young team in this crowd was Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield (“Calendar Girl,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”). A schoolmate of Sedaka and Greenfield’s, Mort Shuman, paired up with a writer in his 30s, Doc Pomus, to create such songs as “This Magic Moment” and “A Teenager in Love.” Younger than Pomus but older than the rest were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who in the 50s were Elvis Presley’s favorite songwriters (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”) and in the early 60s functioned as mentors to the younger set while continuing to write hits for the Coasters (“Poison Ivy,” “Little Egypt”). More grown-up in age and songwriting style, but nevertheless in the same close quarters, were Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the team behind “Walk On By” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” among dozens of other hits.
The Brill Building itself, at 1619 Broadway, was a squat Art Deco edifice completed in 1931. It took its name from a clothing store, Brill Brothers, that had originally occupied its ground floor, but rapidly became better known as a home for music-publishing companies. As the 20th century advanced, Tin Pan Alley, as the popular-music business used to be known, inched its way up Broadway from its original location around 14th Street, and by the 1950s the Brill Building, at 49th Street, was the epicenter, its 11 floors packed with dozens of music publishers, and its ground floor occupied by two music-business hangouts, the Turf on the south side and Jack Dempsey’s on the north. Two blocks up from the Brill and across the street was 1650 Broadway, where King, Goffin, Mann, Weil, Sedaka, and Greenfield actually worked, for a young music publisher named Don Kirshner.
Music publishers still held significant power in those days, before artists routinely wrote their own songs. The publishers employed or contracted out work to songwriters, whose songs were then shopped to the record companies, who paired the compositions they liked with the artists in their stables, using house producers, arrangers, and engineers to get the records made. It was a remarkably rapid-fire process, and a remarkably localized one, too—the record labels were mostly in Midtown, as were the studios of choice, Bell Sound and Mira Sound. (There was even a little demo studio right in the Brill Building where songwriters could cut acetates of their songs to play for the labels.) The whole business had an exhilarating seat-of-the-pants aspect then, for teen music was still a relatively new phenomenon, as was, indeed, the very concept of “teenagers” as a consumer demographic. Yet the music that resulted was as sophisticated and urbane as youth pop would ever get—the antithesis of the deflavorized contemporaneous recordings of Pat Boone and Fabian, with which the Brill stuff is sometimes unfairly lumped. Its quality is the reason the Brill music has lasted, why these songs have been covered ad nauseam, why the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” is the most played song in radio’s history.
By pop-music standards, the Brill gang has been blessed with an unusually low mortality rate; of the aforementioned songwriters, all are alive save Pomus and Shuman, who died within months of each other in 1991, and Greenfield, who died of H.I.V.-related illness in 1986. Here, the remaining songwriters, along with some of their co-conspirators in the hit-making process—albeit not the elusive Phil Spector, who, characteristically, did not respond to an interview request—tell the story of the Brill Building era.
We begin in an uncertain, transitional time, the mid-1950s, when the legitimate theater is starting to lose steam and the big bands have died out. Records, once a luxury, are becoming an affordable commodity, and rock ’n’ roll is on the march. But had you visited the Brill Building during this period, you’d have found it inhabited largely by old-timers: alter kockers from the sheet-music era, middle-aged men writing for Broadway and Your Hit Parade ...
HAL DAVID: Who would I see there? Harry Woods. Harry Woods wrote great songs, like “Red, red robin comes bob-bob-bobbing along” and “Four Leaf Clover.”
MIKE STOLLER: There was Bennie Benjamin. He wrote with George David Weiss, things like “Cross over the Bridge” and “I’ll Never Be Free.” And, of course, Irving Caesar, who was considerably senior in age to everybody. He wrote “Tea for Two.”
BURT BACHARACH: Irving Caesar! And I’m trying to think of the guy [Haven Gillespie] that wrote “You Go to My Head.” I used to go to the racetrack with him.
MIKE STOLLER: It was like Guys and Dolls. The old-time songwriters and the publishers and the gamblers—they all had the track in common.
JERRY LEIBER: We liked these guys. We were not combative or competitive in terms of who we were. We weren’t holding up any banners saying, You’re all dead—we’re rock ’n’ rollers here! That wasn’t it at all. In fact, it was the contrary. We really admired those guys—the Tin Pin Alley guys that wrote the standards, like Julie Styne and Sammy Cahn.
HAL DAVID: I think once rock ’n’ roll broke through—by the mid-50s, give or take—[the old-timers] were finding it very, very difficult. And, more importantly, they thought rock ’n’ roll was a fad, and they were just gonna wait it out. And, of course, they’re still waiting.
David was himself a transitional figure, already in his 30s in the mid-1950s, a dad of two commuting by Long Island Rail Road from the suburb of Roslyn. He had been bouncing around the Brill Building since 1949, making a decent living as an unaffiliated lyricist, running the Brill drill of working one’s way downward from the 11th floor, publisher by publisher. By 1956 he had enough of a reputation to earn a staff position with Famous Music, on the sixth floor, one of the building’s bigger firms.
HAL DAVID: And that’s where Burt and I met each other. We were both there independently. He wrote for some people and I wrote with other people. Burt and I wrote our first hits in 1957, which was shortly after we got together.
BURT BACHARACH: Hal and I would send out for lunch—a liverwurst sandwich on rye with tomato and mustard, from Carnegie or the Stage. These are the things I remember. The window that didn’t open in the room that we worked in. With an upright piano that
was beat-up. And Hal smoking all the time.
Like David, Bacharach, who turned 30 in 1959, had a lengthy C.V. in the pre-rock world, having studied music theory under the avant-garde composer Darius Milhaud and worked as an accompanist with the Ames Brothers and Vic Damone. Unconvinced that songwriting would pay the bills, Bacharach accepted a position as Marlene Dietrich’s touring conductor in ’58, and he and David wrote together only intermittently over the next few years—their heyday postponed until the early 1960s.
Leiber and Stoller, by contrast, were a musical force the moment they set up shop in New York City in 1957. A pair of 24-year-olds, they had established themselves as Los Angeles’s hottest young songwriters, scoring West Coast hits with “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” both performed by a black vocal group called the Robins. Self-styled white Negroes who dated black girls and immersed themselves in black culture, Leiber and Stoller had attracted national attention when their song “Hound Dog,” originally a hit in the Negro market for the 300-pound lesbian belter Big Mama Thornton in 1953, was covered in 1956, to countrywide mouth-agapedness, by one Elvis Aron Presley. Commissioned to write the songs for the Elvis film Jailhouse Rock that same year, they spent six months in New York and developed a taste for the life there. When offered a production deal at Atlantic Records, the New York–based R&B label run by Ahmet Ertegun, his brother, Nesuhi, and Jerry Wexler (an ex-journalist who’d actually coined the term “rhythm and blues”), Leiber and Stoller seized the opportunity.
MIKE STOLLER: Initially, it was very exciting. Because once you got to the area, everything was happening. The Turf was where everything was going on. It had a clam bar, a hamburger bar, and a bar bar. And then it had seats in the back, and sheet music on the walls that had been shellacked over. If you had to do a demo, and you didn’t have a drummer or bass player, you could just run over to the Turf and grab somebody. You could pick ’em for 10, 15 bucks.
Leiber and Stoller hit the ground running with the Coasters, essentially Bobby Nunn and Carl Gardner of the Robins augmented by new singers. With Leiber writing the lyrics, Stoller the music, and both handling the production, the Coasters scored a succession of comedic hits—“Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Poison Ivy,” among others—for Atlantic in the late 50s.
MIKE STOLLER: When we rehearsed the Coasters in the Brill Building, people on the street knew that they were there because of the order that was placed at the Gaiety Delicatessen.
JERRY LEIBER: Pastrami and mayonnaise.
MIKE STOLLER: We ordered our pastrami with either mustard or Russian, on rye. And [Coaster] Billy Guy, who was with a Jewish lady, had his with mustard on rye. But Carl Gardner had his with ketchup on white bread. And there were two pastramis on whole-wheat with mayonnaise. That was Dub Jones and Speedo Carroll.
Leiber and Stoller soon became as well-known for their studio prowess as for their songwriting ability. Among their greatest productions for Atlantic were two Latin-tinged songs by the Drifters—another great black vocal group—that were to become standards: “This Magic Moment” (1959) and “Save the Last Dance for Me” (1960). Both songs were written by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Pomus, heavyset, goateed, and rendered paraplegic by a childhood bout with polio, was a beloved character in the Brill milieu: a Jewish guy, real name Jerome Felder, whose disability had made him identify with downtrodden blacks, and who had reimagined himself, quite convincingly, as a gutbucket-blues singer, performing in Harlem clubs while propped up on his crutches.
RAOUL FELDER, attorney, brother of Doc Pomus: My family was pretty much ashamed that he was doing this to try to make a living. Most people spend their lives trying to get out of the slums. Instead of getting out of our slum, he was going to a worse slum, an African-American slum.
SHARON FELDER, daughter of Doc Pomus: But being a white guy on crutches and braces, singing in black clubs, was probably not gonna support a family.
RAOUL FELDER: He had a semi-hit record that was taking off, and RCA or some other major company wanted to buy the rights. They never thought to interview him and see what he looked like physically. As the song was taking off on the charts, they suddenly found out that he was handicapped. And they killed the record. That’s when he decided to become a songwriter.
Pomus impressed Ahmet Ertegun sufficiently to get a job at Atlantic and an office of his own in the Brill Building. He quickly made an impact, coming up with such R&B hits as Ray Charles’s “Lonely Avenue” and “You Better Leave That Woman Alone.”
SHARON FELDER: And then he slowly introduced Mort Shuman into the picture, because a cousin of ours was dating him.
NEIL SEDAKA: I went to school with Mort Shuman. We were the same age. He was always the lead in the plays, and I was the pianist in the pit. He was the star of Lincoln High School; he was the president of the class. A great, outgoing personality.
RAOUL FELDER: “Save the Last Dance for Me” tells the story of somebody taking somebody to the dance and maybe not getting them. And look: [Pomus] was a man who couldn’t dance, and he wrote music the whole world was dancing by.
Another Atlantic hit in the late 50s was “Splish Splash,” a breakthrough song for a struggling Bronx kid in his early 20s named Bobby Darin, who was managed by another kid in his early 20s, Donny Kirshner of upper Manhattan’s Fort Washington neighborhood.
DON KIRSHNER: It really all started when I was in my local candy store at 187th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, and this girl I knew came in with a very interesting character. He was disheveled. He was down-and-out, cleaning latrines. And his name was Walden Robert Cassotto. And he eventually became, after I discovered him, Bobby Darin. I couldn’t believe all his talent. And I said to him, “Let’s team up, and we’ll be the biggest thing in entertainment.” I couldn’t even get arrested at the time. I didn’t know anybody.
Kirshner, emboldened by the success of “Splish Splash” in 1958, talked his way into a music-publishing partnership with Al Nevins, a distinguished gent 20 years his senior who’d made his name as the leader of the Three Sons, a long-running, schlockola guitar-organ-accordion combo that was Mamie Eisenhower’s favorite act. Nevins and Kirshner called their company Aldon, pronounced “All-din.”
JERRY WEXLER: Now, there’s a strange pairing: Al Nevins, a curator and a nurturer of cosmic schmaltz, and Donny Kirshner, an enunciator and a herald of the new music. And it really worked.
DON KIRSHNER: I think, just to keep me quiet, we opened an office at 1650 Broadway. It was the size of maybe a little bigger than a closet.
Meanwhile, out in Brighton Beach ...
NEIL SEDAKA: I had a lot of drive. I was from a very poor family—my father was a taxi driver—and I wanted desperately to be a success. I was not a jock. And the only way to get popular in Lincoln High School, which was a very tough high school, was to play pop music.
One day, Howie Greenfield’s mother heard me playing classical music in the Catskill Mountains—I was practicing—and she said, “My son writes lyrics. Why don’t you try writing something together?” We lived in the same apartment building in Brighton. He was overweight, an introvert, not popular in school. He knocked on my door on October 11, 1952, when he was 16 and I was 13, and said “Hi.” I just thought, Oh, it’s fat Howie. He said, “I hear you’re a pianist, and I’m a lyricist. Do you want to write songs?” And we wrote a terrible song called “My Life’s Devotion.” But we continued to write every day, and I was mesmerized by it.
I took the subway, as a teenager, to the Brill Building. Howie and I went to all the publishing firms to sell our songs. We went to [the major publishing firm] Hill & Range, and we had a song called “Stupid Cupid,” and Hill & Range passed—they didn’t like it. So I saw Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus there that day, and they said, “There’s a new publishing firm opening up across the street at 1650 called Aldon Music.” And we went in, and Don Kirshner opened the door.
DON KIRSHNER: So in walks Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, and they said, “We want to talk to the publisher.” And I said, “You’re looking at him.” And they said, “Oh, come on, get serious.” I mean, I probably looked like an 18-year-old kid that was taking out the garbage.
NEIL SEDAKA: I played 8 or 10 songs, including “Stupid Cupid,” and they said, “Where did you steal these songs?” Because we were pitselehs—we were kids.
DON KIRSHNER: I really thought either Bobby was playing a joke on me or somebody was putting me on, because I couldn’t believe that nobody would take that talent.
NEIL SEDAKA: So Howie and I were the first to be signed to Aldon Music.
“Stupid Cupid,” the first song Aldon published, became a No. 14 hit for Connie Francis. The preternaturally peppy Sedaka, who had been in a doo-wop group called the Tokens at Lincoln High—the same Tokens who would later record “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—soon took to performing his and Greenfield’s songs himself. Signing a recording contract with RCA in 1959, he scored hits with “The Diary,” “I Go Ape,” and “Oh! Carol,” which was named for Carole Klein, a doe-eyed Brooklyn girl he knew from Lincoln High’s rival school, James Madison.
NEIL SEDAKA: We were introduced in Brighton Beach, and we used to sing on street corners and on the beach. We never wrote together, but we dated for a year. We danced to “Earth Angel,” and did the Grind and the Bump. Her mother didn’t like me.
CAROLE KING: I went out on one date with him! Anything you hear to the contrary did not come from my camp. But I did admire what he was doing with his fellow school members, who turned out to be the Tokens. And I started a little group in my school, doing something similar. That’s kind of what I was doing until I got to college, and then I met Gerry.
In 1959 the 17-year-old Klein began her freshman year at Queens College, where she met a chemistry major and would-be playwright three years her senior named Gerry Goffin, a rangy, intense type who was working on a musical about Beatniks.
GERRY GOFFIN: She was interested in writing rock ’n’ roll, and I was interested in writing this Broadway play. So we had an agreement where she would write [music] to the play if I would write [lyrics] to some of her rock ’n’ roll melodies. And eventually it came to be a boy-and-girl relationship. Eventually I began to lose heart in my play, and we stuck to writing rock ’n’ roll.
One of Goffin and King’s first songwriting efforts was a jokey answer song to Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol” called “Oh! Neil.” Recorded by Klein herself—as Carole King—it included Goffin’s sarcasm-steeped line “I’d even give up a month’s supply of chewin’ tobacky / Just to be known as Mrs. Neil Sedacky!”
NEIL SEDAKA: Gerry and I were in competition, because we were both then going out with Carole, or I had just stopped, and then he started dating her. He scared me, Gerry.
JACK KELLER, Aldon staff songwriter: All the music exploded from “Oh! Carol,” because Carole King wrote an answer song called “Oh! Neil” and played it for Epic Records’ A&R man. He calls Donny, because Donny’s the publisher, and says, “I want to do this answer record, can we have permission?” Donny says, “Send her over, let me hear the song.”
DON KIRSHNER: Neil introduced me to Carole. She played me, like, five notes, and I fell in love. I just heard all that raw talent and said, “I’ve got to sign her.”
It was a fortunate break, because Goffin and King, growing up fast, were married in 1960 and expecting their first child.
GERRY GOFFIN: We decided we had to quit school. So Carole got a job as a secretary, and I got a job as an assistant chemist at Argus Chemicals in Brooklyn. We moved from Queens to Sheepshead Bay. We continued our songwriting, and for a year and a half we wrote very bad songs.
Before long, Kirshner had another songwriting couple on his hands, composer Barry Mann and lyricist Cynthia Weil. Mann, a nice-looking kid who’d been three years ahead of King at James Madison High School, was an architecture-school dropout who’d bounced around the Brill world for a couple of years before getting a staff job at Aldon. Weil, a slender blonde Manhattanite from a well-to-do family, was an aspiring Broadway lyricist who worked in the office of the great Frank Loesser, of Guys and Dolls renown. One day in 1960 she was collaborating on a song with Teddy Randazzo, an Italian-American heartthrob singer of the era, when Mann came into Randazzo’s office to pitch a song he’d written with Howie Greenfield. Smitten with the visitor, Weil found out from a friend that Mann worked for Kirshner, and made an appointment to show her lyrics to the Aldon boss.
CYNTHIA WEIL: So I went up there—I was stalking Barry, I guess; they didn’t have a name for it in those days. Kirshner looked at my lyrics, and he said, “You know, I know just the person that you should write with.” So I thought, Oh! He’s gonna fix me up with the cute guy! And in walks this little girl. And he said, “Play the piano for her.” So she sits down and plays and sings, and she’s really great. I remember she had scabs on her knees and she looked around 12. And it was Carole. Kirshner said, “Well, she’s writing with her husband, but he’s working as a chemist, and he works during the day, so they can only write at night—and she should be writing during the day too. So you could write with her during the day.”
The Weil-King partnership never panned out, but Weil succeeded in hooking Mann as both a romantic partner and a professional one; they would marry in 1961. And soon enough the Mann-Weils and the Goffin-Kings were the best of friends—albeit friends in a constant state of competition.
MANN: It was very difficult.
CYNTHIA WEIL: It was having a best friend, and then competing with them for something you both wanted. And feeling really guilty you wanted your best friend to lose. Carole was the least competitive of all of us.
BARRY MANN: Gerry was very competitive.
GERRY GOFFIN: On the surface, we got along well. But you could feel a little bit of jealousy between Barry and Cynthia and Carole and me—you know, about who was gonna get the next record. There was a little tension.
CYNTHIA WEIL: Gerry was always writing. We rented a ski house in Massachusetts, and we would all go up there together. We didn’t want to leave them for a weekend—partially because they were our pals, and partially because we knew they’d be writing their asses off if they weren’t skiing with us.
BARRY MANN: We were happy when Carole would get pregnant, ’cause at least she’d be in the operating room, giving birth.
CYNTHIA WEIL: For three or four hours. But Carole’d be writing on the way out!
BARRY MANN: She was like a Chinese laborer: give birth in a rice paddy, but still be writing at the same time.
Goffin and King were the first to hit pay dirt.
GERRY GOFFIN: Before Louise was born, we wrote almost every day at the piano, until Carole got so pregnant it became impossible. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” came at just the right time, because Carole had to quit her job, because she was—
CAROLE KING: —throwing up into the wastebasket.
So one night, not long before little Louise Goffin was born ...
GERRY GOFFIN: It was my night out with the boys and Carole’s night out with the girls. I went bowling, and she went to play mah-jongg. How Jewish can you get? I get home about nine o’clock, and I see a note on this huge Norelco tape recorder: “Went to play mah-jongg. Donny needs a lyric for the Shirelles by tomorrow. Please write.” So I turn on the tape machine and I listen to the melody, and it was something new, something different—it really sounded good. And the lyric came out so easy. We went in [to Aldon] the next day, and Luther Dixon, who was the producer of the Shirelles, picked that song to do.
CAROLE KING: When “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” sold a million, we went, “Bye-bye, day job!”
GERRY GOFFIN: Carole and Donny arrived in Donny’s limousine at the chem factory and told me I didn’t have to work anymore. And he gave us a $10,000 advance and we got credit cards, and I’ve never had to do an honest day’s work since.
And so began Aldon’s extraordinary run of 1961–63. Goffin and King’s hits in this period would include “The Loco-Motion” by Little Eva, “Chains” by the Cookies, “One Fine Day” by the Chiffons, and “Up on the Roof” by the Drifters. Mann and Weil’s hits would include “Uptown” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by the Crystals, “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” by Eydie Gorme, and “On Broadway” by the Drifters. Sedaka would chart with his and Greenfield’s songs “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.”
NEIL SEDAKA: There were always at least two or three Aldon songs in the Top 10. It did wonders for Howie: he lost weight; he started having boyfriends. He really came out of his shell.
Kirshner, not content to be merely a music publisher, launched his own label in 1962, Dimension Records, and deputized Goffin and King to be its A&R chiefs, and Goffin to be its house producer. The first Dimension release was the Goffin-King song “The Loco-Motion.”
CAROLE KING: You know the very first thing you hear on “The Loco-Motion” by Little Eva? You think it’s the drum, right? Wrong. It’s [exhalation sound], “Hehhhhh ...”—eight layers of hiss. That was a demo.
GERRY GOFFIN: It was done as a demo for [singer] Dee Dee Sharp. It just was done on mono.
Eva Boyd was an aspiring singer who had met Goffin and King when she was trying to scrounge up session work.
LITTLE EVA: I wanted to be a recording artist—that was my dream. Carole had one daughter, Lulu, and she was pregnant at the time [with her second daughter, Sherry Goffin, born in 1963]. And she asked me did I want to baby-sit. So I said, “Well, yeah, because in between sessions I’m gonna need some money.”
GERRY GOFFIN: She would always sing along to the songs we were writing in our little apartment. I came up with the idea [to have her sing on the demo]. Ethnic voices were what was in. Unsophisticated voices.
CAROLE KING: Eva sang, and I sang background with her. And it was the first in a long line—right up to and including my next album—of demos that become masters.
LITTLE EVA: Gerry already thought that it would be a hit with me singing. So he took it in to them to listen, Al Nevins and Don Kirshner. And they listened to it, and, you know, it just hit ’em.
GERRY GOFFIN: For a while [after the song became a hit], she said, “Don’t worry, I’m still gonna work for you, I’m not gonna think about being a star.” And then, two weeks later, she’s touring.
Two of the Brill era’s greatest New York City songs, Goffin and King’s “Up on the Roof” and Mann and Weil’s “On Broadway,” both Drifters singles, were Leiber-and-Stoller productions. By 1961, Leiber and Stoller, after several years of itinerant office-hopping, had opened up their own suite of offices on the ninth floor of the Brill Building, where they frequently took meetings with the Aldon writers.
GERRY GOFFIN: Jerry Leiber helped me a lot on “Up on the Roof.” I had almost the whole lyric, but for some reason I had a mental block—I couldn’t think of a rhyme for “roof” in the last verse. I had “There’s room enough for two up on the roof”—which brings it all into a love-song context. And I said, “What can you rhyme with ‘roof’?” And he said, “How about ‘proof’?” And so, “I found a paradise that’s troubleproof.”
CYNTHIA WEIL: We had written “On Broadway” for a girls’ group. The thrust was a girl coming to New York, to make it on Broadway, from a small town. We went up to play it for Jerry and Mike, and obviously it was an inappropriate lyric for the Drifters. But they liked the take on it musically, and they loved the title.
BARRY MANN: My concept was to write a Gershwinesque melody. A little jazzier. And Mike Stoller changed it when we all got together to write. It was a good change, very commercial.
Leiber and Stoller also catalyzed the ascent of Bacharach and David. In 1962 the Drifters were recording a song Bacharach had written with lyricist Bob Hilliard, “Mexican Divorce.”
BURT BACHARACH: Dionne Warwick was in the background group. It was a Leiber-and-Stoller date, so Jerry asked me to work out the girls’ parts. He worked with the Drifters in the office for a week, and the background group worked with me for a week. That group had Cissy Houston, Dionne, Myrna Utley, and Dionne’s sister Dee Dee. A killer group.
MIKE STOLLER: That’s where Burt first heard Dionne and said, “Would it be all right if I ... ?”
BURT BACHARACH: She had a special thing about her. A special look. There was a star quality about Dionne. Those high cheekbones, the bone structure. And then you factor in that voice. So Dionne came in a couple of weeks later to sing something for Hal and myself. And she was astounding.
Warwick sang the demo for a Bacharach-David song called “Make It Easy on Yourself,” thinking it would be her first single. When the song was instead given to the singer Jerry Butler, Warwick, feeling betrayed, told the songwriters, “Aw, man, don’t make me over!” Which prompted Bacharach and David to write “Don’t Make Me Over,” a hit in 1962. Bacharach and David would go on to write a succession of great songs for Warwick, among them “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By,” and for the remainder of the 60s worked as songwriting partners—though Bacharach, astonishingly, continued to go out on the road with Marlene Dietrich.
BURT BACHARACH: Marlene was very much on my side—you know, the more successful, the more well-known I was, the less likelihood that I was going to be able to do these dates with her anymore. But she was nice about it. Backstage at the Edinburgh Festival or something, 50 fans were waiting for her: “Marlene, can we have your autograph?” And she said, “You don’t vant my autograph. You vant his!”
Another major talent to come up through the Leiber-and-Stoller ranks was a gnomish little fellow from Los Angeles named Phil Spector. Spector had briefly tasted success as the producer, songwriter, and co–backing vocalist of the Teddy Bears, a white-bread group that had a No. 1 hit in 1958 with “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” But by 1960 the Teddy Bears were no more, and Spector had no career momentum. He had, however, forged a connection to a man named Lester Sill, an L.A. label boss who had introduced Leiber and Stoller to the music business in their West Coast days and functioned as the duo’s mentor.
MIKE STOLLER: Lester called us: “I got this kid. He’s talented. But he wants to move away and hang with you guys—like, apprentice.” And since it was Lester making the request, we couldn’t refuse. We sent Phil a ticket, and he came to New York.
JERRY LEIBER: Phil was very bright.
MIKE STOLLER: But he was eccentric.
JERRY LEIBER: A lot of shadows playing at the same time. Some of the things are just theater. He’s very theatrical and knows how to draw attention to himself—either by the way he looks at you or the way he dresses. He used to wear those George Washington ruffled blouses.
Leiber and Stoller initially kept the 19-year-old Spector busy with make-work: playing percussion or fifth guitar on their sessions, signing him to a writer’s agreement but not paying much heed to his output. But one day, grudgingly, the duo agreed to write a song with him.
MIKE STOLLER: We had a writing session scheduled for the three of us, but I had been missing dinners with my children. And my ex-wife said, “You can’t disappoint them again.” So I told Jerry, “I’ll try and come up later.” And I called after dinner, and I was told the song was finished. But I did participate to some degree. I wrote, “Dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee”…
…meaning the famous marimba part that opens the song that Leiber and Spector had completed, “Spanish Harlem,” the first solo hit for Ben E. King of the Drifters. Spector’s rapid ascent as a songwriter and producer paralleled Aldon’s—in 1961 he produced the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me,” co-written by Barry Mann, and the following year he founded his own label with Lester Sill, Philles Records (pronounced “Phillies”), for which he handled all production. Philles struck quickly in 1962 with a succession of hit singles by the Crystals, among them Gene Pitney’s “He’s a Rebel” and Mann and Weil’s “Uptown” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.”
But Spector’s truly magical, do-no-wrong year was 1963, the year of the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You”—the chiming, cavernous, massive-sounding productions that established his reputation as Mr. Wall of Sound. Though these songs were recorded in Los Angeles’s Gold Star Studios, they were written in the Brill Building by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Barry was born Joel Adelberg and raised in New Jersey and Brooklyn, where he attended Erasmus Hall High School. Six feet six, long-faced, and fond of western-style fancy dress—
MIKE STOLLER: He used to dress like the Marlboro man—you know, like a Brooklyn cowboy.
JEFF BARRY: People’d say, “Hey, where’s your horse?”
—he briefly studied engineering at the City College of New York, but dropped out to become a rock ’n’ roll singer. That dream went unfulfilled, but he soon found success as a songwriter, co-writing “Tell Laura I Love Her,” a Top 10 hit for Ray Peterson in 1960. As for Greenwich, she was a bubbly, accordion-playing sorority girl from Long Island—the Spring Queen of Hofstra in her college days—with labor-intensive makeup and the most extraordinary blond bouffant this side of Dusty Springfield.
ELLIE GREENWICH: I had so much hair spray. Love teasing! I remember standing on a street corner during a major, major storm, and I thought everybody was looking at me ’cause I’m so cute. And I see a reflection across the street in a glass window. And not one hair was moving, but the whole thing was literally just tilting.
Greenwich and Barry had met through a family connection: one of her uncles was married to one of his cousins. By autumn of 1962, a few months after her graduation from Hofstra, they were married and living in Lefrak City, a homely apartment complex overlooking the Long Island Expressway. By 1963 they were writing songs together, under the aegis of Leiber and Stoller’s publishing company, Trio Music, and were even recording hits themselves—“What a Guy” and “The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget”—as the studio group the Raindrops.
ELLIE GREENWICH: I thought it was so cool—married to this guy, doing, literally, everything together. How wonderful could this be? I’m 22 years old, barreling along like [girlish singsong], “Dee-dee-dee-deeee.” With the white cotton-candy hair and the fake eyelashes. People are saying, “Isn’t she adorable?” and pinching my cheeks.
PHIL RAMONE, engineer, Bell Sound Studios: Jeff and Ellie were all over the place, the most gregarious people you’d ever work with. Jeff was this gigantic guy, kind of thin and tall, who had a way about him. He loved to hand-clap; it was part of their enjoyment of their own records. And Ellie would be the dancer in the studio.
ELLIE GREENWICH: “Be My Baby” and “Then He Kissed Me” were written in part in Lefrak City, and in the city—the Brill Building, Leiber and Stoller’s office, or with Phil Spector in his office. We just got Phil. I think he really appreciated Jeff’s and my humor. We made him laugh. And we understood him. We accepted his idiosyncrasies. We let him carry on. We let him conduct his Wagner things, bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger—everything as big as life. And we would take him on a boat ride around Manhattan Island—where he stayed inside, holding his head because he didn’t want his hair to blow. I think he just felt safe with us. Plus, we turned out some really good stuff.
JEFF BARRY: Phil would usually be at the piano. He would be the musical leader—certainly in the chord progression. I was more lyric and melody, Ellie was more chords and structure. I liked to write the part the singer sings. Ellie had more musical, technical experience.
ELLIE GREENWICH: We never thought much about, like, was it gonna be idiotic to have “Be My Baby,” then “Baby, I Love You”? Baby, baby, baby.
JEFF BARRY: “Baby”—it’s a good word.
JERRY LEIBER: Jeff Barry was more of a “doazy doats and liddle lamzy divey” kind of—you know, nonsense rhymes and jokes and things.
JEFF BARRY: I’m just not a metaphor kind of guy. I say it very directly. Growing up with a blind father and a retarded sister, communicating with two-thirds of my family had to be simple for my sister, and succinct and visual for my father. And I was always aware that I was trying to entertain kids, not adults.
Nineteen sixty-three was the high-water mark for the Brill Building sound, with all three husband-and-wife teams in their prime. But just as everything was humming along nicely, the young tunesmiths of Aldon got the shock of their life when Kirshner and Nevins sold the company outright to Columbia Pictures, the movie-and-TV studio. Nevins bowed out, Kirshner was installed as the head of the studio’s music division, Screen Gems, and the whole operation moved from 1650 Broadway to Columbia’s swanky offices on Fifth Avenue.
CYNTHIA WEIL: When Aldon Music was sold, we read about it in the trades. We didn’t even know that they were going to sell this company and that we were like ballplayers—we were going to be sold with it.
GERRY GOFFIN: I knew it was the beginning of the end.
CAROLE KING: I’m sure Donny got a pile of money for it.
BARRY MANN: Three million dollars.
DON KIRSHNER: If I want to look back now and say, “Hey, schmuck, those copyrights are worth a billion dollars today; you sold them for $3 million; you’re not too bright”—you know, you can’t torture yourself about that. Obviously I sold too early, at the top of my game, and I sold too short. But they will always be my baby, they will always be my songs, whether my name’s on them or not.
CAROLE KING: I think what Donny parroted back to us, what I imagine he was told, was, it’s a great opportunity, because we’ll have a connection to movies and TV. It was a very seductive argument for him, and he tried to sell it to us, and, not having any choice in the matter, we said O.K.
DON KIRSHNER: I thought I was opening up new horizons for them, because, effectively, they were stars already. They had every hit with the Drifters—they could continue with that. I thought they would go for maybe an Academy Award song, or a TV show.
The Aldon songwriters were now assigned to write theme songs for such TV shows as The Farmer’s Daughter and Redigo, and to write pop vehicles for Columbia-contracted actors with singing aspirations. But even with the burden of schlock weighing heavily on their heads, the Aldon writers—now Screen Gems writers—still came through with great pop singles. Mann and Weil’s finest hour came in 1964, when Phil Spector summoned them to Los Angeles and set them up in the Chateau Marmont to write a song for the Righteous Brothers.
BARRY MANN: When we wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” I remember Phil Spector saying, “This is going to be probably the biggest song you’re ever going to have.”
CYNTHIA WEIL: And I said, “Phil, any song with ‘whoa-whoa-whoa’ in it is not important.” And that was my Broadway theater bitch coming out.
BARRY MANN: We knew that Bill Medley had this really low voice and Bobby Hatfield had the great high voice. But when Phil finally cut the record, we were back in New York, and he started to play it over the phone for me. And because Bill sang so low, and it was coming through this little speaker—[imitating Medley’s basso croon] “You never close your eyes anymore ... ”—I started to yell, “Phil! You got it on the wrong speed!”
Leiber and Stoller, renowned for their shrewdness in business, took a Kirshner-like misstep of their own in this period, when their accountants advised them to commission an independent audit of their dealings with Atlantic Records.
JERRY LEIBER: We thought about it, and we said, “Don’t do it—Ahmet, Nesuhi, and Jerry are like brothers, and they’re going to think we’re questioning their honesty.”
But the accountants talked them into it. The move totally backfired. Though the audit revealed that they were owed $18,000—not a huge sum even in the early 1960s—the Erteguns and Wexler were indeed furious, and not only pressured Leiber and Stoller into signing a document waiving the debt, but dropped them from Atlantic and kept the acts that the pair had brought to the label. A subsequent deal with United Artists disintegrated quickly, and in the spring of 1964, Leiber and Stoller found themselves in deep trouble, down to, ironically, $18,000 in cash and a small stack of masters that they themselves owned. Despairing, Leiber headed out to Al and Dick’s on 54th Street, the music bigwigs’ watering hole, on a Thursday night.
JERRY LEIBER: It was mobbed, eight deep at the bar. Everybody was there: the hustlers, the grifters, the gamblers, the pimps. So I walk in, and Hymie Weiss is there. Hymie owned Old Town Records, the label that Arthur Prysock was on. He was one of the toughest monkeys I ever met in my life. He calls me over and says, “Hey, siddown! I want you to meet a friend of mine.” And there’s a guy sitting between me and Hymie. Very, very good hotel haircut. And nails done. Looked like Adolphe Menjou.
It was golden-eared George Goldner, a man renowned for starting up enormously successful record companies—such as Tico, Gee, and Roulette—and invariably losing them to the Mob because he was a compulsive gambler.
JERRY LEIBER: Hymie said, “This is the infamous George Goldner. He’s even more successful than you are. He didn’t write the songs—he stole ’em. And he didn’t make the records—he hired these little colored boys to make them, and he didn’t pay ’em. To make it all whitewash, he gives, like, maybe $10,000 out of the $10 million he stole last year to the synagogue in Westchester, where he lives. And the rest of the money he lost at the track.” Occasionally, to punctuate a sentence, Hymie blows cigar smoke in George’s face. And Goldner’s saying, “Hey, cut it out, man—I’m tired.”
Hymie says to me, “Leiber, you’re a smart guy. Would you give this schmuck $350 a week to go on the road for you?” I said, jokingly, “I’ll think about it.” And Hymie says, “Well, while you’re thinking about it, I’m gonna take a leak.” And I lean over and say, “George, are you really looking for a job for $350 a week?” I’m thinking, Eighteen thousand—$350 a week into $18,000. How many weeks? How much time? And George said, “Yeah, I’ll take it. You’re on. Gimme the keys to your office.” I give him the keys. He said, “You just go home, and I’ll see you in the morning.” I said, “You’re just gonna go up there and stay all night?” And he said, “I’m gonna play your acetates until I decide which one’s a hit.”
So out comes Hy, partially zipping his fly. He says, “Hey, you guys made a deal yet?” George says, “Yeah, I’m gonna work for him.” Hy says, “You cocksucker!” And he turns to me and he says, “What kinda friend are you, Leiber? I call you over here, I buy a drink, and you stab me in the back!”
The following morning Leiber entered his office to find Goldner sitting behind his desk.
JERRY LEIBER: Not a hair out of place. Not a wrinkle in his starched white shirt. Nothing. And he picks up this 10-inch acetate and says, “See this? On my father’s grave.” And I put it on: [singing, snapping fingers] “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get maaaaar-ried ... ”
It was the Barry-Greenwich-Spector song “Chapel of Love,” performed by a New Orleans girl group called the Mel-Tones and produced, in a rare instance, by just Stoller, because Leiber couldn’t stand the song. It was the first release of Leiber, Stoller, and Goldner’s new label, Red Bird, and it was a smash for the Mel-Tones, whom Stoller renamed the Dixie Cups ...
MIKE STOLLER: ... because I kept thinking of little brassieres!
JERRY LEIBER: Coming to little points.
MIKE STOLLER: It was the first American record to come in at No. 1 after I don’t know how many months of nothing but English records.
Indeed, the British Invasion had begun by ’64. But Red Bird held its own that year, thanks to both “Chapel of Love” and the emergence of the Brill era’s last great auteur: a Brooklyn-born, Long Island–bred juvenile delinquent named George “Shadow” Morton.
JERRY LEIBER: One of the best-looking kids I’ve ever seen. He made James Dean look like Porky Pig.
JEFF BARRY: Little nose and big hair. Very strong hair. I think he’s very talented, and very bizarre.
ELLIE GREENWICH: I knew him from Long Island. But not well.
SHADOW MORTON: We just ... knew one another. She went to Memorial High School, I went to Bethpage. My group would go onstage at high-school dances to sing. And then she would come on with her accordion and sing and play, and occasionally we would back her up.
ELLIE GREENWICH: And when I started making it big, he happened to call me and say, “Hi, remember me?” And I went, “Kind of.” And he goes, “Congratulations on your success. I have some acts, and I have some songs. And I was wondering if I could see you.” He came in, tripping over this long raincoat.
SHADOW MORTON: Ellie was being very nice to me. Jeff had his back to me. And he was sitting at the piano. But rather than me understand the fact that this guy sitting at the piano with his back to me was working on a song, my Brooklyn alcoholic paranoia kicked in, and I saw a guy sitting with his back to me, ignoring me—and being very impolite. As I started to get up and leave, that’s when Jeff turned to me and said, “Just what is it you do for a living?” So I said, “Well, most people would say I’m a bum. But, really, I’m a songwriter—like you.” So he said, “What kind of songs do you write?” I said, “Hit songs.” And he said [condescending tone], “Why don’t you bring me one?” I said, “Do you want a fast hit or a slow hit?” He said, “Make it slow.”
So began Morton’s first great con; he couldn’t read music or play an instrument, and had never written a proper song in his life. He called up a Long Island friend with a modest basement studio in his home. He called another friend who was a bassist and said he needed a four-piece band for a recording session. And he called yet another friend to round up a group of high-school girls from the Cambria Heights section of Queens who were performing around the area as the Shangri-Las. In a matter of days after his testy exchange with Barry, Morton had all the ingredients in place for a recording session. Except one thing.
SHADOW MORTON: It was on my way to the studio that I realized I didn’t have a song. So I pulled the car over on a place called South Oyster Bay Road, and wrote the song. Then I went downstairs in the basement, everybody hollering, “You’re late, you’re late!” And then I told the piano player what to play. This little kid was sitting at the piano, and he kept playing everything complicated, and I said, “No, these two fingers. If you use more than these two fingers, you’re overplaying. Do like this [thudding descent of notes]: Dom-dom-dom ...”
The kid piano player was a young Billy Joel. The piano notes were the ominous opening bars of “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” a strange, gothic, free-form soap operetta about virginity loss and betrayal, complete with finger snaps and creepy seagull sound effects. A couple of days after recording it in one marathon session, Morton brought Greenwich and Barry an acetate of the song, which at that point was seven minutes long.
SHADOW MORTON: Jeff responded right off. I don’t think it was more than 60 seconds when he stopped it and said, “Do you mind if I play this for somebody else?” After about 5 or 10 minutes of idle chitchat with Ellie, the door opened up, and this weird guy, a blue eye and a brown eye, stuck his head in the door and waved the record at me. And he said,
“Did you write this?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Did you produce this?” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Did you tell everybody how to play, and what to play, and how to sing?” “Yeah.” He said, “You want a job here?” I had a dollar to my name! I said, “I’ll take it.” He said, “We’re gonna rework this record, and it’s coming out in three weeks.” Then he just closed the door. And Ellie looked at me and smiled. I said, “Is he for real?” She says, “Oh, yeah. That’s Jerry Leiber—that’s my boss.”
Per Leiber’s instructions, Barry and Greenwich set to work editing and rerecording the song with the Shangri-Las. As if Morton’s song wasn’t strange enough, the Shangri-Las themselves were mesmerizingly bizarre: a gorgeous, flaxen-haired, 16-year-old lead singer, Mary Weiss, flanked by Marge and Mary Ann Ganser, twin Lewinskys trussed up in cat suits. (Mary’s big sister, Betty, occasionally augmented the other three.) They were a subversion of the girl-group norm: a clique of tough white chicks instead of virginal, altar-bound black gals.
MARY WEISS: I used to buy my clothes on Eighth Street in the Village, in a men’s store. I wore man-tailored slacks and high-heeled boots and suede and leather vests and things like that. People would write me letters and ask me how old I was and how many children I had. And I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time. It’s a hell of a way to grow up.
ELLIE GREENWICH: We had some fights. Because here I am, Miss Bouffant, and they come in [imitates tough-chick gum-snapping] with the runs up their stockings and making like, “Yeah, whaddya want me to sing?” Ooh, we had a big thing in the ladies’ room! I was like, “Don’t you talk to me like that! I can be just as down as you can!” And then it was fine.
When the dust cleared, “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” was a No. 5 hit, the Shangri-Las were new stars, and Morton was a new Brill Building star, albeit an erratic one.
JEFF BARRY: I named him Shadow Morton. I could be talking to him, and I’d look away—and he’s gone. And he may not show up for days or weeks. Morton did not understand the urgency of crafting a follow-up to “Remember” until Leiber asked him what he had planned next.
SHADOW MORTON: He says, “Do you have anything? Because if you don’t, I’m gonna get Jeff and Ellie to start working on something [for the Shangri-Las].” And when I heard that, I said, “I got a song.” He said, “What’s it about?” What he didn’t know was, a week before, I had gotten my first big royalty check. And I was up on 11th Avenue that morning, looking at motorcycles. So I said, “It’s about ... a motorcycle!” He said, “A motorcycle? What about a motorcycle?” I said, “It’s ... about this guy who rides a motorcycle. The whole story is really about this guy—and he rides a motorcycle into this little town ... and this girl sees him, and she falls in love with him.”
Leiber said, “Is that it? It doesn’t sound right to me.” I said, “Why?” He says, “You’re talking about a Hell’s Angel–type guy driving into town and falling in love with this little girl. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Disc jockeys aren’t gonna play that.”
I said, “It gets better.” He says, “It gets better? How does it get better?” I said, “He ... dies.”
From this off-the-top-of-his-head bluff began Morton’s second great con: “Leader of the Pack,” a gory melodrama in which the girl protagonist’s biker amour crashes to his death shortly after their tearful breakup. Written by Morton with the help of Barry and Greenwich, and sung with resolutely convincing despair by Mary Weiss, it shot to No. 1.
Barry and Greenwich soon found a new protégé in Neil Diamond, yet another Brooklynite, who’d attended both Erasmus Hall and Lincoln High Schools. As a pre-med student at New York University in the late 50s, Diamond had taken to skipping classes to go up to Tin Pan Alley to hustle his songs. He occasionally made a sale, but never a hit.
NEIL DIAMOND: Carole King, Burt Bacharach—these people were geniuses. I was just a normal nonprodigy.
By 1964 he’d long since given up on school and been knocking around the business for six years. He was also married, with a baby, and though he landed the occasional contract with a music publisher, he was having a rough time of it—almost literally.
NEIL DIAMOND: The publishers were tough sons of bitches—either the publishers or the money behind the publishers. You know, if you expected to be paid what the contract called for, they had guys who’d beat the shit out of you. I walked into an office one day, and one of these guys was working over some writer who kind of had a philosophical disagreement with not being paid and not being able to pay his rent. After a couple of times of seeing your friends get the crap beaten out of them, you just toed that line.
Greenwich, meanwhile, had become almost as well-known for her sideline as a demo singer and background vocalist as for her songwriting.
ELLIE GREENWICH: I did a lot of demos then. I became known as the Demo Queen. I was quick and I could overdub parts, so they would automatically hire me as a “group.” That’s how I met Neil Diamond.
Diamond harbored hopes of making it as a performer as well as a songwriter, so whenever he received an advance from a publisher to make a demo of one of his songs, he sang the lead and backing vocals himself. But when he received an advance from a firm called Pincus Music in 1965, he decided ...
NEIL DIAMOND: ... “I’m gonna really do this right this time—instead of doing the background parts myself, I’m gonna get Ellie Greenwich!” And she was willing to do it; she had nothing to do for that hour. When we finished she said, “You know, I think you’re pretty good—maybe you’d like to meet my husband, and we could sit and talk.” Jeff liked something about what I did, and she liked another thing about what I did—he liked the song, she liked the voice. And they got me a contract, as a writer, with Leiber and Stoller’s Trio Music.
Diamond proved every bit as luckless with Trio as he had been with other publishers—none of his songs became hits, and when his contract expired, Leiber and Stoller did not renew it. But Barry and Greenwich remained enamored of Diamond’s voice and his own interpretations of his songs, and were interested in producing him as an artist.
NEIL DIAMOND: Here I was, free of the yoke of working for another music publisher, and I was handed two of the most creative people in the music business to produce the records. Jeff went to his friend—I think it was Jerry Wexler over at Atlantic, or Ahmet—and said, “I want to produce this kid.” And they said, “O.K., but we can’t really take him on Atlantic. But we have a little independent label, called Bang, that we’ve opened with [industry veteran] Bert Berns.”
Diamond’s first two singles with Bang, the Barry-and-Greenwich-produced “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry,” both released in 1966, were Top 40 hits and established Diamond as a star. But Diamond grew dissatisfied with Bang, feeling they were hampering his artistic growth, and his flight from the label resulted in threats and tangles of lawsuits that would enmesh him, Barry, and Greenwich for years, even as his singing career achieved liftoff.
NEIL DIAMOND: When I left Bang, it was a very scary time. I was contacted by my lawyer, who said, “The F.B.I. has some word that there’s a hit out on you because of this fight that you’re having with Bang.” My Farfisa player used to have a gun, so I borrowed it. And I carried around a loaded .38 for four months. Had no idea how to use it, to load it, to aim it, to do anything like that. But, man, I carried this piece around with me!
Morton and the Shangri-Las were also getting bound up in messy legal situations at this time, a circumstance not helped by the fact that their run as hit-makers had fizzled out. By the mid-60s, as Brit-beat flourished and psychedelia’s tendrils were creeping into the pop picture, the polished, exuberant Brill Building sound had fallen out of fashion, and the songwriters were discovering that there was less demand for their work.
In this same period, two of the songwriter marriages, Barry and Greenwich’s and Goffin and King’s, were running into problems. Barry and Greenwich’s split came even before Diamond’s first record was released; they divorced in December of 1965.
ELLIE GREENWICH: It all came together, the professional and the personal: “Oh, dear, the British Invasion is here—what to do, what to do?” I was a little panicky. And Jeff, he didn’t want to talk about it; he was like, “Don’t want to go there.” We hadn’t talked about personal stuff in three years, because we were so busy with the music. We almost didn’t know how.
Even though they had split up, Barry and Greenwich got back together in 1966 for one last writing session at the behest of Phil Spector, who was fighting his own rearguard action against the British Invasion. He was taken with Tina Turner’s voice, and was convinced that the right song and the right production would put him back at the top.
ELLIE GREENWICH: Phil, I don’t think, was aware that we were divorced. So we told him, “We’re not together anymore.” I mean, Jeff and I wouldn’t have gotten together without Phil saying, “I really want to try.” It was the first time I was writing in Jeff’s apartment, on 72nd Street. It was a weird little get-together.
“River Deep, Mountain High,” the result of that writing session, was a furious din, featuring the most outré lyrics Barry had ever written (“When I was a little girl, I had a rag doll ... Now I love you just the way I love that rag doll”) and great masses of strings, horns, and basses that conspired to make Turner sound as if she were singing in the midst of an air raid. The single went to No. 1 in Great Britain, but stiffed in America, emphatically ending Spector’s reign as, in Tom Wolfe’s words, the First Tycoon of Teen.
The ever shrewd Don Kirshner granted the Aldon-Brill writers a reprieve of sorts when he commissioned them to come up with songs for the prefab TV band the Monkees, whose creators, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, had asked him to handle the music for their program. Barry and Goffin got work producing Monkees sessions. Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer.” Goffin and King came up with the Beatles-ish “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Another Goffin-King tune, “The Porpoise Song,” written for the Monkees’ movie Head, was full-blown psychedelia, both gorgeous and disturbing—the sound of the once squeaky-clean Brooklynites Gerry and Carole going all trippy.
GERRY GOFFIN: That was the whole thing that led to Carole’s and my breakup. I wanted to be a hippie—grew my hair long—and Carole did it modestly. You know, we smoked some grass together once in a while—
CAROLE KING: —but I never inhaled.
GERRY GOFFIN: She never wanted to go overboard. And then I started taking LSD and mescaline. And Carole and I began to grow apart because she felt that she had to say things herself; she had to be her own lyricist.
But in 1967, at the instigation of Jerry Wexler, Goffin and King came up with one last great song while they were still married.
JERRY WEXLER: In the old folk mythology, and in the blues, the term “natural man” keeps coming up. So this notion occurred to me: What about “You make me feel like a natural woman”?
GERRY GOFFIN: I was coming out of the Oyster Bar, and Jerry Wexler’s driving by in his limousine. And he says, “C’mere! I got a title for you! I want you to write it for Aretha Franklin.” He says, “Natural Woman!” So I went home and wrote it with Carole.
But such triumphs as “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” were by now infrequent for the old gang; the bloom was off. By the time two naïve kids from Bard College named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen entered the Brill Building to sell their songs in 1969, the place was no longer the musical wonderland it had been at the beginning of the decade.
WALTER BECKER, Steely Dan: You could tell already that this was something that was a bit down on its heels. The people we had contact with were clearly people who were proposing to make this sort of difficult transition from one pop-music era to another, and you could see how ridiculous it was, what they were trying to do. That reflected itself in all sorts of ways, including the way they looked and the cheesy musical stuff they were doing, trying to capture the psychedelic momentum of the day.
Perhaps it was according to this logic that longhaired Becker and Fagen got staff jobs as songwriters for JATA Enterprises, the publishing company of the past-its-prime pop group Jay and the Americans, who also employed the duo as touring musicians.
JAY BLACK, Jay and the Americans: We had these two kids sing some stuff for us, and they were so talented, I said, “Would you like to play for us?” And they worked for us. Now they’re Steely Dan. So I wonder why they left—I was paying them a hundred dollars apiece!
WALTER BECKER: The songs we had were utterly bizarre songs. There was no chance that anybody would record any of them. I remember us going down to Jeff Barry’s office and playing a tune for him and, you know, having him get impatient before the chorus came in. He could tell pretty quickly that these weren’t hit tunes. Jerry Leiber compared our music to German art music or something like that.
Becker and Fagen proved to be the last great Brill Building songwriting team—in a delayed-reaction sort of way. In their year plus with JATA Enterprises, they managed to use the dilapidated old demo studio in the building to record 15 to 20 songs, a few of which would later emerge, in rerecorded form, as Steely Dan songs.
WALTER BECKER: I think we did a demo of the song “Brooklyn.” “Barrytown” was another one of those demos—and there were a lot of songs that we did at that time that were rewritten or scrapped for parts. It was a period of time that helped us hone our style from the ultra-ridiculous to the merely ridiculous.
Becker and Fagen moved to the West Coast in 1971, just as most of the older Brill stalwarts had done or would do in this period. The music-industry locus had shifted to Los Angeles, and New York City—formerly the vibrant, sparkly inspiration for many of their songs—had entered its run-down Kojak period.
CAROLE KING: Gerry and I both moved west in 1968. That was the year that we knew that our marriage was pretty much not gonna work. We moved separately. A lot of the music business was happening out West.
CYNTHIA WEIL: Suddenly you realized that everyone you wanted to talk to was on the West Coast: a producer, an A&R person. And New York was going through a bad period—it was at its dirtiest and crummiest. Right before we left, I went to say good-bye to Bloomingdale’s, my favorite place. And all of a sudden a bus came barreling down Third Avenue and screeched to a halt in front of where I was standing, and a guy jumped out with a knife, and dropped the knife and ran down the street; he had held up the bus driver. I thought, Oh my God! There’s nothing sacred! They’re dropping knives in front of Bloomingdale’s! I gotta get outta here!
After the Brill scene deteriorated, a mixed bag of fates awaited its former inhabitants. Most went through periods of identity crisis, but each, to varying degrees, went on to later success, even if it wasn’t as consistent as it had been in the Brill days. King made the biggest splash with her 1971 album Tapestry, the best-selling LP of the 1970s, and continues to record. Goffin has written the words to such hits as Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You” and Diana Ross’s “Do You Know Where You’re Going To (Theme from Mahogany)”; he and King continue to collaborate from time to time. Sedaka came back big in the 1970s, writing “Love Will Keep Us Together” for the Captain and Tennille and having his own hits with “Laughter in the Rain” and “Bad Blood”; he continues to perform. Mann and Weil, who remain happily married, have written such hits as Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” and Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch.” Barry, the least ruffled by the end of the Brill era, wrote “Sugar Sugar” for the Archies, the biggest-selling single of 1968, and co-wrote “I Honestly Love You” with Peter Allen for Olivia Newton-John. Greenwich, after recovering from what she calls a “nervous breakdown,” put together a hit stage retrospective of her songs entitled The Leader of the Pack. Leiber and Stoller pulled a similar trick with their show Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a long-runner on Broadway, and still write songs together.
Diamond flourished as a solo artist. Morton went on to produce Vanilla Fudge and the New York Dolls, and is getting back to producing after a long period spent in an alcoholic wilderness. Bacharach and David, the beneficiaries of a warm re-appraisal in recent years (with Elvis Costello and Mike Myers at the forefront), are writing together again, having overcome a long estrangement. Kirshner oversaw the Monkees and Archies records, and went on to produce and host the Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert TV series, memorably lampooned by Paul Shaffer on Saturday Night Live.
Yet there’s no getting around the fact that a majority of these people will forever be regarded, first and foremost, as Brill Building people—a fact that may have rankled them in earlier days, but now is a fate to which they are happily reconciled.
ELLIE GREENWICH: You want to hear my best story? This was about two years ago. Right next door to here [in Greenwich’s Manhattan apartment building] there’s a tailor, and I had to go in to get some things altered. It was a Saturday morning—no makeup, no hair spray. The radio’s on, and “Be My Baby” comes on. So this woman is pinning as she’s singing along. I don’t say anything, but it’s kind of exciting, because she’s singing it and she knows all the words.
And then the Raindrops come on, “What a Guy.” I’m semi-beside-myself. Wow! After that, they play “Cherry, Cherry,” Neil Diamond. Now I can hardly control myself. And this woman walks in off the street and she goes, “Oh! [Gasps.] He’s my favorite! I love Neil Diamond so!”
I’m now like, That’s it! I go, “Excuse me? You hear that? [Singing.] ‘She got the way to move me ... ’ That’s my ex-husband and I! We’re doing those backgrounds! I produced that record with my husband! And I was with the Raindrops, the song before that! And ‘Be My Baby’—I was one of the writers of that song!”
And this woman just backs up ... looks me up and down ... and she goes, “Right, lady.”