(Ellie Greenwich pops out)
The death in the past week of Cynthia Weil, one of the giants of pop songwriting and a Brill Building* alumni, led to a dive into the files for an interview with another writer and colleague of Weil, who would be entitled to share a floor with her in what Leonard Cohen called the Tower Of Song.
In 2003, songwriter and singer Ellie Greenwich came to Australia for the premiere of a jukebox musical Leader Of The Pack, based (if you could stretch that word a bit) on her life and using her songs. The songs everyone knows, would recognise, or should have in their lives; the life that began in Brooklyn, encompassed a fan who devoured all she heard on the radio, a college graduate whose parents came from Russian stock and were Catholic and Jewish but (Wisely? Safely?) not practicing, and a piano accordion player.
Yes, you read that right. While she would move to piano to write eventually, the squeezebox butt of jokes – made by people who’d never be able to handle the beast of an instrument – was her first home.
“Growing up I always expressed myself with music, with poetry. I played the accordion,'' Greenwich told me at the time, conscious that it was hardly the most rock’n’roll instrument. “Oh I tried, I really tried. I made it work once or twice but it was sad. I didn't write any hit songs on it but I did write one that's in the show called Drive That Boogie Beat. I was 14 years old, formed a group on Long Island where I lived. I was just a kid, writing about feelings or whatever.''
Which parts of the show were true? Which stories ended up in her songs? Who was she then, and now? We only had six more years to ask, as Greenwich died in 2009.
By then recognition, long delayed, had finally come her way. Some of this delay was sexism, undoubtedly; some of it was the lot of contract songwriters after the arrival of Dylan and The Beatles elevated the singer/songwriter to the front of the queue of “artist”; and some of it Greenwich puts down to the fact that while she did have a limited performing career, most of her time she stayed in the background.
“Carole [King] performed, Neil Diamond performed. I stayed behind the scene. People remember the artist not the writer. It's the way it is."
But for pop fans who knew where the brilliance lay, death didn’t change one thing: to lift from Greenwich and ex-husband Jeff Barry – via The Ronettes or The Beach Boys, take your pick – I can hear music.
*(Not every staff songwriter in New York working for the publishers supplying songs to so many pop hitmakers of the late ‘50s and 1960s operated out of the 11-storey building at 1619 Broadway, aka The Brill Building. But most of the others were nearby and can claim lineage, or maybe temporal squatter’s rights. And anyway, we’re allowed to have our romance with the truth in the tower of song.)
WELL, YES, AS CLICHED AS IT SOUNDS, it's true that if you grew up sometime after 1962 the chances are that Ellie Greenwich wrote part of the soundtrack of your life.
Even if you weren't from the wrong side of town you probably shed a tear when that bike headed for disaster in Leader Of The Pack (''look out, look out, look out'') because you knew that it wasn't that he was bad; it was that he was sad.
And at the church social, as that boy with the cute cowlick approached, you probably hadn't been able to stop yourself humming And Then He Kissed Me (“he walked up to me and he asked if I wanted to dance''). Not to mention wincing with pain more recently when Jimmy Barnes murdered River Deep Mountain High (“do I love you my oh my?'' not when you sing like that Jimmy.)
But have you ever wondered who wrote the soundtrack to Ellie Greenwich's life?
“When rock and roll first started, it was Earth Angel by the Penguins,'' the 62-year-old Greenwich says, sitting on the edge of a dull grey seat in a dull grey part of the casino. “I heard that and I thought `ah, what have we here? That was a great beginning for me with the sing-song and the black pop sounds.''
She sings a verse of it now, its melody as familiar to her as if she'd heard it yesterday, not nearly 50 years ago. But before she gets too far she remembers another musical moment, one that had an even greater impact.
(Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry)
“I loved it when the Shirelles came in and I thought, ok I want to be in a girl group,'' Greenwich says with a light laugh. “They had recorded a song Will You Love Me Tomorrow, that Carole King and Gerry Goffin had written, and a couple of years before that I had written a song [she hums a tune that isn't a million miles from Will You Love Me Tomorrow] and I thought maybe I could write a song.''
Maybe she could. And she did. Finding herself in 1962 writing in New York with the man who became her husband, Jeff Barry, and alongside other stellar partnerships of the so-called Brill Building set, Goffin and King, Bacharach and David, Sedaka and Greenfield, Weill and Mann. And of course the production genius/potential sociopath Phil Spector.
She was 22, a college graduate not much older than the bevy of girl groups for whom she wrote many of her best songs (Be My Baby and Baby I Love You, to name but two).
Her specialty was capturing the complex emotions of those turbulent teen years in simple form - sometimes so simply it didn't need real words, just something like Da Do Ron Ron Ron.
Did those extra years at college make her more sophisticated? She snorts at the idea.
“I didn't even know how to spell the word - and I was an English major. No way,'' Greenwich says. “It didn't feel like you were a grown up but it felt like you had to grow up a little bit.
“What I found very interesting about a lot of the material I was involved in was it was very simple and sometimes I would go oh my Lord, Da Doo Ron Ron is so much fun but it's almost like a nursery rhyme. But you know, whatever you were feeling – you were happy, carefree in love or whatever – it's what came out of us. At the time it didn't take much thinking, it was all feeling.''
Given Greenwich is in Sydney for the opening tonight of Leader Of The Pack, a musical loosely based on her life and her songs, and a later comment that what marked out a Greenwich/Barry song was “a certain street sound, a certain innocence about to turn'', it does raise the question was that what she was like in 1962, an innocent about to turn?
“I'm still like that,'' she offers. “Not innocent but I'm still a hopeful romantic and the songs that were written, if I was starting again today, I probably would write very similarly and keep the negative stuff that becomes part of you as time goes on, out of it.
“I think the songs say what people want things to be. And I'm still that way. I would say to someone `be my baby'. I don't think you lose that part of you and the songs are a big reflection of me: about to grow up, but not quite.''
JUKEBOX GEMS OR SCRATCHED HITS? IN 2003, LIKE 2023, THE JURY WAS STILL OUT
The hit songs already exist so creating a musical around them is a no-brainer licence to print money right? If only.
Oh What A Night
The songs: ‘70s disco with one ‘60s throwback.
The stars: Gary Sweet and Marcia Hines. No, seriously.
The story: sorry, what’s that? The book was barely a pamphlet.
The result: a country RSL club standard of acting, clunky lines and gratuitously deployed songs
What The World Needs Now
The songs: selections from the Burt Bacharach and Hal David songbook.
The stars: Jackie Love and, um, er … well, yes exactly
The story: again with the story? Isn’t that what the songs are supposed to do?
The result: a mess of poor linkages, stiff performances and mismatched voices whose run was mercifully cut short.
The songs: from Irving Berlin and Cole Porter through Kurt Weill and Sammy Cahn to Janis Ian. Conducted by Tommy Tycho. Really.
The stars: Normie Rowe and Chelsea Gibb
The story: a nightclub singer must choose between his sweetheart or his temptress
The result: not many got happy; more got going
The songs: selections from the Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson ABBA songbook
The stars: Anne Wood, Kellie Rode, Rhonda Burchmore and John O’May
The story: multi-generational love stories set on a Greek island. Yes, there was a genuine book and script. And it didn’t stink.
The result: audiences loved it; critics teetered on the edge but mostly liked it. And it has made a lot of money.
The songs: the hits of Johnny O’Keefe
The stars: David Campbell, Trisha Noble,
The story: a little like the real life of O’Keefe, our first rock star. Best not to look too closely.
The result: good times, no mental effort required and money was made.
The Boy From Oz
The songs: the hits of Peter Allen
The stars: Todd McKenney, Jill Perryman, Chrissie Amphlett
The story: country boy writes, sings, becomes a star and dies. And it was true.
The result: a world class musical with depth in story, song and performance.