Ellie Greenwich: Co-writer of such pop classics as ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Leader Of The Pack’
Monday 31 August 2009
The New York songwriter Ellie Greenwich composed some of the best-known, most loved and most covered hits of the Sixties, often with her then husband Jeff Barry and the legendary “Wall Of Sound” producer Phil Spector. This three-way partnership created the enduring pop classics “Da Doo Ron Ron” as well as “And Then He Kissed Me” for the Crystals, “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You” for the Ronettes, and “River Deep, Mountain High” for Ike & Tina Turner – all produced by Spector – and also “Chapel Of Love”, a hit for the Dixie Cups in 1964, and “I Can Hear Music”, a UK Top Ten single for the Beach Boys in 1969.
She insisted that she and Barry always intended to replace the nonsensical “Da Doo Ron Ron” line. “We got all the rest of the words and music together, but we couldn’t find anything for this bit,” she said of the nurseryrhyme like song. “Believe me, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
Barry and Greenwich wrote the effervescent “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”, a Transatlantic chart-topper for Manfred Mann in 1964, the lovelorn “Maybe I Know” for Lesley Gore – a Top 20 hit in 1964 – the irresistible “Hanky Panky”, a US No 1 for Tommy James and the Shondells in 1966, and, with producer George “Shadow”
Morton, the eerily atmospheric “Leader Of The Pack” for the Shangri- Las, which originated and defined the “death record” genre and was banned by the BBC, despite topping the US charts in 1964. “Believe it or not, ‘Leader Of The Pack’ was serious,” she said. “It was like a little soap opera.
Now, they look at songs like that with a satirical edge, but when we wrote it, we were serious about it.”
Greenwich and Barry were one of several songwriting teams operating out of the famous Brill Building on New York’s Broadway, just north of Times Square, and enjoyed friendly rivalries with Burt Bacharah and Hal David, Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil as they competed to get their material recorded by vocal groups and singers.
Greenwich also discovered the budding songwriter Neil Diamond, and with Barry produced his early recordings including “Solitary Man”, and the hits “Cherry, Cherry”, “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” and “Red, Red Wine” for Bert Berns’ Bang Records.
She was a recording artist in her own right, and a vocal arranger and backing vocalist on a host of recordings by Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Connie Francis, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Dusty Springfield.
In 1977, her composition “Sunshine After The Rain”, produced by her Brill Building friends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, became a Top 10 hit for Elkie Brooks in the UK. In the early 1980s she collaborated with Cyndi Lauper and Ellen Folley, as well as Nona Hendryx of Labelle fame. This lead to the creation of a musical called Leader Of The Pack, telling the story of Greenwich’s life through her songs.
First produced in 1984, it ran on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award the following year. A forerunner of the juke-box musical, Leader Of The Pack has become a staple of high school productions in the US and remains a testament to her considerable legacy.
She was born Eleanor Louise Greenwich in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940, to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. In the early 1950s the family moved to Levittown, Long Island, and she started playing the accordion before switching to the piano. “Anything musical, I got into,” she recalled.
“Then I started to write my own songs because I had a crush on this guy in high school.” She also fronted a girl group called The Jivettes and performed at local functions. In 1958, while studying at Queens College, Greenwich released two selfpenned songs, “Silly Isn’t It” and “Cha- Cha Charming”, on a single for RCA Records under the name Ellie Gaye.
When one of her lecturers criticised her embryonic pop career, she transferred to Hofstra University. She met Barry at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1959, but he was married at the time and their relationship only blossomed later. “He was the first male I could actually harmonise with,” said Greenwich, who wrote “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” – later reworked with Spector and recorded by Darlene Love – about Barry, and married him in 1962.
By then she had graduated from university with an English degree and had spent three and a half weeks as a schoolteacher before becoming a professional songwriter after attracting Leiber’s attention during a visit to the Brill Building. When Leiber overheard Greenwich playing the piano in one of the building’s many cubicles, he first mistook her for King, and was then so impressed by her original material that he signed her to Trio Music, the publishing company he had started with Stoller, and soon put her on $100 a week salary. She recorded so many demos to help shop songs around that she became known as the “Demo Queen” of New York, with an uncanny ability to mimic Springfield, whom she later befriended and produced. She also worked with several writers, including Tony Powers, with whom she penned “This Is It” for Jay and the Americans (with Doc Pomus), “He’s Got The Power”, for The Exciters in 1963 – the same year they recorded the original version of “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” – and with Spector, “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others’ Hearts?” credited to Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, but by Love too.
Barry had been contracted to a different publisher but that deal ran its course and he soon began writing more or less exclusively with Greenwich.
The couple recorded half a dozen singles as The Raindrops, most notably “The Kind Of Boy You Can’t Forget”, which made the US Top 20 in the summer of 1963, and the original version of “Hanky Panky” for their only album. However, they really made their mark with Spector on a series of well-crafted, ground-breaking singles master-minded by “the first Tycoon of Teen”. “We just got Phil,” she reflected in 2001, eight years before the producer was convicted of Lana Clarkson’s murder. “We made him laugh. And we understood him. We accepted his idiosyncrasies... I think he just felt safe with us. Plus, we turned out some really good stuff.”
Indeed, 1964 was her high watermark year, Greenwich and her husband scoring 17 hit singles, an achievement only bettered by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and the Motown songwriters Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland. However, working with Spector, and then helping Leiber and Stoller launch Red Bird Records and its roster of the Dixie Cups, the Shangri-Las, the Ad-Libs and the Jelly Beans, took its toll on the couple.
Greenwich recorded a single called “You Don’t Know”, while Barry chipped in with “Our Love Can Still Be Saved” b/w “I’ll Still Love You”, also on Red Bird, but they divorced in December 1965 and she later suffered a nervous breakdown. “When my marriage fell apart and my style dropped out of fashion, it seemed there wasn’t anything left,” she subsequently admitted. “It’s easy to say I had plenty left, but that’s not how it seems when you’re there.”
In 1968, she issued her first solo album, fittingly called Ellie Greenwich Composes, Produces And Sings. In the early 1970s she made a second one, Let It Written, Let It Be Sung, with Steve Tudanger and Steve Feldman, with whom she also started the Jingle Habitat company. She recorded many radio and television commercials for bigname clients like American Airlines, American Express, Cheerios, Ford and Levi’s Jeans. With a catalogue of over 200 songs, 25 gold or platinum records to her name, and many memorable hits whose appeal has survived repeated usage in film and on TV and a million plays on oldie stations, Greenwich was rightly acclaimed as a pioneer and one of the first female writers and producers of the pop era.
“Carole King and myself were the only two girls who wrote, sang, and also produced. I think we were very well liked, but underneath it all there was a little resentment. The girls could be the singers, maybe even a writer, but the person in charge of the studio was usually a man,” said Greenwich who, along with Barry, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1991. “I guess you’ve really made it when your name and songs are in crossword puzzles, in Trivial Pursuit and other games and on Jeopardy,” she commented.
When quizzed about the inspiration behind “Baby, I Love You” or “Chapel Of Love”, she explained: “in the early ’60s, life was fairly simple and straightforward.
There was a large degree of innocence, and flirting, courting and naiveté was the rule, not the exception.
The music of that era reflected the simple life and easy times. It was a comfortable place to be, and people knew what to expect. I got thrown into a business that was crazy, but wonderful.
I was young, it was exciting, and I cried when I heard my songs on the radio. There’s no substitute for the actual joy of music-making.”
Greenwich’s influence has proved far reaching on acts as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Money, the Ramones, Blondie – with whom she recorded – and Beth Orton, who covered The Ronettes’ “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine”, another of her cowrites, on Trailer Park. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, the only original composition on the 1963 album A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector, again co-written with Barry and Spector, and first recorded by Darlene Love, has become a festive standard and been successfully revived by Mariah Carey, Cher, Jon Bon Jovi and U2.
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys always names “Be My Baby” as his favourite single, and called Greenwich “the greatest melody writer of all time.” The songwriter Diane Warren also paid tribute to Greenwich’s perfect pop vignettes of teenage romance, longing and heartache. “Those songs are part of the fabric of forever,” she said. “They were written in the ’60s but they are as relevant and meaningful today as the day they were born.”
Eleanor Louise Greenwich, singer, songwriter, producer: born New York 23 October 1940; married Jeff Barry 1962 (marriage dissolved 1965); died New York 26 August 2009.
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