Saturday, August 29, 2009

Be My Baby, Ellie Greenwich

A couple of days ago it was announced that songwriter Ellie Greenwich passed away at age 68. She is one of those people whose name is not instantly recognizable but the influence she had on early sixties pop music was enormous. You may have not heard of her, but you've certainly heard the songs she crafted.

Ellie worked in the famous Brill Building in Manhattan in the early sixties. What an amazing, astonishing place that must have been in its heyday. Imagine walking from office to office, floor to floor and hearing fantastic music and singing coming from everywhere. There were a number of record producers, arrangers and composers who had office space there, and some of the leading girl-group acts of the day could be heard trying out new songs and melodies. Talk about being in the right place at the right time - the Brill Building in the early 60s was ground zero for some of the most listenable and enduring pop music ever produced.

Greenwich worked on some of the landmark pop songs of that era. Who can resist a perfect confection like the Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love," or the earnest optimism of "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry" by Darlene Love? This was back in the day when marriage was an ultimate goal and the highest accomplishment to which one could aspire. Ellie Greenwich had her hand in a number of hit records by some of the quintessential sixties girl groups. Tunes like "Then He Kissed Me" and the jaunty "Da Doo Ron Ron" by The Crystals, and "Baby I Love You" and the flawless gem "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes. This last song in particular was a perfect storm of great songwriting, great performing and artful musical craftsmanship. It's doubtful that Phil Spector's legendary "Wall of Sound" would have seemed quite as good without Ronnie Spector's soulful vocals and that ideal vehicle of a song. Ronnie Spector's singing was so good she reprised her unforgettable stylings to great effect on Eddie Money's 80s hit, "Take Me Home Tonight."

Then there was The Shangri-La's "Leader of the Pack," a marvelously overwrought teen-angst classic. A three-minute Wagner opera created for twelve-year-old girls, it had everything that makes your teenage years appalling and exhilarating the the same time: an uncomfortable, slightly illicit teenage attraction, parental disapproval, a motorcycle rebel, and a tough-chick attitude captured perfectly by the vocals. It started like the dialogue in a play, a girl and her friends discussing a new boyfriend when the lead vocalist rips into the melody:

"I met him at the candy store,
He turned around and smiled at me -
You get the picture?"
"Yes, we see!"
"That's how I fell for
the Leader of the Pack!"

The song goes deliciously off the rails as the love affair tanks and the cycle rebel gets into a traffic accident, the vocalist shrieking out a frantic "Lookout! Lookout! Lookout! Lookout!" at the last minute followed by horrendous skidding and crashing sound effects. And after all the histrionics and carrying-on, the song fades out with a howling, never-ending screech of tires over an evocative vocal phrase repeated over and over like a prayer: "Leader of the Pack, now he's gone, No, No, No..." You could not ask for more in a song.

As a pre-teenager growing up in relative cultural isolation in a small western Pennsylvania steel-mill town, I remember many summer nights laying in bed listening to my transistor radio through an earplug, and if the atmospheric conditions were right I was able to tune in an AM radio station from distant New York City. Cousin Brucie on WABC had a nighttime program where he spun all the current hits, and to me it was an audio window to another world, so exotic and different from my life it might as well have been coming from the other side of the planet. Even the commercials were fascinating to me, because they referenced places like Brooklyn, Queens, Madison Avenue, and Broadway, places I had only heard about. The radio signal would phase in and out, and the hissing static would almost sound like hypnotic waves of an ethereal ocean, just adding to the mesmerizing and surreal quality of the experience. I never forgot those wondrous summer nights, and the incredible music coming in through the night from a far-off, glittering city I could only dream about.

Alas, something this brilliant and creative burns out quickly, and Greenwich saw her career eclipsed by the British invasion several years later, which ushered in the era of the singer-songwriter. With talents like Joni Mitchell on the west coast and Laura Nyro on the east coast, and the Beatles coming over from England, artists were now writing and performing their own music, and Ellie found less demand for her skills. She did help Neil Diamond with his first couple of hits, and even penned the naughty, salacious "(My Baby Does The) Hanky Panky" by the mega-cheesy Tommy James and the Shondells. Her career enjoyed a brief resurgence in the eighties as a Broadway musical, "Leader of the Pack," introduced her meticulously crafted music to a new generation.

Now Ellie is gone, but her music is not. It will endure as long as there are teenagers growing up and listening to impossibly beautiful music, written especially for them and drifting in over the radio waves on warm, still, summer nights, speaking directly to their hearts.

Won't you please be my baby, Ellie Greenwich?

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