Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jews and the Brill Building - by Richie Unterberger

The follow is a guest entry by renowned popular music historian Richie Unterberger. He will present the program Blue Suede Jews at the Koret Auditorium on Sunday afternoon, February 5, 2012 at 2:00 PM.

The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan

Jews were heavily involved in rock'n'roll from the beginning as label owners, songwriters, producers, and promoters. Jews played a part in constructing quite a few early rock classics that many listeners might not realize were written by members of the Jewish faith, from "Jailhouse Rock" and "A Teenager in Love" to "On Broadway," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," and "Chapel of Love."

Perhaps no early school of rock benefited from Jewish songwriters as much as the Brill Building. Named after an actual building on Broadway in midtown Manhattan that housed a great deal of music industry activity, the term eventually became applied to all the young New York songwriters, producers, and publishers who took rock compositions to a new level of melodic sophistication in the early-to-mid-'60s. Many of them were performed by girl groups such as the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, and the Crystals; some were hits for African-American vocal groups like the Drifters and the Coasters. An astonishingly high percentage of them were written by Jewish songwriters, including the husband-wife songwriting teams of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Other Jewish Brill Building songwriting teams of note were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman; Burt Bacharach and Hal David; and Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield. Phil Spector also rose through the Brill Building ranks, though he became more noted as a producer than a songwriter.

Mike Stoller (left) and Jerry Leiber (right) with Elvis Presley, for whom they wrote "Jailhouse Rock" and some other hits

In putting together the February 5 film program Blue Suede Jews (in the Koret Auditorium from 2-4pm), however, it struck me that it took quite some time for Jews to make a mark as performers, rather than behind-the-scenes role players. Though most of the names in the above paragraph also made records as singers, surprisingly few of them seemed to feel comfortable stepping into the limelight. Neil Sedaka – probably the first true Jewish rock star – was the only one who focused heavily his own solo career, rattling off a string of lightweight pop-rock hits (such as "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" and "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen") in the early '60s. Carole King had a fairly big 1962 hit with "It Might As Well Rain Until September"; Barry Mann had a classic novelty smash the previous year with "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp Bomp Bomp)"; Doc Pomus, in the years just prior to the initial rock'n'roll explosion, might have been the first white rhythm and blues singer; Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich sang on girl group-styled hits by the Raindrops; and Phil Spector had a #1 single as a teenager in 1958 as part of the Teddy Bears on "To Know Him Is To Love Him." Yet all of them seemed happier writing (and often producing as well) than performing, perhaps because, then as now, the biggest money in the music business came through publishing.

Phil Spector

Not all Jews who passed through the Brill Building found fame working within that scene. Paul Simon issued numerous flops in a teen idol style in the early '60s, but really didn't find his songwriting genius until getting immersed in poetic folk music and reconnecting with high school friend Art Garfunkel. Al Kooper co-wrote "This Diamond Ring," eventually a hit for the Jew-led Gary Lewis & the Playboys, but achieved greater recognition as a member of the Blues Project, a founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears, and session keyboardist to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and many other greats. Some Brill Building hits were actually sung by Jewish performers, such as Lesley Gore (Barry-Greenwich's "Maybe I Know") and Jay & the Americans (the Mann-Weil-Leiber-Stoller collaboration "Only in America"). At the time, however, the architects behind the songs were known primarily within the industry, and maybe to the relatively small cults of collectors and musicians (such as the Beatles, big Goffin-King fans) who studied the small-print songwriting credits on record labels.

Even some Jews who failed to intersect with the Brill Building were perceived more as songwriters than performers when they began their careers in the early-to-mid-1960s. Bob Dylan recorded dozens of publishing demos, made in at least partial hopes that they'd attract cover versions by big acts (such as Peter, Paul & Mary, who had a massive hit with his "Blowin' in the Wind"), as you can hear on the recent double CD The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman wanted to sign a young Janis Ian as a songwriter, not a singer. Strangest of all, shortly before founding the Velvet Underground with John Cale, Lou Reed ground out British Invasion imitations and surf tunes as a staff songwriter for suburban New York budget label Pickwick Records.

What changed this? The onslaught of the Beatles in early 1964, perhaps, made it seem immensely more attractive and credible to play and sing your own material, as well as write it. The success of Bob Dylan as a solo artist in the mid-1960s proved you could make it without a conventionally pretty voice or conventional teen idol looks. The likes of Paul Simon, Lou Reed, and Janis Ian were quick to follow in establishing themselves as major singer-songwriters. So too, eventually, did Carole King, although she would be the only top Brill Building composer to enjoy a long career as a star in her own right. The rest of her Brill Building peers struggled to adapt to the changing times to varying degrees, but left us with an enormous legacy of great tunes, as well as marrying the best of rock'n'roll, rhythm & blues, and commercial songwriting craft. - Richie Unterberger

Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry

Carole King and Gerry Goffin

Book Resources:

Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, by Ken Emerson (Penguin, 2005). Excellent, in-depth volume about the Brill Building sound, focusing on the songwriting teams of Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Neil Sedaka & Howard Greenfield, and Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman.

Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound, by Alan Betrock (Delilah Books, 1982). It's hard to find now, but this is one of the best books devoted to a single rock genre. The evolution and heyday of the girl groups is covered from all angles, including the songwriters, producers, and labels behind the records, and it's bountifully illustrated.

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—And the Journey of a Generation, by Sheila Weller (Atria, 2008). Though this follows the lives of three major singer-songwriters, the third or so of the book devoted to King includes a lot of interesting coverage of her Brill Building years and her evolution into a solo recording star.

Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller with David Ritz (Simon & Schuster, 2010). It could have been more detailed, but this autobiography by one of the greatest songwriting/production teams of rock'n'roll's first decade has plenty of interesting stories, as well as first-hand accounts of both the 1950s Los Angeles R&B scene and the more pop-oriented Brill Building one in which they became key figures after moving to New York.

Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus, by Alex Halberstadt (Da Capo Press, 2007). Aptly titled biography of one of the key Brill Building songwriters, who did not let his disability from polio prevent him from becoming arguably the first white R&B singer, and then a top pop-rock songwriter.

A Natural Woman: A Memoir, by Carole King (Grand Central Publishing, 2012). Still more than two months away from publication as of this writing, this 500-page autobiography should presumably have a lot of details about King's time at the Brill Building.

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector, by Mick Brown (Vintage, 2008). In-depth Spector bio covers both his studio artistry and his controversial personal demons, all the way through the 2003 murder for which he's currently serving a prison sentence.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Film Screening: CHALK

Saturday, January 21st at 2 p.m., the AMR Department will sponsor the locally-produced, independent feature CHALK (1996). Screened in the Bay Area for the first time in over a decade, this pool-hustling family saga is most notably remembered for being locally created, cast, and shot by the Tenderloin Action Group (TAG), a workshop of mostly homeless inner city residents who trained weekly under director and co-writer Robert Nilsson. Original reviews from the film’s premiere praise the screen presence of these actors, as well as Mickey Freeman’s cinematography, and Cassavetes-devotee Robert Nilsson’s convincingly dark and gritty atmosphere.

Film Still: TAG actors portray Clark and Jones

The 1998 San Francisco Chronicle review by Edvins Beitiks describes some scenes as “downright mesmerizing” such as ”the one of TC passing out on Ocean Beach, to be found at sunrise by a couple of surfers - a shot that includes a woman falling off a horse, a fat lizard and 200 shadings of blue and orange. There are slow-mo's of people in a pool hall, laughing and throwing their arms around, a shot from a roof on Valencia above the 500 Club, of Richmond trains clanking through the rain, of Watson and Lois sharing memories of their first kiss, and close-ups of the pool balls themselves, dancing across a table, moving toward the screen.” Enriching the experience for locals, there is footage of the Tenderloin and other City settings as they existed twenty years ago, before dot-commerce altered the streets and skylines.

Film Still: Don Bajema as Dorian James

CHALK, a challenging film to make, is also intended for adventurous viewers. It was created without regard to Hollywood formulas and entirely outside of the Hollywood system, financed independently in part through community grassroots fundraisers. As one reviewer put it, "Considering the odds against its ever being made, CHALK is amazing." Please join us for a rare screening this fine example of San Francisco community cinema. Film producers Ethan Sing and Rand Crook will be available for a discussion after the screening.

This flyer is from one of the many fundraising events held for the film. Other benefits included the support of Tom Waits, Gena Rowlands and Boz Scaggs as well as international pool stars Nick Varner, Mike Massey, Johnny Archer, Billy Aguero, Kim Davenport, and George Michaels.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Technology and the Symphony - Recordings, Radio and Television

Victor Records by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
source: San Francisco Symphony programs, 1929-1930, p. 786

The Victor Talking Machine Company contracted with the San Francisco Symphony in 1924 to produce 78 rpm discs. Between 1925 and 1928 the Symphony recorded 19 works. Alfred Hertz and the Symphony recorded with Victor during a period when recording techniques were still developing. The earliest recordings were “acoustic,” meaning that they were done without benefit of microphone or amplifier. The later “electric” recordings were also hampered by the short duration of these recordings--each side could contain a maximum of 4 ½ minutes of sound--necessitating carefully planning to divide longer classical works into sensible portions. There were also questions of how many musicians they should engage in order to guarantee the correct balance and timbre on the recordings.

Standard Hour broadcast, Program for Thursday Evening March 13, 1930
source: San Francisco Symphony programs, 1929-1930

In 1926 the San Francisco Symphony became the first orchestra to be broadcast live on the radio on the West coast. The Symphony originally attempted to fund these broadcasts through audience subscription, but was only able to realize these programs with substantial financial assistance from the Standard Oil Company. The initial performance was broadcast on October 24, 1926 from the Curran Theatre over the Pacific Network of NBC, and locally on KGO and KPO (today’s KNBR). The orchestra's performance was picked up by microphones and sent over telephone wires to the local stations, as well as to KFI in Los Angeles. Live radio also required the orchestra to carefully consider its time allotment in order to allow time for its performance and on-air program notes. This early foray was well-received and ultimately resulted in the weekly Standard Hour programs that continued into the 1950s.

A Special Concert for the Orchestra's Pension and Endowment Funds Source: San Francisco Programs. Music, 1955-1956

On March 3, 1956 the Symphony engaged in a “musical experiment” sponsored by the Ampex Corporation with a tape recorder. This performance, benefiting the musicians’ pension fund, featured live performance as well as the orchestra playing in silent synchronization with the tape.

Channel 7 Proudly Presents the Premiere Television Concert of the San Francisco Symphony Source: San Francisco Symphony programs, 1961-1962

During the San Francisco Symphony’s 50th anniversary season, they made their first television appearance on KGO on February 10, 1962. That season they also appeared in a documentary broadcast by KRON.

The technologies of radio, television, and recording continue to be used by the Symphony and today are enhanced by the worldwide reach of the Worldwide Web.

The two San Francisco Symphony centennial exhibits at the Main Library will be coming to a close within the next couple of days. Don't forget to see them while you can.


From the Archives: An Audio History of the San Francisco Symphony, a twelve episode series of podcasts from the San Francisco Symphony website.

Music For a City, Music for the World: 100 Years with the San Francisco Symphony (Chronicle Books, 2011)

San Francisco Symphony [programs] (San Francisco Symphony Association, 1911-1969).

San Francisco Programs. Music (San Francisco Public Library, 1850-1926; 1943-1956).

San Francisco Symphony Discography [.pdf] from the San Francisco Symphony website (n.d.).

San Francisco Symphony Youtube channel.

SFS Media [webpage] from the San Francisco Symphony website.Link

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Player Piano at the Symphony

The Duo-Art piano taking Harold Bauer's place as soloist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Hertz conductor, at the regular symphony concerts, Curran Theatre, San Francisco, Friday, January 31st and Sunday, February 2nd

image source: Alfred Metzger, "Bauer's recording of Saint-Saens Concerto on Duo-Art piano creates a big sensation," Pacific Coast Musical Review vol. 35, no. 19 (February 8, 1919), p. 1

Although it is institution that fosters and sustains a classical tradition, over the years the symphony orchestra has also adapted to technological innovation. The twentieth century brought the San Francisco Symphony into contact with many such changes, some that were fleeting, others having long-lasting implications.

One early experiment tried by the Symphony was the use of a player piano as a soloist under the auspices of the Aeolian Company. The audience at the January 31, 1919 performance of the Symphony witnessed a piano without a bench or pianist render the solo part of Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto in G minor as performed by Harold Bauer on a Duo-Art piano roll. While piano rolls are considered archaic today, they were a popular alternative to sound recordings on disc and cylinder during the early 20th century. The sonic fidelity of such recordings would be far superior to disc recordings for many years.

To get a sense of the event, we can read the account of Alfred Metzger, the exacting music critic of the Pacific Coast Musical Review.
Surely we have arrived at an astounding epoch of the world's musical history when a conscientious music critic can review with all sincerity the performance of a piano concerto, at a legitimate symphony concert, under the direction of one of the world's greatest symphony conductors, when the soloist of the occasion was none other than a so-called mechanical instrument.

Metzger was impressed with the how much of the performer’s personal style he could recognize in this reproduction.
If you have ever heard Harold Bauer interpret any composition ... and your sense of observation is sufficiently developed to retain impressions accurately in your mind, you will at once recognize Mr. Bauer's individual style of performance the moment the Duo-Art impersonates the great piano virtuoso. There is, above all, the firm, solid touch whose dignity and deliberation is so well known to the musical public. Then you hear that rippling, clear and almost more than human accuracy of technic also accentuated with that firmness and solidity with which Mr. Bauer invests all his readings.

He also was aware of the potential of musical recording -- that it could create an ideal, possibly impossible standard of performance through the ability to make repeated takes and edit a performance. Metzger continues:
It might here be added that this Bauer record on the Duo-Art piano possesses even a greater artistic value in some respects than Mr. Bauer's own performance, or it reveals a perfection of technical execution which a mere human being could not possibly retain. Mr. Bauer has been able to edit and re-edit this record until he has attained in it the utmost accuracy as to technical perfection.

In his review he also heaped praise upon conductor Alfred Hertz for his sensitivity in follow the subtle fluctuations of tempo of Bauer’s performance.

Looking back on this event, it’s fairly safe to say that it was a publicity stunt, albeit one with high artistic standards. This is belied by the Aeolian Company’s advertisement in the Metzger’s Pacific Coast Musical Review directing his readers to Sherman, Clay & Company to buy their own Duo-Art piano with accompanying piano rolls. It also seems that this was the first and only time that the San Francisco Symphony has welcomed a player piano to the stage as a solo instrument.

image source: Alfred Metzger, "Bauer's recording of Saint-Saens Concerto on Duo-Art piano...," p. 2.

Nevertheless, for a time these mechanical instruments were widely viewed as a way to elevate the standard of music appreciation. This is evidenced by volumes The Appreciation of Music by Means of the 'Pianola' and 'Duo-art' (1925) by musical journalist and scholar Percy Scholes and The Piano-player and its Music (1920) by musicologist Ernest Newman.

Harold Bauer plays Saint Saens 2nd piano concerto, 2nd movement, Allegro scherzando

Harold Bauer plays Saint Saens 2nd piano concerto, 3rd movement, Presto

These Youtube videos recreate some of the sensation that these piano roll recordings provided to an audience. It's almost as if Mr. Bauer is an apparition summoned to our time, performing as he did on that evening of January 31, 1919.

Don't forget to visit the two library exhibits celebrating the San Francisco Symphony centennial before they close on January 9, 2012!

Further reading:

The Appreciation of Music by Means of the 'Pianola' and 'Duo-art': A Course of Lectures Delivered at Aeolian Hall, London by Percy Alfred Scholes (1925).

Duo-Art Piano Music: A Classified Catalog of Interpretations of the World's Best Music Recorded by More than Two Hundred and Fifty Pianists for the Duo-Art Reproducing Piano (The Aeolian Co., 1927).

The Piano-Player and its Music by Ernest Newman (G. Richards, Ltd., 1920).

Player Piano Treasury; The Scrapbook History of the Mechanical Piano in America as Told in Story, Pictures, Trade Journal Articles and Advertising by Harvey N. Roehl (Vestal Press, 1962).

Alfred Metzger, "Bauer's recording of Saint-Saens Concerto on Duo-Art piano creates a big sensation," Pacific Coast Musical Review vol. 35, no. 19 (February 8, 1919), 1-2 [available as a scanned document at]

We also have a phonodisc of Alfred Cortot featuring "a re-enacted performance from Steinway Duo-Art reproducing piano":

Alfred Cortot plays concert I [sound recording] (Klavier Records, 1974).