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.

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