Saturday, August 29, 2009

Songwriter Ellie Greenwich R.I.P.

Ellie Greenwich, who co-wrote "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes and either co-wrote or wrote other classic rock songs, passed this past Wednesday, August 26, at the age of 68. The cause was a heart attack, preceded by a bout with pneumonia.

Ellie Greenwich was born Eleanor Greenwich on Oct. 23, 1940 in Brooklyn. When the family was 11 they moved to Levittown. Musically talented at a young age, she was composing songs by the time she was thirteen. In high school she formed The Jivettes with two friends. They performed at hospitals, schools and charity benefits in the Long Island area. Her mother even arranged a meeting with Archie Bleyer, president of Cadence Records. Breyer advised her to continue writing songs, but to finish school.

Ellie Greenwich attended Queens College in Flushing. She had intended to become a teacher, but her talent for song writing led her in a different direction. It was while she was at Queens College that she recorded her first song for RCA Records. The song was "'Silly Isn't It," recording under the pseudonym "Ellie Gaye." After one of her professors criticised her for writing pop music, she transferred to Hofstra University in Hemptead, New York. It was while she was there that she met fellow song writer and future collaborator Jeff Barry, whom she would later marry. Greenwich graduated from there with a Bachelor's degree in English.

It was not long after she graduated that Greenwich had an appointment in the famous Brill Building with Trio Music, the music publishing company founded by song writing legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. After the meeting, she had a contract with the company. Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry recorded a few singles as The Raindrops. They would only have a little success. They had a hit with "The Kind Of Boy You Can't Forget," and recorded the original version of "Hanky Panky (later a hit for Tommy James & the Shondells). Both with others, individually, and together, Greenwich and Barry would find much more success writing for others. Greenwich's first major hit would be the song "This Is It," co-written by Doc Pomus and Tony Powers, and recorded by Jay and the Americans.

It was while at Trio Music that Ellie Greenwich met Phil Spector. In fact, he had produced some of her early hits, such as "Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry" by Darlene Love and "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others' Heart" by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. With Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry produced some of their best work. In the period of 1963 and 1964 they composed "Da Doo Ron Ron (performed by The Crystals)," "Then He Kissed Me (also performed by The Crystals), and "Chapel of Love (performed by The Dixie Cups).

What may have been Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry'sthree greatest songs were also recorded during this period. Produced by Phil Spector, "Be My Baby" would be the biggest hit The Ronettes would ever have, and is now considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Also produced by Phil Spector, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" would become with time the best known song ever performed by Darlene Love. It is now considered by many to be the greatest rock Christmas song of all time. Co-written by George Morton, who co-wrote with Greenwich and Barry, "Leader of the Pack" became The Shangri-Las' biggest hit and perhaps the best known teen death song of all time. Greenwich and Barry would also compose such songs as "Do Wah Diddy Diddy (performed by Manfred Mann)," "I've Got a Dream (recorded by The Moody Blues)," "River Deep - Mountain High (performed by Ike and Tina Turner)," and many others.

During this period Ellie Greenwich also worked as an arranger and producer. In this capacity she would eventually work with such performers as Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra. She is credited with discovering Neil Diamond, and produced many of his early hits.

In 1965 Greenwich and Barry divorced, although they continued to work together. That year would be a turning point for Greenwich in other ways. The early Sixties had seen the rise of singer songwriters in the United States, such as Bob Dylan. By 1964 the British Invasion, led by The Beatles, was well underway. Most of the British bands also wrote their own songs. Between the American singer-songwriters and the British Invasion, the song writers of the Brill Building took a serious blow. Greenwich would still compose hits, but they were far fewer than in previous years.

In 1967 she formed Pineywood Music with Mike Rashkow. For the next many years Greenwich and Rashkow wrote songs for Dusty Springfield, The Other Voices, and many others. Greenwich also recorded her own solo album, Ellie Greenwich Composes, Produces and Sings. Greenwich's collaboration with Rashkow ended in 1971. She would later collaborate with composers such as Ellen Foley and Jeff Kent, as well as Cyndi Lauper.

A look at Ellie Greenwich's musicography shows that she was without a doubt one of the greatest song writers of all time. It is not simply that she wrote many hits, but that she composed some of the best known songs of the rock era: "Be My Baby," "Leader of the Pack," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "Then He Kissed Me," and many others. I must confess that she co-wrote two of my favourite songs of all time, "Be My Baby" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." "Be My Baby" would probably rank in my top ten favourite songs of all time (one of the few songs not composed by The Beatles, The Who, or The Rolling Stones). "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is my favourite Yuletide song of all time. Few song writers boast the number of legendary songs that Greenwich had written.


Holte Ender said...

That Brill building must have been sprinkled with magic fairy dust. So many great songs came out of that building.

Mercurie said...

I have a theory that maybe they were slipping something into the water of the Brill Building. The list of composers who worked there reads like a Who's Who in American Music--Johnny Mercer, Billy Rose, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart... Even Neil Sedaka and Paul Simon got their start there. It must've been some remarkable building!