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.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Late Great Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne, crime writer and investigative journalist, passed this Wednesday, August 26, at the age of 83. The cause was bladder cancer.

Dominick Dunne was born on October 29, 1925 in Hartford, Connecticut. He attended Kingswood School and Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut. It was when he was a senior in high school that he was draughted in the United States Army. During World War II he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where he earned the Bronze Star. He also fought in the Battle of Metz. Following the war he attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There he was part of a group (including Stephen Sondheim) started a theatre.

Following his graduation from Williams College in 1949, Dunne moved to New York where he became the stage manager for shows ranging from Howdy Doody to Robert Montgomery Presents. By 1954 he was working as an assistant director on Producer's Showcase. It was in 1957 that he moved to Los Angeles to work on Playhouse 90. By 1959 he was the executive producer of Adventures in Paradise. In the 1970's he was vice president of Four Star Television, and produced films including The Boys in the Band, Panic in Needle Park, and Play It as It Lays.

The Seventies saw Dunne descend into alcoholism to the point that it all but ended his career in Hollywood. It was in 1979, then, that he wrote his first book The Winners, based on his own experiences in Hollywood. While The Winners received over all bad reviews, it was the beginning of a successful new career for Dunne. It was his editor, the legendary Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster, who advised Dunne to take a different path. Namely, Korda pointed out that people loved to read about rich and powerful involved in crime. The resulting book from this advice was The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, which became a best seller.

It was also at this time that tragedy would make another change in his career. Dunne's daughter, Dominique Dunne, was murdered by her boyfriend on November 4, 2002. At the suggestion of Tina brown, then editor of Vanity Fair, Dunne kept a journal during the trial of his daughter's murderer. The journal would become the basis for the article Justice: A Father's Account of the Trial of His Daughter's Killer," published in Vanity Fair in 1984. Dunne then signed a long term contract with Vanity Fair to write articles on true crime. What is more, Dunne became a dogged champion of the victims of violent crime. He would cover some very high profile trials, including the Claus von B¨low trial, the Menendez brothers trial, and the O. J. Simpson murder trial.

Dunne continued to write fiction, including People Like Us, An Inconvenient Woman, and A Season in Purgatory, in which he skewered high society. The last trial he covered was ironically the O. J. Simpson armed robbery trial. Against his doctor's orders (Dunne was already suffering from cancer), he insisted on covering the trial.

Whether it was his non-fiction articles on real life crimes or his novels, Dominick Dunne was one of the best writers of our time. By his own admission, Dunne's coverage of criminal trials was not balanced--he always came down on the side of the victim. It was because of this, however, that he was such a great crime reporter. Dunne would report details of trials often ignored by others. Dunne was a master of observation when it came to the personalities involved in the trials he covered.

Dunne also paid attention to details in his fiction, to the point that his novels read almost as if they could have been real life crimes. Indeed, most of his novels were inspired by real life cases. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles was loosely based on the murder of Billy Woodward in 1955. A Season in Purgatory was based on the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. As in his nonfiction, Dunne's sympathies were with the victims in his novels.

Dominick Dunne was unique among modern writers. He not only wrote novels, but he reported on actual criminal cases. And he did so with a flair and an attention to detail that very few others have ever done. He was well known for his hard work in his career. He would often show up at trials early and often stayed late. Dedicated to his career, Dunne was one of the greatest crime novelists and reporters of our time.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Virginia Davis, Alice in Early Disney Shorts, R.I.P.

Virginia Davis, who worked in Walt Disney's revolutionary series of shorts known as The Alice Comedies, passed on August 15, 2009 at the age of 90.

Virginia Davis was born on December 31, 1918 in Kansas City, Missouri. She had started dancing and acting lessons when she was all of two years old. It was in 1923 that Walt Disney conceived of a series of shorts in which a live action, little girl would react with animated characters in an animated world. Walt Disney found the actress he wanted to play the little girl when he saw an advert for Warneker's Bread in a local cinema. Virginia Davis, then only four years old, was cast as Alice in the first of the series of shorts, "Alice's Wonderland." It would be one of the earliest films to combine live action with animation.

Sadly, "Alice's Wonderland" would not be released theatrically. Disney's Laugh-O-Gram Studio went bankrupt not long after "Alice's Wonderland" had been completed. Disney then moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles, California. He set about pitching his idea for a series of "Alice" shorts to various distributors, showing them "Alice's Wonderland." He had at last found a distributor in Winkler Pictures, ran by Margaret J. Winkler and her fiancé Charles Mintz. Disney then convinced Virginia Davis's family to move from Missouri to California so that she could star in more Alice Comedies.

Davis appeared in the first sixteen Alice Comedies. The series centred on Alice, who would somehow enter a cartoon world through various means (being hit on the head, going to sleep and dreaming, et. al.) at the beginning of each cartoon. Alice would have adventures in various settings, ranging from a Wild West show to Africa. She was also occasionally in danger, sometimes threatened by villains much as heroines in serials of the time were. Eventually Virginia Davis outgrew the role, whereupon she was succeeded by Margie Gay.

After leaving the Alice Comedies, Virginia Davis continued to act both in stage and on film. She appeared in the film The Greater Glory (AKA The Viennese Medley (1926). In the Thirties and Forties she appeared in such films as Three on a Match, Week-End in Havana, and Footlight Serenade. Her last film appearance was in The Harvey Girls. Davis would work for Disney again, working in the studio's ink-and-paint department and even providing uncredited voices for Pinocchio.

Virginia Davis attended the New York School of Interior Design. She worked as an interior decorator and later as decorating editor for Living for Young Homemakers. In the early Sixties she became a real estate agent.

Virginia Davis was Disney's first star pre-dating Mickey Mouse by five years. It was her charm and energy which largely powered the Alice Comedies and made them a success in their day. That success would allow Disney to move onto other projects, including the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts (a character whom Disney would lose to Charles Mintz) and still later the Mickey Mouse shorts. In many respects, then, Walt Disney Productions owed its existence largely to Virginia Davis. Her name does not come up often when discussing child stars of the silent era, but there is every reason it should.