Ellie Greenwich: the magic behind the music

By Scott Westerman
Once upon a time, there was a place where poets and composers gathered to create true magic. If you stepped inside the Brill Building during the 60s, you were likely to hear a half dozen pianos playing at once. If you were a time traveler from the future, you would instantly recognize artists who would later bloom into the most celebrated performers of the decade. Some, like Niel Sedaka, were already stars. Others, like Carole King, were still writing hit records for others. At it’s height, Brill was home to some of the greatest songwriting teams of the rock era: Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

In the early years of the decade, you might see Niel Diamond, recently a pre-med student, struggling to find his muse. This was raw talent that needed polish and mentors to model the behaviors and fire the imagination. It would become a creative process that record company excecs would simply label “The Brill Building Sound”.

Among the Brill brilliance, few touched as many lives as did Ellie Greenwich.

Born Oct. 23, 1940, in Brooklyn, Eleanor Louise Greenwich first placed her fingers on a keyboard at age 11. The accordion quickly evolved into a piano, and by the time she enrolled at Queens College she had already recorded a single featuring two songs she wrote.”Silly Isn’t It” and “Cha-Cha Charming.” She was 17.

When she transferred to Hofstra University, she met Jeff Barry, a kindred spirit with a sense for mixing melody and lyrics that caught attention. They married in 1962 and were soon writing as a team.

The Brill Building was the center of the universe for aspiring songwriters and Ellie found her way there. As the story goes, she was waiting to meet another writer and started absently playing one of her compositions on the piano. Jerry Leiber was walking down the hall. What he heard sounded a lot like one of his other stars, Carole King and when he discovered that the music came from Ellie’s brain, it wasn’t long before she was writing for Leiber and Stoller’s Trio Music.

Phil Spector was always on the lookout for fresh talent and he mined Greenwich and Barry’s collaboration, producing hits like “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Chapel of Love” and “Be My Baby”.

Greenwich’s output during her brief prime was extraordinary and contributed to the success of dozens of artists. Examples include “Then He Kissed Me” (the Crystals), “Hanky Panky” (Tommy James & the Shondells), “Maybe I Know” (Lesley Gore), “River Deep, Mountain High” (Ike and Tina Turner), “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (Manfred Mann) and “I Can Hear Music” (The Ronettes, Beach Boys).

Brian Wilson told the LA Times that Greenwich was “the greatest melody writer of all time.” But that was only one dimension. She was also one of the first high profile female record producers, crafting smash hits like, “Cherry Cherry,” “Solitary Man” and ” Kentucky Woman” for Niel Diamond.

Few outside of the business knew her name, but when Ellie Greenwich died this week at age 68 those of us who appreciate the alchemy of talent, timing and luck that give birth to timeless recordings, pulled our dusty 45s out of the attic to listen again to Ellie’s enduring legacy.

Links: Ellie Greenwich Interviewed
Link: Videos of Ellie’s hits