When someone told Ian Dury he had written some great songs, his reaction was that he didn’t agree. To him, a great song was something that could be successful when other people sang it, and his material was very reliant on his voice and persona for its effect. This series is dedicated to writers who do or did that, whether or not they had hits in their own right.
With any record produced by Phil Spector, it is easy to think it was all his own work. Even the singers can seem almost irrelevant: he would have one masquerading as another if the one he wanted was unavailable, so what chance did the writers stand of gaining any recognition?
And yet it is they who provide the raw material from which recordings are built, and although Spector’s name always seems to figure on the writers’ credits, whatever influence he had on the crafting of the words and notes was probably more of a tweaking job. Refining, he might prefer us to say.
Wall of Sound songs often feature the names of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, he from New Jersey and she from New York. They met in 1959 and became partners both musically and professionally.
The early Barry/Greenwich triumphs were the Ronettes’ Be My Baby and Baby I Love You, along with Da Doo Ron Ron, a massive hit for the Crystals. It’s the simplicity of these songs that is so striking. The big production lends them a sort of weight, but the message couldn’t be more basic.
Head Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was in competition with Spector at the time, freely admits that when he first heard Be My Baby on his car radio he had to pull over, such was the impression it made.
Ellie Greenwich, though, was disappointed that Be My Baby was released ahead of the couple’s ‘Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love’.
These sorts of lyrics are never going to win you a Pulitzer prize, but we all respond to a singer being in the same situation as us, and Ronnie Spector’s plea to her potential long-term love says what we want to say, but with an emotional power that drives a Grand Canyon through any possible opposition.
Like many songwriters who like to work in pairs, Barry and Greenwich also had successes with other partners, such as Barry/Ben Raleigh’s Tell Laura I Love Her and Greenwich’s joint work with Spector on Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts, by Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, featuring Darlene Love.
But after they married in 1962 they naturally decided to work exclusively together, coming up with a torrent of material including Do Wah Diddy Diddy, originally recorded by The Exciters, a typical Motown-style vocal group of the time, before Manfred Mann, scouring the US charts for material, as people did in those days, gave it a very different stamp.
Leader of the Pack was a highly influential piece of musical drama in an age when motorcyclists diced with death and occasionally lost through not wearing a crash helmet, and even now, when we know full well it’s just a pop song and we’re not 12 years old anymore, it still makes a spirit-dampening experience.
The one that brings a lump to Ellie Greenwich’s throat, though, is Darlene Love’s (Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry, which is interesting, as she and Barry also wrote The Dixie Cups’ far more successful Chapel of Love.
Here are both of them: see what you think. (I’m a Chapel of Love man.)
And then there was the majestic River Deep Mountain High, the performance credited to Ike and Tina Turner, although Ike wasn’t on it because Spector had barred him from the studio. The song shook the British pop public to the core and made number three, but somehow in the US it failed to take off and limped to a paltry number 88, sparking fears that the Wall of Sound was about to fall down.
For Barry and Greenwich, River Deep marked a progression from adolescent sweet talk to something a bit more substantial. Spector considered it his best effort so far, and such failure in his homeland prompted his disappearance from the spotlight for a couple of years and quite possibly the mental /emotional decline that turned him into a legendary maverick rather than the consistent hit maker he had been up to that point.
The Barry and Greenwich partnership, too, began to fall apart and they were divorced in 1965, but by then they had created a body of work it would take most people a lifetime to accomplish.