The Songwriters – Berry Gordy and (separately) Mickey Stevenson

 

And so back to Motown, that cornucopian family of singers, musicians and writers. Few labels have had such a volume of great acts on the books at the same time, and that meant they needed not just a steady stream of material but a fast-flowing river, and fortunately the writers were there just like the singers, many being performers themselves.

Berry Gordy is world famous as the founder of Motown, but why did he want to start a record company anyway? Was he just a businessman?

The answer is he was a songwriter, so while his business skills were vitally important in the company’s success, he knew  a good singer and a great songwriter when he heard them, because he had aspirations in that direction himself.

Not just aspirations, in fact, but hits in the late 50s and early 60s. Gordy often wrote with his sister Gwen and her then-boyfriend Tyran Carlo (real name Roquel Davis), a jingles writer, beginning with the catchy if uncool Reet Petite for Jackie Wilson. He followed that with Lonely Teardrops, also for Wilson, and You Got What It Takes for early Motowneer Marv Johnson, who somehow missed the boat of megastardom. Here is a cover of Lonely Teardrops by Michael McDonald from the 1995 Nicolas Cage film Leaving Las Vegas.

Then there was  a raucous piece of tosh entitled Money, originally recorded by Barrett Strong, which appealed to the Beatles and has spawned a host of cover versions including a truly nauseating take in 1979 by The Flying Lizards, complete with snobby English-accented vocals by a girl who sounded as though she meant it.

Another one adopted by the British beat groups was Do You Love Me, which the Dave Clark Five, The Hollies and Brian Poole & The Tremeloes all recorded. David Hasselhoff sang it on Baywatch and Bruce Springsteen used to use it as a late-set stormer. So it may not bewidely regarded as one of the great Motown songs, but it certainly had something.

After Gordy had assembled his startling roster of singers and writers, he took a back seat on thatside of things until the late 60s when The Jackson Five appeared. Gordy’s name appears on the credits for I Want You Back, ABC and, as part of The Corporation (with Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and Fonce Mizell), The Love You Save and I’ll Be There.

Not a bad track record for someone who had  serious responsibilities when not messing around with tunes.

And Mickey Stevenson

Another man with a proper job who found the time to write a few Motown hits was William “Mickey” Stevenson, Motown’s first A&R man. That means his principal occupation was “artistes and repertoire”: finding and looking after stars in both the performing and writing fields.

While Holland Dozier Holland and the others “just” had to write hits all day long, Stevenson had to squeeze that in as and when he could, and he succeeded to the extent of co-writing Dancing in the Street (many versions including Martha and the Vandellas), It Takes Two (for Marvin Gaye and Stevenson’s girlfriend Kim Weston) and What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (David Ruffin).

 

 

 

The Songwriters – John Lennon and Paul McCartney

When The Beatles  exploded onto the music scene in the early 1960s they were so full of new songs and fresh ideas they could feed their own recording career and still have plenty left over for other people.

That’s not to say they recorded exclusively their own songs at first. Although there were precedents – Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were largely self-sufficient – there was still a feeling that it was best left to the specialists, so the four who were to become fab borrowed Roll Over Beethoven, Money, Please Mr Postman, Twist and Shout and Long Tall Sally, to name but a few.

Whether that was because John Lennon and Paul McCartney found it hard to believe how good they were, or because their management and record company didn’t believe it, they continued to  use existing material even while farmingout their own to their peers.

While George Harrison would come into his own later on, the early Beatles composers were Lennon/McCartney, and they generated songs like hens laying eggs.

Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, fellow Liverpudlians and not a bad band and singer, earned a hit with Do You Want To Know A Secret, David and Jonathan (future writing kings Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway) did Michelle, as did The Overlanders, and Peter and Gordon gave A World Without Love a nicely-spoken clean-cut treatment (The Supremes and Del Shannon covered it too).

The female Merseybeater, Cilla Black, was given It’s For You and later asked Paul McCartney for a theme song for her new TV show and was rewarded with Step Inside Love.

Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers produced a thoroughly convincing take on Got To Get You Into My Life without straying from the path of the original.

So far, so reverent, with singers and producers doffing their cap to the masters, but as the compositions became more adventurous, so did the covers. Joe Cocker took the singalong With A Little Help From My Friends and set fire to it to the extent that it became his nightly showstopper. Raucous and uplifting, the song took on a life of its own and, with Cocker always prepared to give his all, triumphed at Woodstock in 1969 and more than 30 years later in 2002’s Party at the Palace, both performances being available on YouTube. I’m putting the studio version here because, as incendiary as the live onesare, this ship was launched fully laden.

Less well known but even heavier is Spooky Tooth’s treatment of I Am The Walrus, which takes an already  slightly unsettling song and drapes it in the colours of doom, with thunderous guitar chords, swirling Hammond organ and Mike Harrison’s croaky, wailing vocals. Just the sort of thing for 1970s neo-hippies like me to listen to lying on the floor, one speaker either side of their head.

Once the psychedelia had passed, we were back to short, singable songs, and one that has attracted an inordinate number of suitors is Come Together, Lennon’s Lewis Carroll-like self examination.

For the benefit of the less obsessive I should point out that although the pair’s Beatles songs were always credited to both of them, generally speaking whoever did the bulk of the singing is presumed to be the originator, and the way McCartney tells it, they used to “fix” each other’s half-formed efforts if one got stuck or felt the need for some help. So Come Together was Lennon while Yesterday, one of the most-covered songs ever, was McCartney. You can hear that form of collaboration very clearly on A Day In The Life, where Lennon’s addictively downbeat song gets a McCartney lift in the middle – woke up, got out of bed etc.

The psychedelic stuff proved surprisingly tempting (who would dare have a go at Strawberry Fields Forever? But people have.) Even Elton John must have had his doubts about tackling the global treasure that is Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds, although his effort was not just commercially successful but acceptable to many purists.

In the same way, punk rock prefects Siouxsie and the Banshees did a creditable job on Dear Prudence.

The list goes on forever. If you consider that Count Basie, James Galway and Shirley Bassey have all recorded Lennon/McCartney songs, and Sammy Davis Jr even did a bit of A Day In The Life as part of an excruciating Beatles medley, we can certainly claim that, “everybody’s done one”.

Oddly, though, that doesn’t apply to their solo output after the band broke up and the 70s saw them going their separate ways. Although the great songs continued to appear, they did not attract cover versions to anything like the same extent.

 

 

The Songwriters – Randy Newman

Randy Newman may not have contributed a huge  amount to the panoply of pop hits in terms of numbers, but has certainly done his bit in terms of quality. Newman is the songwriter’s songwriter, a master craftsman of the lyric and much more than the usual purveyor of fast-food tunes and words.

He first made his mark in the UK with Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear, a hit for Alan Price and quite an oddity in the 1967 world of psychedelia, when everyone was vying to be the coolest cat. Randy Newman was never concerned with being cool. He’s the musical equivalent of the nerd, writing about whatever he feels like in whatever style suits the lyrics. He looks more like a school chemistry teacher than a supplier of superior songs to the stars and he certainly doesn’t look like a star himself. He never did. But Price was so impressed with the nascent songwriting talent that he put no fewer than five Newman songs on the album A Price on his Head. Even the B side of Simon Smith was a Newman song: Tickle Me.

American  megastars Three Dog Night brought Newman back into the UK charts with 1969’s Mama Told Me Not To Come, a nerd’s eye view of a party where everyone else is drunk and smoking dope and the narrator doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

The Newman CV includes a long solo career with limited commercial success but a core of devoted admirers, and sporadic outbreaks of hits for other people.

He’s Got The Blues, sung in part by Paul Simon, is typical, or typically different, with Newman’s character raising a cynical eyebrow at the way a smooth singer tugs on the heartstrings, while Simon’s bits demonstrate just how that is done in his sweet, effortless voice. It’s like a practical seminar at a college of popular music.

This song bends this series’ rules in not being a cover version, but Paul Simon is so perfect for his part that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t written for him, and it’s also hard to imagine a Simon completist not considering this a bona fide part of the collection.

I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today, which Newman originally recorded in 1968, has been covered by dozens of artists, from Judy Collins to Leonard Nimoy, Barbara Dickson to Barbra Streisand and Chris Farlowe to Peter Gabriel.

One that has become a standard of sorts, nor least in karaoke, is You Can Leave Your Hat On, an amusingly suggestive little number ruined, in my opinion, by such leering fools as dirty old uncle Tom Jones, who leaves no nudge unnudged and no wink unwinked. Millions of people disagree, and I hope I don’t sound prudish, but really, it’s the kind of performance that merits a slap in the face. Good for the Newman pension fund, though, and he needs it, because he signed away the rights to his early songs and doesn’t receive a penny in royalties for them.

 

The Songwriters – Bob Dylan

For a songwriter as idiosyncratic and downright awkward as Bob Dylan to have so many of his songs covered by such a variety of other artists is something of a mystery. He sings them himself in one of a variety of voices, appears to make no attempt at commercialism and yet others listen to them and hear hits.

The first to do this was Joan Baez, who was very close to him in his early days when it was just guitar and vocals and he wanted to emulate his gritty, no-frills heroes such as Woody Guthrie.

Baez did an album’s worth of Dylan covers, from Farewell Angelina and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue to Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, and she didn’t do anything revolutionary with the songs – she just sang them in her pure, guileless voice and somehow something came out that wasn’t immediately apparent in the originals.

The Byrds took a different approach, though, giving them a full folk-rock treatment complete with Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string  Rickenbacker guitar. The result was like putting milk on cornflakes.

Mr Tambourine Man changed from folk club staple to worldwide chart resident, but without selling out in any way (although the purists who didn’t like Dylan himself going electric probably wouldn’t have agreed). All I Really Want To Do and My Back Pages followed the same formula, giving the material a bit of melodiousness, a bit of juice. Suddenly those of us who had found him a bit dry and forbidding had those great lyrics and those hidden  tunes opened up by the band sound and the vocal harmonies.

The international hits flooded out under various banners, with British beat boomers Manfred Mann particularly partial to a bit of Bob and able to translate his heavily disguised likeability into chart hits.  If You Gotta Go and Mighty Quinn took Dylan into those little boxes of seven-inch singles where he had probably never imagined himself and elsewhere in England Fairport Convention, who had yet to embark on the traditional British folk material that would be their métier, put three Dylan songs on their Unhalfbricking album, including a French-language version of If You Gotta Go: Si Tu Dois Partir.

Fledgling jazz singer Julie Driscoll, under the musical leadership of Brian Auger and his band The Trinity, hit the jackpot with This Wheel’s On Fire.

Meanwhile back in Dylan’s homeland they were queuing up to record his stuff, with multiple versions of I’ll Keep It With Mine (including one by the high priestess of strange, Nico) and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (Maria Muldaur, Emmylou Harris, Ray Stevens and others).

Guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix drove his early girlfriend Fayne Pridgon mad by spending their last few dollars on  a Dylan album and playing it obsessively, interrupting conversations to point out this great line and that brilliant phrase. His version of All Along The Watchtower was such a brilliant treatment of the tune that Dylan himself would play that arrangement live in later years. Hendrix also did a typically sprawling version of Like A Rolling Stone, which I thought was unbeatable until I heard what Californian psychedelic outfit Spirit did with it.

The Band, who at one stage were Dylan’s backing band and with whom he recorded the legendary Basement Tapes, were perfectly positioned to snap up some gems and duly did great versions of Tears of Rage, When I Paint My Masterpiece and others.

Even Neil Young, a fellow long-term American musical hero, and not exactly short of great material, has done loads of Dylan in his live electric sets, cranked up and feeding back as ever and treating the songs as if they were his own.

As he got a bit older and perhaps less crabby, Dylan gave us some tuneful songs such as one on Blood On The Tracks, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, which Madeleine Peyroux rubbed some massage oil into thus:

And to round off what is admittedly a tiny selection of what is available, one of the highlights of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album is  Dylan’s If Not for You. Olivia Newton-John did it too, but never mind.

Got your own favourite? Let me know.

Forever Young? I know, I know, it’s just not one of my favourites.

 

 

 

The Songwriters – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder has had plenty of hits in his own right, but he has also provided dozens of songs for other artists. Not all of them were successful, and even of those that were, they are not necessarily  known as being written by him.

Sometimes, though, you hear a song and feel it has a touch of genius that you can’t pin down, but then you look at the credits and think, “Of course…”

A prime example of that is Tell Me Something Good by Rufus, the funk group fronted by a young Chaka Khan. It’s a strange song when you analyse it (not that analyzing pop songs is a very rewarding business). Take away the funky instrumentation and it positively plods. A recording that seems full of life and energy is based on a melody too full of holes to work on its own.

No doubt when he was writing it, Stevie was hearing the backing and he was able to pass on his ideas  and deliver what was in his head because  he produced the record.

Another early 70s Wonder composition that propelled a different act up the charts is The Spinners’ It’s A Shame, which is simply catchy from start to finish. Known in the UK as the Detroit Spinners, to distinguish them from the folk group of that name, The Spinners had been around since the 1950s with fluctuating degrees of success, but it took a Wonder song to get their name inscribed on the honours board of pop immortality.

One of Wonder’s co-writers on It’s  A Shame was soon to benefit from his patronage with a stellar career of her own. Syreeta Wright had started at Motown as a receptionist. Many hopefuls blagged their way into the company  in minor jobs simply trying to wheedle their way in and get noticed, and Wright certainly accomplished that, singing her way around the building until people noticed and gave her little assignments singing backup and demos for established artists. She also attracted the attention of Stevie Wonder in her capacity as woman, and they were married in 1970.

Initially writing together for other people, they eventually managed to get Syreeta  a record deal for herself and a trio of hits made her a serious name in the Motown roster. The mesmerizing Spinnin’ and Spinnin’ was followed by the cod-reggae of Your Kiss Is Sweet (dismissed as corny by early purists but a fine tune all the same). Harmour Love made an impression on the charts too, and the Wonder/Wright partnership was established for posterity.

In 1974 the faltering career of soul goddess Aretha Franklin was revived by a Stevie Wonder song. Even the woman widely regarded as having the ultimate female voice relied on finding great material, and when Wonder presented her with Until You Come Back To Me, she breezed through it with the insouciance of an expert interpreting a genius.

Roberta Flack was in a  similar situation in 1980, with a sensational track record built on great songs apparently running out of steam before Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long got her back in the UK charts. It wasn’t a smash in the great pop-buying consciousness, but it was a minor masterpiece in my humble opinion. Fellow music lovers  will know the warm feeling you get when someone else shares your feelings about an unrecognized gem.

I was working in a wine shop in south west London when this song came out, and spent long periods sitting by the till, listening to the radio and watching the world go by until the traffic was stopped by red lights at the junction of Putney High Street and the South Circular.

One morning Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long was on as the lights asserted their authority and a van with the driver’s sliding door retracted pulled up alongside a saloon, whose occupants watched, bemused, as the driver of the van performed to them the middle section of the song, a half-spoken sort of rap, complete with hand gestures and pleading arms spread wide. He loved it, he was listening to the same station and a magical piece of unscripted theatre made my day.

 

The Songwriters – Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

 

The way this series is eating up the hits it almost seems like there’ll be none left soon, and here we go again with a sizeable chunk of the 60s treasure trove in one fell swoop.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were another of those early 60s partnerships that spawned great songs seemingly at the drop of a hat. Both New Yorkers, they formed a writing partnership, fell in love and got married.

They started at the tail end of the 50s, when rock’n’roll had lost its way and the square world thought it had ridden out the storm. It would take The Beatles to drive the stake right through the heart of sensible-sweatered adulthood, but American pop writers were doing their bit to decorate the present and point to the future.

One of the “squares”, if you like, was Eydie Gorme, a croony sort of conventional type your mother would have liked as much as you did and who worked with her husband, Steve Lawrence.

With Brazilian music jamming its foot in the post-Elvis door, Eydie had a solo hit with Mann and Weil’s Blame it on the Bossa Nova, issued around the same time as the team’s Don’t Be Afraid Little Darlin’ with Lawrence.

This was Drifters time, too, and they loved a nice Mann/Weil song, with a list including On Broadway (with help from  fellow songwriting legends Leiber & Stoller) and Saturday Night At The Movies.

The Ronettes were the lucky recipients of Walking In The Rain, and then M&W came up with one of the real titans of the era, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, with the Righteous Brothers giving it some serious lung and Phil Spector pumping it full of steroids.

Cilla Black and Dionne Warwicke covered it in the same era, and it’s one of those songs that people keep fancying as the years go by, with notable versions by Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway and Hall & Oates. Elvis had a go in 1970 during a period when he was hard-up for good material, and as recently as 2003 it was tackled by British synth-pop duo Erasure.

And of course it’s a karaoke favourite for any guy who thinks he’s got a Bill Medley-style boom in his chest and can find a higher-singing sidekick.

Back on planet Earth in 1964, Mann and Weil provided Looking Through the Eyes Of Love for Gene Pitney and, in a slightly odd collaboration, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place for the Animals. It is easy to think of Eric Burdon and co. singing about wanting to leave the grim (at the time) industrial north-east of England, but the song was about Mann and Weil’s neck of the woods. It was originally intended for the Righteous Brothers, before Mann began his own singing career and his record company wanted it for him. In the meantime, Animals producer Mickie Most was on the case, somehow snapped it up and released it before he could be gazumped.

Monkees fans will be grateful to Mann and Weil for Shades of Grey, and Cass Elliott brought her own touch of class to Make Your Own Kind Of Music in 1968.

Mann and Weil have never stopped writing and although their time in the spotlight ended with the passing of the writer-hungry 60s, they did resurface in 1977 with Here You Come Again, a hit for both B. J. Thomas and  Dolly Parton.

Mann and Weil, ladies and gentlemen: man and wife. And not only are they still working – by gum, they’re still married.

The Songwriters – Gamble and Huff

“What you gon’ write about us, smart guy?”  Leon Huff (left) and Kenny Gamble

Sometimes you don’t know just how prolific a songwriter was until you look into it, because their names are not associated with the records as the artists’ names are. The Gamble and Huff partnership that flourished in the 1970s is pretty well known, but the volume of hits they wrote is astonishing.

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff pioneered the Philadelphia Sound that became like a successor to Motown once the Detroit outfit had started to run out of steam.

Me and Mrs Jones brought them to our attention in 1972, Billy Paul doing a sterling job of singing it, and then it was on to the O’Jays. Love Train was a jolly little thing, but the preceding Backstabbers (no Gamble in the writing credits, but Huff, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead) gave a quick indication that they weren’t going to serve us up chocolate box stuff all the time.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, when Gamble and Huff’s igniting of the Three Degrees’ already long but uneventful career brought us Year of Decision, which wasn’t about making your mind up about love, but more serious, political matters. Somehow the nature of the subject matter was smuggled into the charts by a tune and production that smelled of perfume and wore long, glittery dresses.

Subsequent Three Degrees hits such as When Will I See You Again, Get Your Love Back and Take Good Care of Yourself were on more familiar pop/soul territory.

The cumbersomely named Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes benefited from G&F’s purple patch with  The Love I Lost and another thinker, Wake Up Everybody, plus If You Don’t Know Me By Now, which would be resurrected  in 1990 by Simply Red, while the O’Jays continued with Now That We’ve Found Love, which was also a hit for Third World.

In 1974 the largely instrumental TSOP (the sound of Philadelphia) featured vocals by the Three Degrees and in 1976 came something of a masterpiece: soul legend Lou Rawls’s smash You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.

Eventually, though, the Seventies sweet soul boom petered out in the face of, among other things,  cleaned-up rock bands with their pompous ballads, and  Gamble and Huff had a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labours, but they weren’t quite finished and 1979 saw the release of Ain’t No Stopping Us Now by McFadden and Whitehead, names you no doubt recognized earlier.

So, if the Motown guys  were the mass  confectioners of the Sixties (and we’ll get to them in a week or two), Gamble and Huff took over the chocolate factory with some style.

The Songwriters – Jimmy Webb

It is probably true to say that all songwriters would like, or would have liked, to be stars themselves, singing their creations rather than giving them to other people. But somewhere along the line they decide, or the decision is made for them, that their talent lies in the composing, not the performing.

In Jimmy Webb’s case it took a long time – a fairly long, unsuccessful solo career even after he was an acknowledged great writer, with nary a sign of crossing over from provider to goalscorer.

The 1960s was Webb’s heyday, with a string of hits for Glen Campbell, the Fifth Dimension and others. His material was a mix of pop and country that veered alarmingly close to the  middle of the road but retained some credibility for the more critical, rock-oriented listener, by dint of beautiful melodies and creative, thoughtful lyrics.

His career in music really began in 1966, when the singer/producer Johnny Rivers recorded By The Time I Get To Phoenix, a supreme example of Webb’s craft, with a story that takes us along through a day where the singer leaves his girl, as he has threatened to do many times, and imagines what she is doing at various times while he journeys further and further away. She won’t believe it at first, he thinks, “She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leaving,” although the realization will grow throughout the day and when he reaches Oklahoma, she’ll find herself in bed and sleepily reaching for him:

“She’ll turn softly and call my name out low
And she’ll cry, just to think I’d really leave her.”

It’s one of those rare songs that does something millions of others could have done but didn’t, and turns a simple “I left her” into a drawn-out song of sorrow, pain and perhaps guilt.

It wasn’t Rivers who had the hit, though, but Glen Campbell, originally a much sought-after session guitarist who grew into a singer, and Jimmy Webb can take much of the credit for his flourishing. Songs of the calibre of Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston, with  restrained  orchestration and the top-drawer, unsung contributions of his former session buddies, proved a potent mixture.

Webb’s lyrical skill shines again in Wichita Lineman. We’re talking, don’t forget, about an engineer climbing up a telegraph pole to fix a problem with the line, and it is his thoughts that the song is giving us. He’s thinking about his love life, as we all do during our working day. He could do with a holiday but he’s not going to get one because of the weather. The context, the background information, the way it draws us in: this isn’t your average pop song by any means.

A lesser hit but an equally great song is Dreams of the Everyday Housewife, in which Webb – again via Campbell – takes us into the daydreams of an ordinary woman, thinking about how her life has turned out and how it might have been.

The Fifth Dimension benefited from such gems as Up Up And Away, Paper Cup and the underrated Carpet Man, with its depiction of a man badly treated by his girl, the narrator giving him a frank assessment of things he is too blind to see. A different perspective.

All of these were simple, unpretentious pop songs, albeit with a PhD in insight, and in theory should be overshadowed by the neo-psychedelic nightmare that is MacArthur Park, a song that stretched the sensibilities of many a young music fan. It was great, it was exciting, but what was it about? It was about weirdness – it belongs in John Lennon’s yellow psychedelic Rolls Royce along with Lucy in the Sky and Strawberry Fields.

And then, as the Simple Sixties turned into the Troubled Seventies, Webb’s bubble burst and he headed off on that fruitless solo career. And when that failed, he was back being a songwriter, but what does a songwriter do when he’s not having hits? He sits there writing and then he sits there not writing. You can see why they want to be performers – just for something to do.

I’m going to finish not at the end, but somewhere in the middle, with a song Webb wrote about a songwriter friend of his, P. F. Sloan. Here was a strange character with a flair for melody but without what it took to be really successful. Sloan wrote Eve of Destruction and the Herman’s Hermits hit, Must to Avoid, and played guitar on a few things – the acoustic intro to California Dreaming, for instance – but his fame, such as it is, is down to his friend Jimmy Webb and the search for a different angle, a different subject.

This version is by Unicorn, a British band of the late 60s/early 70s whom I saw at the Cellar Club in Guernsey in 1970 or 71 when, for some strange reason, they came to the island for a two-week residency. With those sweet high harmonies it sounds like they wanted to be Crosby Stills and Nash, and they never amounted to much, but, again thanks to Jimmy Webb, they gave at least one person a brilliant little song he’ll never forget.

 

The Songwriters: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich

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.

The Songwriters – Sandy Linzer

To kick off a series of articles on songwriters, you might expect to see a name like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney, and I will probably get around to them eventually. But this series is dedicated just as much to the lesser known writers whose little gems are in our memories and our music collections even though we may think of the songs as belonging to the people who sang them.

So how about this guy: Sandy Linzer.

Sandy Linzer (left) and Denny Randell

Who?

Well, there was a song by a vocal group called Odyssey in 1977 called Native New Yorker, a very singable dance tune back in those disco days, and the songwriting credit was Linzer/Randell. Sandy Linzer was primarily a lyricist, and as such he must take most of the credit for a song that has a bittersweet message hidden within.

This was originally recorded  – with a very similar arrangement – by Frankie Valli, but while from a man it is a song of compassion and pity, the subject matter makes it far more effective for a woman, singing about herself and other girls of her age, living in her part of the world. “No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,” she sighs, having introduced herself as “young and pretty New York City girl, 25, 35”.

It’s a brutally frank, quite heartbreaking little tale of a hard-hearted place and accepting your lot in life even when you’re taken for granted and underestimated because you’re standard-issue local rather than some exotic species.

Whether it’s true or not I can’t say, because the only time I visited NYC I went straight to Times Square, bought an acoustic guitar and left again, not pausing to allow any passing girls to pour out their heart to me.

But the function of the pop song is to whisper in our ear, whether in passing, on the radio, or late at night after a few drinks, and this one is a small precious stone in a many jeweled crown.

Sandy Linzer also co-produced the record – he produced a lot of Odyssey’s music, in fact – and the partner attached to his name on the label is Denny Randell, who also teamed up with him on another Odyssey hit, Use It Up And Wear It Out, which made liberal use of that odd musical instrument, the referee’s whistle.

The Frankie Valli connection

Unbeknown to me, Linzer had made his mark a good 10 years earlier with material for the Four Seasons (Let’s Hang On, Working My Way Back To You) and, along with Randell, a minor masterpiece by The Toys, A Lover’s Concerto, based on the melody from a classical piece, Minuet in G Major, which used to be thought of as Johan Sebastian Bach’s work but some now believe to be by the much less famous Christian Petzold.

Too much information? Sorry. Just spend  a few minutes alone with some of Linzer’s stuff and if you’re ever challenged by a tall, thin humanoid with a head like an ostrich egg, as to the merits of “tis popp music you laik so march”, play him Native New Yorker.