Russ: The Brill Building (built 1931 as the Alan E. Lefcourt Building) is located at 1619 Broadway on 49th Street in Theater District, Manhattan, New York City, just north of Times Square and further uptown from the historic musical area known as Tin Pan Alley.
The building with its art deco entrance is 11 stories and has approximately 175,000 square feet of rent-able area. The “Brill” name comes from a haberdasher who operated a store at street level and subsequently bought the building.
It is famous for housing music industry offices and studios where some of the most popular American music was written. It was the hub of professionally written rock and roll.
As the 1960s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, it reemphasized a specialized division of labour in which professional songwriters worked closely with producers and artists-and-repertoire personnel to match selected artists with appropriate songs.
— Index of Writers, Songs and Artists for this Post —
|Songwriters / Lyricists / Producers||Songs (Recording Artists)|
|Barry Mann – songwriter, Cynthia Weil – lyricist||I Love How You Love Me (The Paris Sisters), Who Put The Bomp
|Bert Bacharach – songwriter, Hal David – lyricist||The Story Of My Life (Marty Robbins), Magic Moments (Perry
Como), Don’t Make Me Over (Dionne Warwick), Any Day Now (Chuck
|Bert Berns||A Little Bit Of Soap (The Jarmels), Twist And Shout (Isley
Brothers), Tell Him (The Exciters), Hang On Sloopy (Little Caesar
& The Consuls)
|Beverly Ross – lyricist||Dim Dim The Lights – Bill Haley & His Comets|
|Bobby Darin – songwriter||Dream Lover, Splish Splash – Bobby Darin|
|Bobby Susser – songwriter / producer, Phil Spector –
|Kiss Me Now (Florence DeVore)|
|Claus Ogerman – Arranger / Producer||Cry To Me (Solomon Burke)|
|Doc Pumus||Save The Last Dance For Me (The Drifters)|
|Eddie Snyder – songwriter||Strangers In The Night (Frank Sinatra), Spansih Eyes (Al
|Jerome “Jerry” Leiber – songwriter, Mike
Stoller – lyricist
|Hound Dog (Big Mama Thornton), Kansas City (Wilbert Harrision),
Smokey Joe’s Cafe (The Robins)
|Jerry Goffin – lyricist, Carole King – songwriter /
|Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (the
Shirelles ), Take Good Care Of My Baby, The Loco
Motion, Go Away Little Girl (Steve Lawrence)
|Laura Nyro – songwriter /singer||And When I Die (Blood Sweat & Tears), Up On The Roof (Laura
|Neil Diamond – songwriter / lyricist||Sunday And Me (Jay & The Americans), I’m A Believer (The
|Neil Sedaka – songwriter / lyricist, Howard Greenfield –
|The Diary (Neil Sedaka), Oh Carol (Neil Sedaka)|
|Shadow Morton – songwriter / lyricist||Leader Of The Pack (The Shangri Las)|
|Toni Wine – songwriter / singer, Carol Bayer Sayer –
|Groovy Kind Of Love (The Mindbenders)|
|Tony Powers – songwriter||Remember Then (The Earls)|
Producing Rock n Roll music in an organized, professional manner was first anticipated in the late 1950s by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote and produced their biggest hits with the Coasters and the Drifters.
This Leiber-Stoller duo proved so successful that the “Brill organization” encouraged others to follow suit; writers would team up with one specializing in the music and the other providing lyrics.
Some of the songwriters’ hits from this organization
- Leiber-Stoller: “Yakety Yak” (The Coasters),
- Pomus-Shuman:“Save the Last Dance for Me” (The Drifters),
- Bacharach-David: “The Look of Love” (Dusty Springfield),
- Sedaka-Greenfield: “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (Neil Sedaka),
- Giant-Baum-Kaye: “Devil in Disguise” (Elvis Presley),
- Goffin-King: “The Loco-Motion” (Little Eva),
- Fyre-Guthrie: “Supernatural Thing” (Ben E King),
- Mann-Weil: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (The Animals),
- Spector-Greenwich-Barry: “River Deep, Mountain High” (Ike & Tina Turner)
The “Big Band Era”
Even before World War II, the Brill Building was a center of activity for the popular music industry, especially music publishing and songwriting. Scores of music publishers had offices there.
Once songs had been published, the publishers would send song pluggers to the popular white bands and radio stations. These song pluggers would sing and/or play the song for the bandleaders to encourage bands to play their music.
Brill Building songs were constantly at the top of Billboard Magazine’s Hit Parade, and played by the leading bands of the day: The Benny Goodman Orchestra, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
Publishers at that time included: Leo Feist Inc., Lewis Music Publishing, Mills Music Publishing.
While their successors sometimes filled the roles of producer and writer, Manhattan’s Brill Building professionals tended to focus more narrowly on elevating the craft of songwriting. Their songwriting teams were to Rock and Roll what Rodgers & Hart and the Gershwins were to Tin Pan Alley.
Into The 1960s…
By the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the Brill Building’s name became a widely adopted shorthand term for a broad and influential stream of American mainstream popular song that enjoyed great commercial success (strongly influenced by Latin music, Traditional black gospel and rhythm and blues).
Many significant American and international publishing companies, music agencies and recording labels were based in New York, and although these ventures were naturally spread across many locations, the Brill Building was regarded as probably the most prestigious address in New York for music business professionals.
However, the term “The Brill Building Sound” is somewhat inaccurate, since much of the music so categorized actually emanated from other nearby locations—music historian Ken Emerson nominates buildings at 1650 Broadway and 1697 Broadway as other significant bases of activity in this field.
By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses: A musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building.
The creative culture of the independent music companies in the Brill Building and the nearby 1650 Broadway came to define the influential “Brill Building Sound” and the style of popular songwriting and recording created by its writers and producers
Songwriters of Brill Building pop music understood the teenage idiom and wrote almost exclusively for a youth audience. Teen singing idols Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka (who teamed with Howard Greenfield), Gene Pitney, and Bobby Darin also had careers composing the hits.
Working in assembly-line fashion in small cubicles, each containing an upright piano, songwriters would churn out great quantities of teen oriented compositions: Connie Francis’s “Stupid Cupid” (Sedaka and Greenfield) and James Darren’s “Her Royal Majesty” (Goffin and King).
At the top of their game, these writers were able to combine the excitement and urgency of rhythm and blues with the brightness and optimism of mainstream pop: Goffin and King’s “Up on the Roof” for the Drifters and “A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin.
Nowhere was this union stronger than in the classic hits of the girl groups of the early 1960s: Goffin and King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles and “One Fine Day” for the Chiffons and Mann and Weil’s “Uptown” and Pitney’s “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals.
Producer Phil Spector was perhaps the Brill Building’s biggest customer as well as a frequent collaborator. He worked variously with Greenwich and Barry, Goffin & King, and Mann & Weil to co write material for the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Dixie Cups, and the Righteous Brothers.
Many of these writers came to prominence while under contract to Aldon Music, a publishing company founded around 1958 by aspiring music entrepreneur Don Kirshner and industry veteran Al Nevins.
Aldon Music was not initially located in the Brill Building, but rather, a block away at 1650 Broadway (at 51st Street). A number of Brill Building writers worked at 1650 Broadway, and the building continued to house record labels throughout the decades.
An interview with American pop music songwriter Toni Wine by Song Facts (SF):
Toni: There were really two huge buildings that were housing publishing companies, songwriters, record labels, and artists. The Brill Building was one. But truthfully, most of your R&B, really rock & roll labels and publishing companies, including the studio, which was in the basement and was called Allegro Studios, was in 1650 Broadway.
SF: But you were associated with the Brill Building?
Toni: Well, music from those days, people kind of condensed the area to the Brill Building area. That always bothered me, because the Brill Building is its own building and 1650 is its own building. It’s New York City… there are lots of streets, but these two buildings happened to be, basically, diagonally from each other. And the Brill Building housed different organizations. They were more of the Tin Pan Alley building. According to a lot of interviews and a lot of stories, they say that all the music was in the Brill Building. We weren’t. We were in 1650. Carole King, Barry Mann, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, Howie Greenfield, myself, and tons of people, a lot of times are written as being housed in the Brill Building. We weren’t. We were in 1650 Broadway.
SF: I guess what I’m getting at is the songwriters were not associated with each other in those two buildings. So it’s not like you would get sent over to one building from the other or anything.
Toni: No. Wherever their companies were, that’s where they were basically housed. I mean, we all loved each other, we were all brothers and sisters going to each other’s offices. We just didn’t work in each other’s offices. And a lot of people refer to the Brill Building, because the Brill Building has gotten great publicity, where 1650 did not get great publicity. But boy, we had a lot of music coming out of there.
SF: So what was it like going to work at Allegro Studios?
Toni: Allegro was great. Allegro was a fun studio. It wasn’t “our” studio. It just happened to be a studio that was for rent in 1650 Broadway. A lot of people recorded there, not only from the building, but from all over. I remember the first session I ever saw at Allegro was Dion And The Belmonts. That was very cool. You’d walk in and there was just music in every elevator, in the lobby, and everywhere you walked in. That whole area of the city… you’d walk on the street and there was just a lot of music.
Some of the Brill Building Songwriters
The Leiber-Stoller song, “Kansas City“, was first recorded in 1952 as “K. C. Loving” by rhythm & blues singer Little Willie Littlefield. This song would become a #1 pop hit in 1959 for Wilbert Harrison.
In 1952 they wrote “Hound Dog” for blues singer Big Mama Thornton, which became a hit for her in 1953.
A lesser known hit for Leiber and Stoller in 1953 was “Smokey Joe’s Café”, recorded by the Robins.
Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman
In the early 1950s Jerome Solon Felder, known as Doc Pomus collaborated with pianist Mort Shuman, to write for Hill & Range Music Co./Rumbalero Music at its offices in New York City’s Brill Building. Pomus asked Shuman to write with him because Doc didn’t then know much about rock and roll, whereas Mort was familiar with many popular artists of the day.
Their songwriting efforts had Pomus write the lyrics and Shuman the melody, although often they worked on both. The Pomus-Shuman team wrote many hit songs, among them,”Save The Last Dance For Me” for the Drifters, and “A Teenager in Love” for Dion & The Belmonts
Neil Sedaka & Howard Greenfield
When Neil Sedaka was just 13, a neighbor heard him playing and introduced him to her 16-year-old son, Howard Greenfield, an aspiring poet and lyricist. They became two of the legendary Brill Building’s composers.
Neil Sedaka’s first hit single was inspired by Connie Francis, one of Sedaka and Greenfield’s most important clients; while the three were taking a temporary break during their idea-making for a new song, Francis was writing in her diary. Sedaka asked if he could read it, and Connie promptly replied with a “no.” After Little Anthony and the Imperials passed on the song, Sedaka recorded it himself, and his debut single hit the Top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 14 in 1958: “The Diary”
After a few of his own songs failed to chart, Sedaka took a long hard look at what he was doing. He bought the three biggest hit singles of the time and listened to them repeatedly, studying the song structure, chord progressions, lyrics and harmonies—and he discovered that the hit songs of the day all shared the same basic musical anatomy.
Armed with his new-found arsenal of musical knowledge, Neil set out to craft his next big song, and he promptly did exactly that: “Oh! Carol” delivered Sedaka his first domestic Top 10 hit, reaching No. 9 on the Hot 100 in 1959
While living in The Bronx as a teenager, Beverly Ross began canvassing writers at the Brill Building with some of her songs.
The first to be recorded was “Dim, Dim The Lights (I Want Some Atmosphere)“, co-written with black songwriter Julius Dixson (or Dixon), which was recorded by Bill Haley and His Comets in 1954
This song became a crossover hit in both the pop chart and R&B chart the following year. The song was the first rock and roll song recorded by a white singer to reach the R&B chart, and was hailed by Alan Freed as “the grand daddy song of rock n’ roll”
Bert Bacharach & Hal David
In 1957, composer Bert Bacharach and lyricist Hal David were introduced while at the Brill Building (which Bacharach described as a “music factory”), and thus began their writing prolific partnership.
About a year later, they received a significant career breakthrough when their song “The Story of My Life” was recorded by Marty Robbins for Columbia Records, becoming a number 1 hit on the U.S. country music chart and reaching #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1957.
Soon afterwards, “Magic Moments” was recorded by Perry Como for RCA Records, and became a number 4 U.S. hit.
Bacharach and David were mainly associated throughout the decade with Dionne Warwick, a conservatory-trained vocalist. Bacharach and David started writing a large portion of their work with Warwick in mind, leading to one of the most successful teams in popular music history. In November 1962, Scepter Records released her first Bacharach-David song, “Don’t Make Me Over”
Over a 20-year period, beginning in the early 1960s, Warwick charted 38 singles co-written or produced by Bacharach and David, including 22 Top 40, 12 Top 20 and nine Top 10 hits on the American Billboard Hot 100 charts.
During the early 1960s, Bacharach also collaborated with Bob Hilliard on a number of songs. For example, “Any Day Now” for Chuck Jackson.
Other singers of Bacharach songs in the ’60s and ’70s included
- Bobby Vinton (“Blue on Blue”);
- Dusty Springfield (“The Look of Love” from Casino Royale), (a cover of Dionne Warwick’s “Wishin’ and Hopin'”);
- Cilla Black (a cover of Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart”), the Delfonics, and Cher (“Alfie” – originally recorded by Cilla Black);
- The Shirelles, The Beatles (“Baby, It’s You”);
- The Carpenters (“(They Long to Be) Close to You”);
- Aretha Franklin (“I Say a Little Prayer”);
- Isaac Hayes (“Walk on By”, from the Hot Buttered Soul album);
- B. J. Thomas (“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, “Everybody’s Out of Town”);
- Tom Jones (“What’s New, Pussycat?”);
- Engelbert Humperdinck (“I’m a Better Man”);
- Sandie Shaw (“Always Something There to Remind Me”);
- Jack Jones (“Wives and Lovers”); Jackie DeShannon (“What the World Needs Now Is Love”);
- Gene Pitney (“Only Love Can Break a Heart”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, “24 Hours from Tulsa” and “True Love Never Runs Smooth”);
- Herb Alpert, (“This Guy’s in Love with You”);
- Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 (“The Look of Love”);
- The Stylistics, (“You’ll Never Get To Heaven If you Break My Heart”);
- Jerry Butler, the Walker Brothers (“Make It Easy on Yourself”);
- and the Fifth Dimension (“One Less Bell to Answer”)
A member of the Brill Building gang of struggling songwriters, Bobby Darin’s career took off in 1958 when he co-wrote a song with radio D.J. Murray Kaufman, and recorded a hit single that sold more than a million copies; “Splish Splash.”
In 1959, Darin he went on to record the self-penned, “Dream Lover“
For more information about Bobby Darin’s career, please find his name in our Artist index.
In the late 1950s he started writing and selling songs, and began working for Trio Music, a music publishing firm established by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in the Brill Building . One of his early songs, “Remember Then“, became a hit for The Earls in 1962
In 1959, he moved from Germany to the United States and joined the producer Creed Taylor at Verve Records, working on recordings with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Kai Winding and Cal Tjader – among countless others.
During this time he also arranged a large number of pop hits, e.g. in 1961 “Cry To Me” by Solomon Burke
After producing four singles in 1961, and 1962 with his childhood friend Paul Simon, for the group “Tico and The Triumphs”, which includedBobby Susser’s first Billboard Hot 100 chart record “Motorcycle,” Susser concentrated on writing and producing rhythm and blues songs. He spent most of his days in New York’s famous Brill Building, attempting to place his songs with music publishers, and receive advance monies, with the hope his songs would be recorded by popular recording artists.
In 1963, he wrote, produced, and sold the master recording of the song “Kiss Me Now“, sung by Florence DeVore, to Phil Spector. The record was the first release on Spector’s new Philles Records subsidiary label, Phi-Dan Records, and received a great deal of critical praise, and interest within the music industry.
Shadow Morton signed as a staff producer for Red Bird Records. He was nicknamed “Shadow” by record company executive George Goldner because his whereabouts could never be pinned down. He was a key architect in creating the girl group sound of the mid-1960s, by writing and producing hit teen melodramas for the Shangri-Las and the Goodies, including “Leader of the Pack”
Diamond spent his early career as a songwriter in the Brill Building. His first success as a songwriter came in November 1965, with “Sunday and Me,” a Top 20 hit for Jay and the Americans.
Greater success as a writer followed with “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” and “Love to Love,” all performed by the Monkees.
There is a popular misconception that Diamond wrote and composed these songs specifically for the Monkeees. In reality he had written, composed, and recorded them for himself, but ironically the cover versions were released before his own. But happily, Diamond began to gain fame as a songwriter, as well as a singer and performer. “I’m a Believer” was the Most Popular Music Song of the Year in 1966.
Edward Abraham Snyder studied piano at the Juilliard School before taking a job as a songwriter at the Brill Building. He is credited with co-writing the English language lyrics and music for Frank Sinatra’s 1966 hit, “Strangers in the Night”
Snyder also composed “Spanish Eyes” for Al Martino in 1965
Laura Nyro’s style was a hybrid of Brill Building New York pop, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, show tunes, rock, and soul.
“And When I Die” was one of the first songs written and recorded by Nyro, when she was just 17 years old. She then sold the song to folk group Peter, Paul and Mary for $5000. However, the song is probably best known for its third version by American rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears, which reached #2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Between 1968 and 1970, a number of artists had hits with her songs: The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save the Country”, and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with “Eli’s Comin'”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love”, and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man)”. As a singer, Laura Nyro‘s best-selling single was her recording of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof”
Writers at 1650 Broadway
Bert Berns / Bert Russell
Bertrand Russell Berns signed as a $50/week songwriter with Robert Mellin Music at 1650 Broadway in 1960. His first hit record was “A Little Bit of Soap“, performed by The Jarmels on Laurie Records in 1961
One year later, the Isley Brothers recorded “Twist and Shout” on Wand Records, written by Berns and Phil Medley.
Berns also hit in 1962 with The Exciters‘ “Tell Him” on United Artists
Berns made numerous other songwriting contributions to popular music, including “Piece of My Heart“, “Here Comes the Night“, “Everyone Needs Somebody To Love“ and “Hang on Sloopy” (done here by Canada’s own “Little Caesar & The Consuls“)
Gerry Goffin & Carole King
Gerald “Gerry” Goffin and Carole King, co-wrote many international pop hits of the early and mid-1960s, including the US No.1 hits “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (The Shirelles)
“Take Good Care of My Baby” (Carole King)
“The Loco-Motion” (Carole King)
“Go Away Little Girl” (Steve Lawrence)
It was later said of Gerry Goffin that his gift was “to find words that expressed what many young people were feeling, but were unable to articulate.”
Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil
In 1961, Barry Mann had his greatest success at that time with “I Love How You Love Me“, written with Larry Kolber and a No. 5 scoring single for the band The Paris Sisters.
The same year, Barry Mann himself reached the Top 40 as a performer with a novelty song which parodied the nonsense words of the then-popular doo-wop genre, co-written with Gerry Goffin, “Who Put the Bomp”
Despite his success as a singer, Mann chose to channel his creativity into songwriting, forming a prolific partnership with Cynthia Weil, a lyricist he met while both were staff songwriters at Aldon Music. Mann and Weil, who married in 1961, developed some songs intended to be socially conscious, with successes such as “Uptown” by The Crystals.
They also wrote “We Gotta Get out of This Place” , recorded by the Animals
Toni Wine & Carole Bayer Sager
Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager wrote the song “Groovy Kind Of Love”. It was published by the Screen Gems music publishing company. It is heavily based on the Rondo movement of Sonatina in G major, op. 36 no. 5 by Muzio Clementi. It was recorded by the British invasion band the Mindbenders, whose version was a worldwide hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard magazine Hot 100.
The following is a partial list of Studio Musicians who contributed to the Brill Building sound:
- Arrangers/Conductors: Teacho Wiltshire, Garry Sherman, Alan Lorber, Jimmy Wisner, Artie Butler, Claus Ogerman, Stan Applebaum.
- Bass: George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Russ Savakus, Bob Bushnell, Joe Macho Jr, Al Lucas, Dick Romoff, James Tyrell, Jimmy Lewis, Lloyd Trotman, Wendell Marshal, Chuck Rainey.
- Guitar: Al Gorgoni, Carl Lynch, Trade Martin, Bucky Pizzarelli, Everett Barksdale, Bill Suyker, Vinnie Bell, Al Caiola, Al Casamenti, Art Ryerson, Eric Gale, Ralph Casale, Charles Macey, Hugh McCracken, Wally Richardson, Don Arnone, Charles McCracken, George Barnes, Allan Hanlon, Sal Ditroia, Kenny Burrell, Mundell Lowe, Cornell Dupree.
- Piano/Organ: Ernie Hayes, Paul Griffin, Leroy Glover, Frank Owens, Bernie Leighton, Artie Butler, Stan Free
- Drums: Gary Chester, Buddy Saltzman, Sticks Evans, Herbie Lovelle, David “Panama” Francis, Al Rogers, Bobby Gregg, Sol Gubin Bernard “Pretty” Purdie
- Saxophone: Artie Kaplan, Frank Heywood Henry, Phil Bodner, Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque, King Curtis, Seldon Powell, Sam “the Man” Taylor, Buddy Lucas (musician).
- Trombone: Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Saracco, Benny Powell, Wayne Andre, Tony Studd, Micky Gravine, Urbie Green, Frank Rehak.
- Trumpet: Jimmy Nottingham, Ernie Royal, Jimmy Maxwell, Bernie Glow, Irwin “Marky” Markowitz, Jimmy Sedlar, Dud Bascomb, Lammar Wright Jr, Burt Collins, Joe Shepley.
- Percussion: George Devens, Phil Kraus, Bobby Rosengarden, Willie Rodriguez, Martin Grupp.
Brill Building professionals often wrote with intelligence and wit but less frequently with substance. As Bob Dylan and the Beatles ushered in an era of artists who wrote more personal and topical material, the Brill Building started to decline as a force in popular music.
The British Invasion and all that followed ruined the importance of such qualities in youth music. Instead, they replaced it with hero worship – and egocentricity of monstrous proportions. And we lost something profoundly valuable that we’ve never recovered.
“I’m not in total agreement it changed music for better,” says Ben E. King of the British Invasion. He was the lead singer for the Drifters on “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance For Me,” before recording as a solo artist such hits as “Spanish Harlem,” “Stand By Me” and “I (Who Have Nothing).”
“I thought they had some great writers, but so did we,” King explains. “It was certainly for the better for European groups, and to this day they’re household names – Mick Jagger on down. (But) it was not the blend of music we had going at the time, which was a mixture of music of all races – I had Latin music, R&B, two wonderful Jewish guys producing. We had wonderful human relationships in our music. But when it came from England, it was European groups playing what they assumed pop music and R&B should sound like.”
Actually, those early British groups were admirers of the Brill Building Sound – especially, oddly, the girl-group recordings. Some even had sizeable hits covering them – the Searchers with the Orlons’ ethereal “Don’t Throw Your Love Away” and Herman’s Hermits with Irma-Jean’s “I’m Into Something Good.” But in making those songs their own, they erased the past.
Billy Vera, a musician and music historian who had a huge hit in 1987 with “At This Moment,” started his career as a writer for an Aldon rival, April-Blackwood Music. (His boss was Chip Taylor, who now records folk music with Carrie Rodriguez.) He believes that era’s Brill Building Sound – primarily the silky urban soul tunes recorded by King and others – was as good as it ever got.
“I don’t know that I’d call it rock,” he says. “It was pop music, orchestral in nature. There was a maturing taking place. By the early 1960s, all these guys were bored with the simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll and wanted to do something more sophisticated. Leiber and Stoller started it with (1959’s) ‘There Goes My Baby.’ Then Bacharach and David and, before David Bob Hilliard, started making music that was more Gershwinesque but still had elements of rock ‘n’ roll and soul.”
Vera also points out that this blending of influences was happening at the same time as Top 40 radio was itself a giant blender for all kinds of pop music. Everybody was listening to everything.
“That period from 1959-1964 was when all these records were being made with great arrangements, recording techniques, and songwriting with lyrics and melodies that had more depth than rock ‘n’ roll,” Vera says. “A lot of the people who had come out of early rock ‘n’ roll were becoming grown-ups. And blacks and whites, as fans and musicians, were coming closer together.
“The British Invasion brought an end to that and that’s crucial to understanding the history of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says.
There are several reasons why this is crucial. Ever since the Beatles, rock – which until recently has dominated pop music commercially and culturally – has been about reinventing the wheel. Sooner or later, it always comes back to authenticity. The spirit of worldly pop experimentation that was a Brill Building Sound hallmark, must fight off the guardians of “roots.” Roots has come to mean music that can trace its origins directly back to the 1950s godfathers. Growth has been viewed with suspicion.
It’s like the argument in art that Jackson Pollock’s abstractions weren’t “real” because they didn’t depict anything. Never mind that they were real because they were paintings. But in art, the champions of Pollock won the argument – they were the radicals. In pop, however, the conservatives won although they thought they were the radicals because the music they championed is seen as rebellious. But it’s an immature rebellion, pure arrested development – Peter Pan’s cry of “I don’t want to grow up.”
Still, there was accomplishment in this. The black-American blues and hard R&B the Brits were reinterpreting had originally been seen as adult music the first time around. They made it youth music through the force of their flamboyant personalities and guitar-playing prowess. They also made it white.
“The only reason these kids came to be popular is they imitated what we sent over,” Ben E. King says. “They had a great look, a great promotional gimmick and you have to allow for all the songs recorded by blacks that didn’t get played in some parts of the country. So when the Beatles came over, no problem. Every state loved them, every major TV show they were on. They cut through with no problem.”
These groups also started writing their own songs, which often sounded suspiciously like the material that inspired them. That started a whole new trend that continues today – superstars who get away writing mediocre, derivative material because of who they are. As a result, there has been a dumbing-down of songwriting.
With an older producer, George Martin, at the helm, the Beatles tried to be musically sophisticated in their arrangements and recordings. And they made some breathtaking recordings. Lyrically, however, even as late in their career as “All You Need Is Love” or “Hello Goodbye,” their songs were no match for the songwriters of the Brill Building Sound.
Yes, this music was better than The Beatles—at the time when the Fab Four and their British brethren first mounted the invasion, undermining the Brill Building’s heyday and ushering in a new self-contained-rock-band era that never went away. Just put “She Loves You” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” up against the sensual “Spanish Harlem,” a 1961 Brill Building Sound classic written for singer Ben E. King by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, and produced by Leiber and partner Mike Stoller with Spector’s input:
“There is a rose in Spanish Harlem / A red rose up in Spanish Harlem / It is a special one / It’s never seen the sun / It only comes out / when the moon is on the run / And all the stars are gleaming”
“She loves you, yeah yeah yeah”
Another Rock n’ Roll Birthplace
A historic encounter with Carole King at Aldon Music
I am indebted to the following sources for material for this story: