september 2009

Ellie Greenwich, 1967: The blonde beehive, the bangs falling over the eyes, the hip fashions and, most of all, her energy and childlike enthusiasm for the world around her made her seem forever 16.

Forever 16
Ellie Greenwich, The Kind of Girl You Can't Forget
By David McGee

It was once said Ronnie Spector was the queen of hearts of a certain generation. With no disrespect at all for the Ronettes' classic lead voice, a good argument could be made for Ellie Greenwich as queen of hearts, because she wrote so many of the songs that comprised the heart of a generational soundtrack.

On August 26, Ellie Greenwich died of a heart attack at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, only a few blocks from her apartment. She had been admitted with pneumonia a few days before her sudden death. She was 68 years old.

Born October 23, 1940, in Brooklyn, raised in Levittown, NY, Ellie began writing songs while in her early teens. While attending Queens College, she was signed to RCA in 1958 and released a self-penned single, "Silly Isn't It" b/w "Cha-Cha Charming," under the name Ellie Gaye, a surname chosen in tribute to Barbie Gaye, who recorded the original version of "My Boy Lollipop." After transferring to Hofstra University, she met Jeff Barry, whom she would later marry and partner with in one of the '60s greatest songwriting teams.

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The Crystals, 'Da Doo Ron Ron' (1963)

Before teaming up with Barry, though (in any capacity-he was married when they met, but he had that union annulled before he began dating Greenwich), she found good fortune in the waiting room of the offices of powerhouse songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, in the legendary Brill Building in Times Square. She was there to meet with another songwriter, and, while waiting for him, had occupied a spare room in the Leiber-Stoller offices, which happened to contain a piano. Hearing the music coming from the room, Jerry Leiber entered expecting to find Carole King. Instead, he offered Greenwich the use of the office in return for right of first refusal on her songs. Shortly thereafter they signed her to their Trio Music Publishing company.

Her first hits were co-writes with Tony Powers—"(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry," for Darlene Love; "He's Got the Power," for the Exciters; "Why Do Loves Break Each Other's Hearts," for Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. The Darlene Love and Bob B. Soxx songs also featured as co-writer and producer one Phil Spector.

The Raindrops (from left): Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Laura Greenwich

Wed to Barry in October 1962, the songwriting spouses immediately turned out hits. In 1963 alone these (all co-written and produced by Spector) included "Then He Kissed Me" and "Da Doo Ron Ron" for the Crystals; "Be My Baby" and "Baby I Love You" for the Ronettes; "Not Too Young To Get Married," for Bob B.Soxx & the Blue Jeans; and the instant holiday classic, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home") for Darlene Love. They also tried their hand as recording artists, forming the Raindrops with Ellie's sister Laura, though Ellie sang all the female parts on the group's lone album. One Top 20 single emerged from the LP, the rousing "The Kind of Boy You Can't Forget."

Greenwich and Barry continued having hits, even after the British Invasion had inaugurated the rise of the self-contained group. "We thought, Uh-oh, what's this?" Greenwich once recalled. "This is something new. These groups are writing their own songs. What happens to us?"

What happened to Greenwich and Barry was more hits: "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," a #1 single for Manfred Mann in 1964; "Hanky Panky," a #1 hit for Tommy James and the Shondells in 1966. When Leiber and Stoller founded Red Bird Records in 1964, Barry and Greenwich joined them as staff producers and songwriters, and the beat went on. This incredibly fruitful period yielded an immediate chart topper in the Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love," a Top 10 single for the Jelly Beans in "I Wanna Love Him So Bad," and arguably the greatest of all teenage tragedy songs, the Shangri-La's' "Leader of the Pack," the story of an ill-fated love between a high school girl and a biker boyfriend scorned by her parents. After breaking up with him, he speeds off to his death in a crash, a moment accompanied by the sounds of screeching tires, breaking glass and explosions as the music bellow in crescendo behind one of the singers' desperate cries, "Watch out! Watch out! Watch out!" In 1964, the Barry-Greenwich team accounted for no less than 17 singles in the year's Billboard Top 100.

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Manfred Mann, 'Do Wah Diddy Diddy' (1964)

When the Barry-Greenwich marriage ended in 1966, the couple continued their professional relationship, in part owing to their excitement over their latest discovery, Brooklyn native Neil Diamond. The three formed a publishing company together, Tallyrand Music, Diamond was signed to the Bang label, and Berry and Greenwich produced his early records. A lifelong friendship ensued. In a statement released to the press following news of Greenwich's passing, Diamond called Greenwich "one of the most important people in my career," adding: "She discovered me as a down-and-out songwriter." A reunion with Phil Spector led to two more great songs, "I Can Hear Music," recorded by the Ronettes but done definitively in 1969 by the Beach Boys; and 1966's epochal "River Deep, Mountain High," one of the landmarks of Spector's production career.

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The Beach Boys, 'I Can Hear Music' (1969)

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Ike and Tina Turner, 'River Deep, Mountain High' (1966)

In 1967 and again in 1973, Greenwich released two superb solo albums, the earliest long player being Ellie Greenwich Composes, Produces and Sings, the later one titled Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung. Both are among the best albums of their time, neither was a hit, both are collector's items in their vinyl configurations.

She continued to write with other partners after splitting with Barry professionally—she never really stopped working—but the highlight of her later years was a Broadway musical version of her life story, Leader of the Pack, in which she appeared as herself in Act Two. Darlene Love was among the cast members. The show was nominated for a Tony award for Best Musical, a Grammy for its cast album and a New York Music Critics' award for Best Broadway Musical.

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A YouTube tribute to Ellie Greenwich. Thanks to polkadotbox2 for this loving retrospective.

It's said she never recovered from losing Barry—she never remarried after they split and was never linked romantically with anyone thereafter either. But Ellie Greenwich was loved, unconditionally, by those who knew her personally and by those who only knew her from her songs. But the woman and the songs were indistinguishable from one another. The blonde beehive, the bangs falling over the eyes, the hip fashions and, most of all, her energy and childlike enthusiasm for the world around her made her seem forever 16. There was nothing quite like being in her company, because she made the years fall away with her laughter and the warmth of her friendship. I remember being with her circa '76 at a long-gone New York cabaret, Reno Sweeney, one night when Lesley Gore was appearing. Ellie looked great—young and vibrant and Mod-ishly attired, truly the hippest gal in the room. She was so demure, though; inquisitive about this and that, but fairly quiet and reserved, for her. Until, that is, a waiter delivered to the table next to ours a mountainous ice cream sundae.

Ellie bolted to her feet. "Look at that frappe!" she declared in her shrillest Brooklyn/Long Island whoop, pointing and gaping wide-eyed at the delectable treat. "Who would order a frappe that big?" she demanded. "That's disgusting!"

Her outburst had silenced the entire room. All eyes were on the leader of the pack.

"Waiter!" she called. "I want one of those frappes! Right now!"

Be my baby, Ellie. Baby, I love you.

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The Ronettes, 'Be My Baby' (1963)

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