Friday, August 28, 2009

Ellie Greenwich

Every inch on every wall of her apartment was filled with awards, gold records, recognitions, framed notes and articles. There were pictures of her with the Beatles. Lyric sheets, music sheets, album covers. If she and I had lunch plans I always insisted on meeting her at her apartment. A half hour early. Ellie Greenwich’s apartment was like the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Better. It was in New York, not Cleveland.

You may not know her name but you’ve sung her words.

You many not recognize her voice but you’ve heard it on the radio a billion times.

Ellie Greenwich was a singer/songwriter who during a golden period of the 60s expressed the feelings, angst, and joy that my generation was experiencing and she put them into the meaningful words we couldn’t … even if those words were Da Doo Ron Ron and Doo Wah Diddy.

Ellie Greenwich passed away this week. She was only 68.

Along with Jeff Barry and other collaborators, Ellie wrote many teen anthems. “Leader of the Pack”, “Be My Baby”, “I Can Hear Music”, “River Deep/Mountain High”, and countless more. The Broadway musical “Leader of the Pack” was loosely based on her career. She discovered Neil Diamond and sang background on all his hits. She had a couple of hits herself as lead singer of the Raindrops. She’s produced records, wrote famous jingles (e.g. "Ooh-La-La-Sasson"), sung with Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, Blondie, and Cyndi Lauper. Brian Wilson called her "the greatest melody writer of all-time".

Ellie was part of the Brill Building, which basically was a stable of songwriters who churned out most of the smash hits of the day. Working in little offices side by side were Leiber & Stoller, Bacharach & David, Goffin & King (as in Carole), Mann & Weil, Sedaka & Greenfield, and a few other heavyweights. (Some of them like Neil Sedaka were still teens in high school at the time. I always loved the fact that Jewish kids who couldn’t get a date would take the subway into Manhattan after school and write the love songs that every teenager in America was singing.)

Anyway, I had an idea to write a musical about the Brill Building and connected with Ellie about providing the music. Thus began a collaboration (although I never got the project off the ground) and friendship I have cherished for years.

God, she could make me laugh. There are some people who just know how to tell a story. Hers often involved giving Phil Spector shit (it’s a wonder he didn’t shoot her). They were the kind of stories you couldn’t repeat because no one but her could do them justice.

She used to love my travelogues. I email them to my friends as well as posting them. One of the joys of writing these travelogues (lord knows I’m not making any money off of them) was hearing from Ellie. And it’s ironic because I’m writing this on a plane to Cincinnati and am in the middle of another travelogue. I’m sending it to her anyway.

Ellie Greenwich loved a good song and loved a good laugh. I hope all of those wonderful treasures and keepsakes on her walls are given a good new home; somewhere where the life and contribution of this lovely talented lady can be forever appreciated. Y’know, Cleveland’s not so bad after all.


Tom Quigley said...

By sad coincidence, the main attraction every Monday night at the Irridium Jazz Club, directly across the street from the Brill Building on Broadway, was Les Paul, who passed away two weeks ago. Between Les and Ellie, lots of musical history has departed recently.

Cap'n Bob said...

I thank her for making my teen years more tolerable. My condolences on the loss of your friend, Ken.

A. Buck Short said...

Like we don't ALREADY envy you your friendships. Very nicely expressed, and glad to know this.

watzabatza said...

envy is not good... it gives you motive to do which is not good...

Anonymous said...

Today's Fresh Air featured a rerun of a 1986 interview with Ellie. Includes some song clips and one bit of Ellie herself singing in studio. Very nice to hear.

And I didn't actually listen to this one, but I see now that apparently All Things Considered ran a 3 min 52 sec piece about Ellie on Aug 26 (listed under the Fresh Air piece on that page).

Having heard the Fresh Air one I'm pretty sure that would be the far better one to check out if you have the time. The much shorter All Things Considered one must have been a career retrospective piece quickly put together to air the same day she passed (at least that's my assumption).


Anonymous said...

Wonderful tribute ken, I was very touched and offer my condolences.

Roger Owen Green said...

In my little piece about Ted Kennedy and Ellie Greenwich, I linked to a bunch of her songs I found on YouTube, FWIW.

J S Swanson said...

Thanks, Ken, for this blog. Envy can barely describe how I feel about you knowing EG. You must tell us more of her stories.
I've been a big fan of hers for ages & was quite saddened to hear she had died. My favorite EG song is You don't know. An absolute gem! I just ordered the Raindrops CS & also a collection of her Barry/Greenwich songs sung by various other artists. Can't wait to get it. I'm also a huge Carole King fan but EG could certainly give CK a run for her money in the songwriting dept.

Unknown said...

Ken, thank you for the wonderful piece. Travel safe and well.
Elayne B.

amyp3 said...

My condolences on the loss of your friend, Ken. I hadn't realized until lately how much interest in theater you've had.

It won't surprise anyone here, on a writer's blog, that on another site I read (Jezebel) many posters had never heard of her (although they knew her work). But at least they learned belatedly of her contributions to pop music.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I feel I've reached an age where I know more people making their exit than their entrance. OTOH in the kinds of work I do and hobbies I pursue you can get to know interesting people of all ages, from advanced years to teens, so that keeps it fresh.

SharoneRosen said...

Thanks Ken, I hadn't heard that she passed. What joy she has brought to so many people who don't even know her name. I didn't until the Broadway show "Leader of the Pack" came out. VROOOOMMMMM!

thanks, as always, for your wonderful insights.

Unknown said...

Very moving, Ken. I was decidedly saddened, and still am at the news of Ellie's passing. I feel like I knew her, through her fabulous songwriting and envy your having known her personally. She may be gone, but will live forever through all those great recordings of her work. Larry Shell

Kirk said...

The '60s were by far the best decade in pop music, and I say this as one who grew up in the '70s.

jbryant said...

She had been on my mind recently after reading the new Leiber and Stoller autobiography, Hound Dog. What a career and what a talent. How blessed you must consider yourself to have known her.

J S Swanson said...

If you want to hear Ellie @ the very beginning of her career back in 1958 -- search YouTube for Ellie Gaye Cha Cha Charming. There's also a clip from a 1989 Letterman show which has her, Jay Siegel of the Tokens, Johnny Maestro, Dion Di Mucci & even Will Smith thrown in performing with Paul Shaffer to the song: When the radio is on

Tod Hunter said...

There are some people who just know how to tell a story. Hers often involved giving Phil Spector shit (it’s a wonder he didn’t shoot her).

In the middle of a heartfelt tribute to your friend, a little ticking time bomb of hilarity.

Thanks for sharing your memories of your friend in your inimitable (and gawd knows I've tried) way.


Captainfirst said...

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellie for about 40 minutes on WHRW-FM, which is the campus radio station at SUNY-Binghamton in upstate New York. She was a very funny and easygoing person.

This was while Phil Spector was first being arrested and she made it clear beforehand that she would not discuss the case on-air, but off-air she told me she honestly had expected him to do
something "like this" all along.

Is she in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame as a songwriter? If not, let's do all we can to get her in.


Several years ago, I started a petition to get Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. It was utterly ignored by the nominating committee, and I eventually took it down, but not before over 1000 people had signed it, including Gene Pitney, May Pang, Jody Miller and members of The Crystals. Anybody who knows how to put the screws on the nominating committee, please have at it. To have Miss Ellie die without having gone to Cleveland, that's both a shame and a crime.

Don Charles