The Unsung Hero of Sixties Music
Updated: 03/27/2015 7:59 pm EDT
“I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still.” That’s the opening line of the 1963 hit “Da Doo Ron Ron“, one of a string of songs that vividly captured the essence of teenage romance in a way American popular music had rarely done.
There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in those 1960’s tunes. Bette Midler leads off her new CD It’s The Girls, a glorious tribute to girl groups, with “Be My Baby”, which she credited to The Ronettes during a television appearance. In December, Darlene Love wrapped up a nearly 30-year annual tradition of performing “Christmas: Baby Please Come Home” on David Letterman’s late-night show. When singer Lesley Gore passed away in February, her song “Maybe I Know (That He’s Been Cheating)” was heard again on the radio. And on the latest edition of NBC’s The Sing-off, host Nick Lachey introduced one group’s number by saying “Now performing “River Deep, Mountain High” by Tina Turner, here is Traces.”
Yes, Turner’s 1966 version of that classic, produced by Phil Spector, brought it worldwide attention. But “River Deep” and all the other above-referenced songs were actually written by the late Ellie Greenwich, along with her then-husband Jeff Barry, two mainstays of the legendary Brill Building group of artists.
Although she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1991, then posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, a year after her death, Greenwich’s name is largely unknown to the public today, despite the continuing popularity of her music.
That could be, in part, because the Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised Greenwich kept a fairly low profile even during the most active years of a hugely successful career. In a 1984 interview I conducted with her at a coffee shop near her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she said:
I didn’t come into the business to be known; I came into the business to write songs. My peers in the industry knew who I was. My songs were hits, I was making some good money, I was doing what I loved to do. I didn’t care if the public knew who I was or not.
Until, that is, one day when Greenwich got onto a subway car and took a seat near the back. “All of a sudden, a bunch of kids came in the front, and they start singing Chapel of Love for like, 20 minutes. I’m going crazy in the back. Finally, I went up to them and said, excuse me, but I wrote that song.'”
Greenwich laughed as she recalled their response. “‘Sure ya did, Blondie’, one of them said. I took out my license and said, I swear, it’s me. See my name, E. Greenwich? When you go home, look at the record label, and you’ll see it’s me!”
It was a rare bid for attention by Greenwich, whose longtime manager (and brother-in-law) Bob Weiner describes her as “humble to a fault.” Even though Greenwich had a fine voice and recorded many of her own songs, as well as singing backup on those of other artists, Weiner says she was more comfortable being a “behind-the-scenes person. Plus, she never really understood her contribution. She always played it down.”
Darlene Love certainly understood Greenwich’s contribution. In the 1960s, she sang either lead or backup vocals on many of Ellie’s biggest hits, including Chapel of Love, Be My Baby, Da Doo Ron Ron, Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home, and Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry.
But, Love told me in a recent interview, “Ellie never got her recognition, and I never got mine either. I was on all those hits, but it was under the name of the group The Crystals. And I wasn’t a Crystal! I didn’t start getting my recognition until Phil Spector changed my name and I began to have my own hit records.”
Despite recording many of Greenwich’s songs in the sixties, Love, who lived and worked in Los Angeles, says the two didn’t actually meet until the singer came to New York in 1981. Several years later, Darlene starred in an adaptation of Ellie’s music called Leader of the Pack, now considered to be Broadway’s first jukebox musical. “I got to know her well,” Love remembers. “We sat and talked as if we had been knowing each other for years. It was like a long-lost friendship.”
Love, described by the New York Times as a “brick in Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound'”, remains one of Greenwich’s biggest fans. “Her music was so great. I say it was the foundation of rock and roll, because of the way she wrote those songs. Her music was innocent.”
Greenwich — whose signature bouffant hairdo once soared as high as Love’s top notes — used that same word in 1984 when I asked why her songs seem to strike such a chord with listeners. “I think people really respond to the innocence, the hopeful romanticism that comes through in these songs. Even in a song like, Maybe I know that he’s been cheatin’, maybe I know that he’s been untrue, there’s that hopeful element that things may work out, that ‘I know inside he loves me’.”
“I also think”, she continued, “that the songs have simplicity, both musically and lyrically. People can walk away singing them. They don’t have to struggle with ‘what note do I sing here?’ It’s easy all the way around”.
The one exception to that rule, according to Greenwich, was River Deep, Mountain High. “Phil Spector said he wanted to make a monumental record, big and symphonic, and that Ike and Tina Turner were going to cut it. And I said, Tina Turner? I couldn’t quite see her doing this kind of song.”
Greenwich didn’t hear the result for a while. “And when the record did come in, I remember putting it on and thinking, oh, my God, what has he done? I didn’t understand it. I liked it and I hated it at the same time. It wasn’t until many years later that I listened again and said, wow, look what he did with this. That is unbelievable.”
Greenwich’s other hits were more accessible, which made them attractive to countless and diverse artists. The Ramones did “Baby, I Love You”, singing Have I ever told you, how good it feels to hold you?, while the Beach Boys created an iconic version of “I Can Hear Music”, with its catchy refrain, I can hear music, sweet sweet music, whenever you touch me, baby, whenever you’re near.
When Greenwich died of a heart attack at age 68 in 2009, Beach Boy Brian Wilson told the L.A. Times, “She was the greatest melody writer of all time.” Darlene Love, now 73 and about to release her solo debut album, (produced by Steven Van Zandt and featuring tracks written by Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello), agrees, as she continues to shine a light on Ellie’s legacy. “The more I sing and the bigger I get, the bigger her name will get too, because those are her songs. The name of Ellie Greenwich will live on forever, because of these songs.”