Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era
by Ken Emerson
Viking, 334 pp., $25.95
Even though rock and roll made popular music a much bigger business, in the late Fifties and early Sixties it was still a network of cottage industries. Because the major labels had mostly missed the boat at the outset, a host of smaller outfits quickly moved in to feed a teenage market that grew by the year. Mass culture was undeniably getting more corporate all the time but rock was far from a monolithic machine; market research consisted of putting out a record and seeing what happened when it got played on the radio, with or without some greasing of the wheels by record promoters. By comparison with what was to come it was almost pastoral, if your idea of pastoral allows room for a good number of gangsters and con men to ply their trade. One of the fascinations of the Brill Building era is that the scale was still small enough and the relevant technologies still sufficiently rudimentary that one can survey, in retrospect, the whole process of how songs entered the culture as if it were happening in the backyard.
For New Yorkers, of course, it did happen in the backyard. The geography of Always Magic in the Air extends from its outposts on Broadway to encompass such vital spots as the Rivoli Theater (“the Parthenon of Times Square”); the Winter Garden, where West Side Story opened in 1957 to exercise its subliminal influence on youth culture; Lindy’s; Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant and Bar; the old Juilliard on 122nd Street, where Neil Sedaka studied Chopin études before he studied the Penguins’ “Earth Angel”; the Apollo, where black music offered its challenge to the strictures of Top 40 teen pop; and the Palladium Ballroom, where songwriters picked up the subliminal Latin flavoring of records like the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” and “Sweets for My Sweet.” (The geography spills over into lyrics: “Uptown,” “On Broadway,” “Up on the Roof,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Spanish Harlem,” and others ground these songs in the city of their making.)
Perhaps the publishers should have included a subway map to enable out- of-towners to track the songwriters and producers to their early homes in Williamsburg (Doc Pomus), Brighton Beach (Mort Shuman), Coney Island (Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield), East New York (Hal David), Flatbush (Barry Mann), East Flatbush (Ellie Greenwich), Washington Heights (Don Kirshner), Jamaica (Gerry Goffin), Forest Hills (Burt Bacharach), and Manhattan’s Upper West Side (Cynthia Weil). All of them were Jewish, from backgrounds that ranged from that of Burt Bacharach, whose father was a nationally known authority on men’s grooming, to that of Gerry Goffin, who as a child worked in the family basement helping to prepare mink stoles for his grandfather, a Russian furrier; some went to high school together; three of the major teams (King-Goffin, Mann-Weil, Barry-Greenwich) were married to each other.
This becomes very local history, with Neil Sedaka teaming up with his high school classmate Howard Greenfield and going out with Carol Klein (the future …