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 Carole King), whom he saw performing at a synagogue with her band (the indelibly named Co-Sines) and whom he eventually introduced—after she had already recorded a few demos with her Queens College classmate Paul Simon—to publishing whiz Don Kirshner, who had started out in the music business writing jingles for furniture stores (up in remote Washington Heights) with his neighborhood friend Robert Cassotto, the future Bobby Darin, before collaborating with Darin on a song they managed to sell the teen singing sensation Connie Francis, the former Concetta Maria Franconero of Newark. So local do things get that when, for example, the vexed question arises of whether Sedaka and King actually went out together, it is like being dropped into the middle of a spat in a high school hallway, with Sedaka claiming that King was “a Neil Sedaka groupie…she would neglect her schoolwork to write songs and chase me from bar mitzvahs to weddings,” and King responding: “I went out on one date with him!”
On closer examination, the musical scene breaks down into neighborhoods, white and black, Jewish and Italian and Puerto Rican. It was within the music business that these neighborhoods would meet and—not always on equal terms—collaborate. Doc Pomus called the music he wrote for the Drifters “Jewish Latin,” but the Drifters themselves were an African-American group whose members changed continually at the whim of their manager. In the words of Mike Stoller, “They got no royalties. It was almost…slave labor.” There is much more to this story, but it is not the story that Emerson has chosen to tell; Always Magic in the Air has enough to do keeping its eye on the songwriters. Although Emerson talks quite a bit about the ways in which writers like Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, and Leiber and Stoller broke away from their origins to immerse themselves in black music and culture—Leiber is quoted as saying, “I felt black. I was, as far as I was concerned”—we get only scattered hints of how things looked to the black performers responsible for so many of their hits.
The Brill Building sound clearly had not so much to do with ethnic confrontation or ethnic self-definition as with a fusion of influences. In part this had to do with the same kind of smoothing out of differences that turned Joel Adelberg into Jeff Barry and Robert Ridarelli into Bobby Rydell. Yet the obverse of that homogenization was the radical alchemy it took to make a dissonant mix of styles and devices—blues, gospel, doo-wop, cha-cha, mariachi, lush string arrangements, echoes of Puccini or Irving Berlin, of country and western or Broadway musical—come out sounding as if all the elements naturally belonged together.
Something quite new was being manufactured out of the collision of apparently antithetical modes, and some ears had to adjust to the noise of it. It is hard now to imagine that when Atlantic executives first heard the overpowering string section and Brazilian-inflected kettledrum part that Leiber and Stoller had added to the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” (1959), they were so perturbed that they delayed releasing it. Even the astute Jerry Wexler thought the record—which of course proved an enormous hit—“sounded like two radio stations.”
The upshot was that local music came out sounding as if it came from everywhere and nowhere. The Mystics may have been a street-corner doo-wop group of Italian-Americans from Bensonhurst, but with that name and with the rough-hewn yet ethereal harmonies on their one hit “Hushabye” (written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman)—the kind of song that makes yearning and fulfillment seem more or less the same thing—they might have dropped down from another planet. Or perhaps that other planet was simply the America where all the movies and songs were set, the America of beaches and beauty contests and advertising layouts that bore only a tenuous relation either to the world where the songs were made or to the various worlds for which they provided an increasingly inescapable soundtrack.
The soundtrack was being created by people who had themselves been shaped by earlier phases of it. If Pomus and the team of Leiber and Stoller represented a slightly older generation whose influences were jazz and blues—they had written songs like Ray Charles’s “Lonely Avenue” and the not-quite-blues classic “Kansas City” before aiming for the teen pop market—their younger associates were still in their teens or just out of them; they were products of rock and roll and doo-wop, graduates of high school combos with names like the Linc-Tones and the Jivettes, capable of grasping what the radio audience wanted because they were it.
Some (like Sedaka and Carole King) had musical training; Sedaka’s piano-playing had been complimented by Arthur Rubinstein, and a recording engineer remarked of King’s skill that “it was almost like architecture…. She would sing and do a demo that would be better than any of the records were.” Others (like Sedaka and King’s boss Don Kirshner) had less tangible gifts, as sketched by Jeff Barry: “He can’t sing, he can’t dance…but he sure has ears. That’s the only part of his body that works musically, and that’s the only part you need.”
The distinctions between writing a song, arranging it, producing it, and performing it were often blurred at the sessions where the hits were coaxed into being. What it came down to was the capacity to focus all that skill, energy, and intuition on perhaps two minutes and forty seconds’ worth of monophonic sound. The singer Tony Orlando’s description of how these sessions tended to be run now seems an echo of a simpler age:
Everyone was singing live. No overdubs. One, two, three takes, and that’s it. No fixing. You better be in key, and you better be singing from the heart, ’cause this is a live show, baby!
Two brilliant control freaks—Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach—were already replacing that impromptu approach with their very different brands of perfectionism, but half the power of their best records (say, the Crystals’ “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” or Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By”) comes from what they retain of that earlier, more flung-together sound.
Always Magic in the Air is rock history without crowd scenes, without riots or orgies: there are here no gaudy meltdowns, no public exhibitions of religious conversion or political rage, no smashed guitars or trashed hotel suites. Presumably the denizens of the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway enjoyed their share of parties and love affairs and drug experiences, but we hear relatively little about all that. What is on display is not Dionysian excess but the adrenaline-fueled rhythm of the working life in an era when, even in the pop music business, women wore conservative dresses and men wore jackets and ties. No one is likely to find much sustenance here who is not prepared to parse the significance of contracts, partnership deals, personnel changes, work schedules, right down to the redecoration of offices—along with (this being the music business) payola, appropriated copyrights, retaliatory cover versions, and unpaid royalties.
As for the writers themselves, there hardly seems time to get to know them; they’re too busy. Indeed, there seems scarcely to have been time for them to get to know each other, or perhaps themselves. A fellow songwriter describes meeting Barry Mann (responsible for such epochal hits as “Uptown,” “On Broadway,” and “Walking in the Rain”) as he dashed through midtown and congratulating him on having three songs in the top ten; Mann is said to have replied, “Yeah, but they’re all on the way down. I gotta go do some demos.” The Great Game of breaking into the Billboard charts generated an atmosphere of ceaseless competition among writers who watched each other’s moves as attentively as they focused on their own work.
On the most basic level this could be a matter of literal transposition. Neil Sedaka, according to a colleague, “could take a song that was already a hit and write it sideways…. He would literally play the song that he was copying from and then start changing the chords.” With someone like Sedaka, professionalism could be almost terrifying in its exactness. To listen again to “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”—probably the most relentlessly cheerful song ever written on the ostensible theme of misery—is at once to admire its delicately judged textures and Swiss-watch precision and to lay oneself open to endless involuntary reprises as the song’s hooks play over and over again in the mind, well beyond the point of any emotional effect. At this remove, a song like “Calendar Girl” (1961) seems to belong to no particular era but rather to circulate eternally in a parallel universe of pure artificiality, in which the upbeat banality of its roll call of months—“March! I’m gonna march you down the aisle…April! You’re the Easter bunny when you smile…”—acquires, by virtue of its musical setting, the durable charm of some elegant toy representing the zodiac.
At the core of all that hustling and deal-making there is the music that everyone wanted to create, direct, and profit from; music as a source of power, a live element surrounded by people trying to shape and control it, yet only ever submitting to that control partially and temporarily. Work that at its lower limits could be mechanical, as writers struggled on deadline to come up with a production number for the new Elvis movie or a B-side for the next single by the “teen idol” Bobby Vee. But this led at unpredictable moments into the longed-for astonishment: the magic phrase, usually some thoroughly ordinary phrase that might have been overheard on the subway—“take good care of my baby” or “save the last dance for me” or “don’t say nothin’ bad about my baby” or “we gotta get out of this place”—would join with the magic cadence or the magic chord and suddenly seem predestined. If songwriters are in awe of their own hits, it’s because with all their professionalism, all their fabled ability to produce a “sideways” replication of any hit sound, they still don’t really know where the songs come from or where they’re going.
The process by which the songs happen remains mysterious even when the circumstances are laid out. Consider one day in the collaboration of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, in the fall of 1960: somehow, between Carole looking after their six-month-old baby and taking Don Kirshner’s call about how he needed a song for the Shirelles by tomorrow morning and then going out to play mah-jongg, and Gerry doing his day’s work at the chemical plant and meeting up after work with the bowling league and then coming home late to find Carole’s message on the tape recorder along with the rudiments of her melody, somehow—separately, and then by the end of the evening working together—the two managed by 2 AM to produce a song called “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The Shirelles recorded it, with the violin and cello backup that been added as an afterthought, and it went to number one, the first record by a black female singing group ever to do that. The record has not stopped playing for forty-five years; a good enough day’s work. The matter-of-factness of the process is belied by the slow-burning passions that the song has continued to release.
I was twelve years old when “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” came out, and I don’t recall that it made the slightest impact on me, despite the fact that my father was playing it on his morning radio show on WMCA. At the time my musical tastes ran more to the epic strains of Prokoviev’s Alexander Nevsky suite. The way the Shirelles and other recording artists of the Brill Building era made their presence known was sheer osmosis: their records became part of you before you had even become conscious of their existence as separate songs. The “wall of sound” that Phil Spector sought to achieve with his Wagnerian overlays on “Be My Baby” or “Walking in the Rain” was itself perhaps a way of summing up in a single record the total sound that all the pop songs made as they piled up one on another. Apparently made with simple ideas, simple rhythms, simple structures, they became complicated as they colonized the world into which they had been released.
You easily absorbed a song like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and it never left you. In high school, only a few years after its release, my friends and I already looked at it as an artifact of an era that had become almost quaint. We savored the euphemism of the lines
Tonight with words unspoken
You say that I’m the only one
as if their circumspection only underscored how liberated the world had all at once become. In fact the whole situation of the woman who has surrendered her virtue agonizing over whether she will now be abandoned—
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow?
—seemed, at callow moments, like something out of an early Joan Crawford movie, if not a Samuel Richardson novel. But that hint of skittish condescension could not protect us from being moved, even overwhelmed, by the distilled pain in Shirley Owens’s singing and by the somber restraint of the string accompaniment. On closer listening we came to admire the song in every detail of its making, the way words and music seemed bound so intimately together that they forced an awareness of every syllable, the melody slowing and pausing just before the rhyme word so as to instill a real suspense over how the lyric would resolve itself:
Is this a lasting (pause) tre-ea-sure
Or just a moment’s (pause) ple-ea-sure?
Running parallel to one’s actual teenage life there was this imaginary teenage life, in sung form, that had been like a presence on the horizon throughout childhood. Or, more properly, this imaginary teenage girl’s life: the world of charm bracelets, diaries, and tears on the pillow that gave way to the more savage world of passions, jealousies, rebellions, and martyrdoms both figurative and literal that occur in songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Leader of the Pack,” and “Johnny Get Angry.” All this was a far cry from the high school world of Archie comics: the war of girl against girl suggested in “Judy’s Turn to Cry” or “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby” (“He’s good,/He’s good to me,/So girl you better shut your mouth”), the fusing of sex and religiosity (“Chapel of Love”), the gaudy masochism that flourished in lyrics like “My baby’s got me locked up in chains” or “He hit me, and it felt like a kiss.”
The girl group sound is (along with the Drifters’ string of early Sixties hits) the most enduring legacy of the Brill Building moment, encompassing everything from the exquisitely delicate Bacharach-David vehicles for the Shirelles (“Baby It’s You,” “It’s Love That Really Counts”) to the armored onslaught of the Crystals, the Ronettes, and others under Phil Spector’s command. Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote some of their best songs for the Shirelles, the Cookies, and the Chiffons. At the time those songs, strung together, seemed like some compressed and mutated kind of opera; after all these years, and all that has happened since in the music business, they still do. The best of those songs refuse to settle down into a respectable tranquillity. Their protagonists inhabited a sphere which was not that of my friends, or (except symbolically or accidentally) of the writers who created the songs, or of the performers who sang them. Perhaps they were not quite like anyone at all, yet finally they were the most real of all: figures of imagination who sang in the middle of everyone’s life.
Within a few years everything in pop music would change, again, with the British Invasion, Motown, and Bob Dylan the primary agents of that change, and the songs of the Brill Building era would become instant artifacts of an era supposed to be at once more mechanized and more naive. Dylan would remark: “Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it.” (In his memoir he refers to the songs of that period as “empty pleasantries.”) At least one Brill Building lyricist, Gerry Goffin, would come to see his own lyrics as trivial in the light of Dylan’s revelation, with demoralizing results. All was now to become more formally daring, more serious, more open to real experience, more socially engaged. As one looks back, it is clear that the best thirty or forty records by the artists discussed in Ken Emerson’s book were all of those things, with a good deal less pretension and certainly taking up less time than much of what followed.
December 15, 2005
[^1]: The songwriters and performers covered in Emerson's book of course represent only a sliver of what was going on at the time, in New York and elsewhere. Among others, James Brown and Sam Cooke were in the process of redefining in their different ways both the sound of black pop music and the status of black performers.
[^2]: Collected in Theodore Dreiser, The Colors of a Great City (Boni and Liveright, 1923).