Legacy of the Brill Building
So many great songs came from here you barely know where to start.
New York City casts a long shadow. Early in the morning, when the sun is low, it almost makes it to Milwaukee. Later in the day, when the sun drops, L.A. returns the favor. In the middle, flown over and forgotten, we either migrate or learn to enjoy the quietude. Quiet will be nice to come back to, but I’m getting used to the noise and the pace. The scale here is ridiculous, physically and culturally, and I’m a pinball knocking around a machine someone else is playing. But people here are much friendlier than they’re given credit for and getting around is easy, so I stay out till the whole thing tilts and I have to head back to my noisy retreat, right in the shadow of the World Trade Center. I’m staying at my friend Tom’s place. He’s from Kenosha, but has spent most of his adult life here, so he’s a New Yorker without the accent.
So many songs written here, so where do you start? Try selecting just one from this vantage point and rabbit holes more various and complicated than the subway open up. You could wind up anywhere.
So I googled the Brill Building, where so much great pop was created. It’s right off of Times Square and once had warrens filled with writers, record labels, promoters and publishers. Also mob guys. If you took Music Row in Nashville (maybe not today) and stood it on end, you would get a similar concentration of talent, creation and biz. The exterior of the Brill Building does a pretty good job of hiding the beauty that once poured out of it. One of the great moments in recent memory was Aretha Franklin singing “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center salute to Carole King. Operatic without actually being opera and anthemic with no need to salute. When she dropped her fur coat and got lost in the great swell of music toward the end, it was breathtaking. Carole King was jumping out of her skin. The lyrics, oddly enough, were written by a man, her ex-husband, the always musically sympathetic Gerry Goffin. What a team that was!
I strolled further through the halls of this famous building for a while and soon found myself at the unlikely intersection of Sonny Bono and The Rolling Stones. Though he was more of a California guy, he had an office there, so technically I won’t need a lawyer on that statement. He’s an interesting and underrated figure in pop. He was always a better songwriter than people give him credit for. I always liked “Needles And Pins,” the hit crafted for The Searchers, but didn’t know he wrote “She Said Yeah,” first recorded in a scorching version by Larry Williams. Williams was a Rock and Roll flamethrower along the lines of Little Richard. This song was recorded by The Stones and The Animals. Later on, Paul McCartney kept a promise to himself and did a really smoking version. So adjust your thinking on the guy with the porn stache and yak-skin vest. Sonny Bono, laughable bookend to Cher and onetime Republican (though hardly conservative) congressman from California, you hit a few out right of the park!
Our man Sonny spent time with Phil Spector running errands and, I’m sure, taking notes on the lush Wall Of Sound he pays tribute to on the hits with Cher. But Spector is too mythic and outsized, almost bigger than this city, to try and cover in a paragraph. So let’s go down an office or two and see who else was banging out something brilliant on one of those out-of-tune spinets.
Another door, another story. Hugo and Luigi. I bet you’ve never heard of them. But you have heard “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the aptly named Tokens, white cashmere-sweatered interlopers singing a classic South African melody. Of course there are enough layers in irony in this story for a movie of its own, but the English remake of this song is brilliant and moving. Then we have the hillbilly aria “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” That was a song from 1784 called ”Plaisir. D’amour,” by Jean-Pierre-Egide Martini. Intoxicating! These are two examples of Hugh and Luigi’s specialty, taking classics from other cultures and crafting them into unforgettable American hits. Had they been chefs they would have created chop suey — and it would have been delicious. Oh… and they also wrote “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
There were plenty of famous and talented teams working in cubicles back then. If you want to geek a little bit, I’d recommend the book “Always Magic in the Air,” by Ken Emerson. That one focuses on teams like Lieberman & Stoller, Man & Weill, Pomus & Shuman, Bacharach & David, Boyce & Hart, Goffin & King and Barry & Greenwich. Let me mention that Neil Sedaka was there too, because technically, he was. He lived with his mom and wrote songs I’m sure she approved of. There was a lull between the first wave of rock’n’roll and The British Invasion when sappy novelty pop, some of it created in that very same building, was being inflicted on the public. For the most part, Brill Building writers held down the fort.
More relevant reading? Try “Lonely Avenue,” written by Alex Halberstadt. A terrific and tender portrait of one of the best, Doc Pomus. This is another screenplay waiting to be written. Poor Doc, smitten with polio, living on crutches and then in a wheelchair; his song “Save The Last Dance For Me,” was inspired on his wedding night as he watched his bride dance with all the young men at the reception. His story skews tragic, but the songs he wrote with Mort Shuman, and later, Doctor John, transcended his difficult physical circumstances. These two books overlap, especially in the creepy way the business was so absolutely mobbed-up, with “Here Comes The Night,” by Joel Selvin. This one tells the story of Bert Berns, one of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of. Imagine life without “Twist & Shout.” Berns died at about the same age, 38, as Bobby Darin, from the same condition, a heart damaged by rheumatic fever.
Let’s leave you with a New York song by a Belfast singer, Van Morrison. Here’s his unbeatable version of Berns’ “Here comes The Night.” It’s an absolute pop masterpiece. This came early in the game-changing British Invasion when singers and songwriters were not always the same person, but two (or more) separate and talented individuals. Now it’s a must to write your own stuff. Some do a fine job and others kind of get by. There’s no mistaking the power of the old division of labor in this song, though. When the Belfast Cowboy lets out his roar on the chorus, it’s enough to wake a sleeping lion.