All Hopped Up Music and Maps: Chapter 7
This Mix accompanies Chapter 7 of All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77, “From Brooklyn to Broadway.” It covers the music of the predominantly Brooklyn-raised, Jewish songwriters who in the late 1950s and early 1960s, working primarily at the Brill and Music Buildings of midtown Manhattan, helped rewrite the American song book.
The chapter opens with the cultural background of people like Neil Sedaka, Mort Shuman, Barry Mann and Carole King as they grew up in the areas of Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay and Gravesend, where their archetypal lower middle class musical Jewish upbringing received a shock to the system with the arrival of Alan Freed to the airwaves and their introduction to rock ‘n’ roll. Sedaka, writing with Howard Greenfield and singing with Hank Medress, formed a group called the Linc-Tones (named for their high school, Abraham Lincoln, and later renamed the Tokens), joining other local acts the Neons, Passions and Bay-Bops. However, the first of the white vocal groups from the outer Boroughs to break the charts in a big way was from the Bronx, Dion and the Belmonts with “I Wonder Why,” a song that, I write, “if not black enough to be rhythm and blues… could certainly pass for what was by then considered rock ‘n’ roll.”
Meanwhile, Atlantic Records finally took its “answer to Elvis Presley,” Bobby Darin, high into the charts with the “corny – though in that sense, perfectly contemporary” “Splish Splash,” which convinced Darin’s first business partner, Donny Kirshner, that there was money to be made publishing the new hit songwriters. With Al Nevins, a middle-aged songwriter whose 1944 hit “Twilight Time” hit number one in 1958 as covered by the Platters, Kirshner set up Aldon Music – not in the Brill Building, but in a hipper, cheaper, location across the street, at 1650 Broadway: a.k.a the Music Building.
Aldon’s first top 20 hit came after Kirshner signed Sedaka and Greenfield, and took them to singer and TV star Connie Francis, who they impressed with the “totally harmless, totally teenage, singalong love song,” “Stupid Cupid.” They quickly followed it with “Fallin’” and were on their way as songwriters – though ultimately a more important development took place in the summer of 1958 after Fort Greene’s Little Anthony and the Imperials broke into the Top 5 with “Tears on My Pillow.” Unlike many of their teenage predecessors (see Chapter 6) who wrote their own songs, “Tears on my Pillow” was brought to the Imperials by their label boss, the indefatigable George Goldner, via the Brill Building circuit. Looking for a sure-fire follow up, Goldner, working out of 1650 Broadway, went to Aldon, where Kirshner supplied him with Sedaka-Greenfield’s “The Diary.” Supposedly, while Goldner was out of town, his lieutenant, Richard Barrett, replaced “The Diary” as an A-side with one of his own compositions. It flopped. Kirshner and Nevins, furious at what they considered a betrayal of trust, took the ambitious Sedaka to RCA as a solo artist, where his own version of “The Diary” became a top 20 hit at the start of 1959. It’s instructive to compare the two versions and hear a subtle but definitive shift in popular music. “No longer could white artists be accused of ‘covering’ and diluting black R&N singles,” I write, “not if, like Sedaka, they had written them to begin with.”
The success of Darin and Sedaka notwithstanding (check Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl” for an almost perfectly sickly sugar sweet pop song) the majority of the new teen idols hailed from Philadelphia, too many of them with songs written by the otherwise credible Shuman and Pomus. Our musical mix includes their questionable hit “I’m A Man” for 15-year old Fabian as a reference point, but quickly returns to New York City and their immortal “Teenager In Love,” initially intended for fellow Brooklyites the Mystics, but delivered instead to Dion and the Belmonts as a certain hit. Shuman and Pomus offered the Mystics a song called “Hushabye” as compensation; “formulaic to the point of vapidity,” you can hear how far we have come from the emotionally raw (if often musically flat) rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues of the black vocal groups of just a few years earlier.
After Sedaka had a major hit with “Oh! Carol,” it inspired an “answer” record from the possible object of the song’s affections, fellow South Brooklyn musical prodigy Carol King (nee Klein). The lyrics to her “Oh! Neil” were composed primarily by boyfriend Gerry Goffin a chemistry major at Queens College who aspired to Broadway musicals; his slightly teasing lyrics reveal an innate skill and the kind of musical story-telling that would become common place in pop as such Broadway aspirants took up residence in songwriting cubicles along the Great White Way. Indeed, thanks to “Oh! Neil,” Goffin and King were quickly signed to Aldon as in-house songwriters, though the hits did not come as quickly as did a baby for the young lovers; King was just 17 when she became a mother.
The “From Brooklyn to Broadway” mix includes a couple of classics by Elvis Presley: both “Jailhouse Rock” and “Treat Me Nice” were written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, in a New York hotel room, in the space of one afternoon. The self-confessed “soul mates,” each of them born on the east coast, had recently relocated in New York after making a name for themselves as writers and producers in Los Angeles. From their new offices and publishing company in the Brill Building, they resurrected the struggling Drifters, putting Ben E. King’s baritone voice in the lead on “There Goes My Baby” and introducing not only a Latin lilt to vocal rhythm and blues, but also a full orchestra. The single made it to number two, and Leiber and Stoller began a long run of successful productions for the Drifters, the bulk of the group’s next few hits composed by Pomus and Shuman, including “This Magic Moment” and the immortal “Save The Last Dance For Me.” Again, compare this song to some of the hits by the Drifters’ predecessors from Chapter 6, and the musical development is apparent.
Carole King and Gerry Goffin, still searching for their first hit, were commissioned to write for Ben E. King as a solo artist; “Show Me The Way” sounds somewhat incomplete, but it includes many of the ideas the couple would use just a few months later on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the follow-up to “Tonight’s the Night” by New Jersey’s seminal girl group the Shirelles. “Tonight’s The Night” hinted at a girl putting out for her boy; on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” she seems to consummate the act, while acknowledging that her partner may not respect – or worse, still claim to “love” – her the following morning. Produced with a string section, a la the Drifters, by Luther Dixon (in-house producer for the Shirelles’ label Scepter) “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was considered by many to be the first “teenage symphony.” It was, certainly, the first number one by a black girl group and that it established Goffin and King as a powerful writing duo.
The chapter ends with the rise to riches of Barry Mann (nee Imberman), whose short journey from Brooklyn to Broadway took in the typical detour of working summer holidays amidst the musical residencies of the Catskills. Like Carole King and Neil Sedaka before him, Mann set out to become a recording artist, though his affable nature, admirable work ethic and considerable musical skills soon found him signed to Aldon Music. His first major hit came in co-writing “Footsteps” for Steve Lawrence, another young Brooklyn Jew. He also teamed up with Gerry Goffin, who wrote the lyrics for Mann’s delightful top 10 hit “Who Put The Bomp (in the Bomp Bomp Bomp)?” perhaps the last word on the juvenile lyrics of that era. Though Mann was suddenly a successful performer, he had, by this point, teamed up with his future wife and songwriting partner, the Manhattan-raised, Broadway musical fan Cynthia Weil, and was set for a life spent predominantly behind the scenes as part of arguably the most successful songwriting partnership of them all. Mann-Weil quickly had a hit together with “Bless You” for Donny Kirshner’s handpicked teenage protégé Tony Orlando, yet the song that really set them on their career path was co-written by Mann with Aldon’s Larry Kolber: “I Love How You Love Me,” “a deft little monosyllabic ballad,” reached the top five as sung by Californian siblings, the Paris Sisters. The girls themselves were old-fashioned and would soon be left behind by the changing times; their producer, meanwhile, would lead the musical charge into the 1960s. His name was Phil Spector.
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