Teenage symphonies, 3 minutes long
How a savvy pack of Brooklyn teens hijacked pop radio in the early sixties
As the 60s dawned, two bustling restaurants on the ground floor at 1619 Broadway (Manhattan's legendary Brill Building) were pumping out roast beef sandwiches and porterhouse steaks for hungry Times Square patrons.
Meanwhile, upstairs, seven songwriting duos - most barely out of their teens - sat in airless cubicles, huddled around banged-up pianos, cooking up the classic pop confections we still can't get enough of today, songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" "Chapel of Love," "Jailhouse Rock," "Be My Baby," "Walk on By," "Up on the Roof," and "Leader of the Pack" - get the picture?
These are the songs that have jump-started pulses, accelerated birthrates, and enriched wedding and bar mitzvah bands across the planet for more than four decades now. Just the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " by itself - radio's most played pop song ever - has been heard more than 10 million times.
In Always Magic in the Air, Ken Emerson (author of "Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture") makes the case that although rock 'n' roll may have died in 1959 with the plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, it was soon reborn - with smoother edges and wider appeal - in the overheated incubators of 1619 and 1650 Broadway.
The Brill Building songwriters' remarkable success in dominating radio's record charts in the late 50s and early 60s is a testament to their talent, doggedness, and infectious alacrity.
Some were the oddest of couples. Others were marriages of both hearts and talent. From 1960-1965, seven songwriting teams: Doc Pomus/ Mort Shuman, Carole King/Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka/Howard Greenfield, Barry Mann/ Cynthia Weil, Mike Leiber /Jerry Stoller, Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry, and Burt Bacharach/Hal David accounted for hundreds of Top-40 hits by artists ranging from teen idols like Bobby Vee to The Drifters, Dusty Springfield, The Everly Brothers, and Elvis.
This book, long on detail, follows these 14 songwriters - nearly all from Brooklyn - whose eclectic tastes and absorbent minds spawned a second great wave of American popular standards.
They represented a uniquely American form of cultural fusion. Emerson explains: "As Brooklyn Jews, raised on the Rosenbergs and Jackie Robinson, they developed racial awareness ... as the children and grandchildren of immigrants, they had some respect for, and in several instances, training in, classical European music, which they did not forsake even as they fell in love with African-American and ... Afro-Cuban music."
It is no coincidence that these NY-based writers created the first rhythm and blues records to combine classical strings with the exotic Cuban baion beat. Leiber and Stoller's productions of the Drifters' "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance for Me" were as sophisticated and daring as pop records had ever been, until Bacharach/David started making their own magic with Dionne Warwick's string of hits like "Don't Make Me Over" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart" with its thundering tympani and dramatic setting.
Later, legendary producer Phil Spector would collaborate with writers Greenwich and Barry on smashes like "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Be My Baby," creating his own gargantuan symphonies, less than three minutes long.
Of course, it couldn't last. The story of how most of these partnerships finally crashed and burned is chronicled with fly-on-the-wall detail and compassion. When the Beatles hit pop radio in the US like an atomic bomb in 1964, their nearly instant domination ended the Brill writers' run of success almost overnight, and many of the duos parted company. A few left for California or London, scattered by the winds of change, hoping to become part of a hot new scene. But Emerson's upbeat "where are they now" coda reveals that a majority of these souls resurfaced - reinvented.
Goffin and King penned the deeply soulful "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" for Aretha Franklin's first great album. Carole King became a popular singer/songwriter who continues to tour today. Leiber and Stoller's revue "Smokey Joe's Café" is undoubtedly playing somewhere in the world at any given time. Mann and Weil are still writing radio hits.
And who's cooler than the still-debonair Burt Bacharach, last seen featured in an Austin Powers movie and collaborating with popster Elvis Costello?
Emerson's affection for his subjects and the music they created permeates his narrative and makes me want to revisit every little 45 rpm masterpiece I own.
• John Kehe is the Monitor's art director.