Brill Building pioneer songwriter Ellie Greenwich died of a heart attack yesterday after complications with pneumonia. She was 68.
Greenwich was most famous for the songs she wrote for girl groups. She rose to success with her husband Jeff Barry with smash hits like The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” and The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
She also penned or helped write songs like The Exciters’ “He’s Got The Power,” The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love,” and The Shangri-Las’ tragic “Leader of the Pack.”
It should be mentioned that she started making a name for herself in the early 1960s, a time when women’s “proper” full-time job was as wife and mother. Instead, she slogged it out, working with male producers like svengali Phil Spector as well as her male colleagues at the Brill Building, including her husband. As I mentioned in a review of Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Greenwich also had to negotiate the pressures of being a professional woman with being a traditional wife, opting for the former over the latter when she and Barry divorced.
In addition, she wrote so many monster hits, primarily for women and girls, many of whom were girls of color and were also finding access to careers beyond the clerical field and service industry during the time of this nation’s (on-going) integration. And she continued as a writer even after the girl group era, penning her autobiography, a musical, and songs for folks like Cyndi Lauper, who recorded “Right Track Wrong Train” as the b-side to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” In recognition of their contributions to popular music, she and Barry were inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1991.
I’d also add that Greenwich’s songs were tremendously informative on punk and indie rock. Bands like The Velvet Underground and The Ramones took to the Brill Building’s hollow sound and economical, riff-based songwriting, a legacy to which Greenwich contributed (of course, VU singer and guitarist Lou Reed got his start as a hack songwriter for Pickwick Records). Indeed, it doesn’t take much to turn the Brill Building’s assembly line style into a commentary and joyful celebration of consumer culture and America’s odd normality, something Parenthetical Girls seem to be doing here.
And her songs continue to be covered extensively. Every holiday season, you assuredly hear this song if you’re at the mall, which Barry and Greenwich wrote together.
I’ve also heard local or less-established bands who are heavily influenced by girl groups cover Greenwich’s work. Take “Then He Kissed Me.” The Crystals recorded it in 1963. Yet bands still cover it. I remember it being a setlist staple for The Carrots, a local band heavily influenced by the girl group, when they started out.
So, Greenwich will be missed, but her memory will live on as long as her records keep spinning. I think I’ll go throw one on right now.