Born on October 23, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York, Ellie Greenwich joined the songwriting team called "Brill Building Writers," which included Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Phil Spector, following her graduation from Hofstra University Greenwich. She went on to write many hits, including "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Be My Baby" and "Leader of the Pack." Greenwich died of a heart attack in 2009.
Songwriter Eleanor Louise Greenwich was born on October 23, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York. When Ellie Greenwich was 10 years old, her family moved out of New York City to Levittown, New York, a town that would serve as a model for the suburbs that sprang up throughout the United States after World War II. Greenwich's childhood was spent creatively, with her time spent dancing, singing even winning a local newspaper's poetry contest. Though she first learned to play music on the accordion, the budding songwriter quickly taught herself piano and began to compose by the age of 13.
In high school, Greenwich formed a band called The Jivettes with two of her friends and performed at local schools and hospitals. It was then that her mother arranged to have her meet with Archie Bleyer, president of Cadence Records. Bleyer knew raw talent when he saw it, but advised the young Greenwich to "keep writing, but finish school… the music business will always be there." Greenwich did release one single under the pseudonym Ellie Gaye, but it flopped. She returned to studying full-time, graduating from Hoftstra University with high honors and a bachelors degree in English literature. While at school, she met fellow songwriter Jeff Barry at a party; Barry would later become her professional partner as well as her husband.
Making it as a Female Songwriter
In 1962, the year she graduated from college, Greenwich spent exactly three and a half weeks as a high school English teacher before giving up teaching to pursue songwriting full time. She found a professional home in the offices of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were part of a group of musical greats called the "Brill Building Writers." The two signed Greenwich to their publishing company, Trio Music, officially launching her career as a hit maker.
Greenwich joined a team of songwriting superstars—Carole King, Gerry Golfin, Neil Sedaka, Phil Spector, Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Howie Greenfield—who would shape the sound of their generation.
But Greenwich and the other female members of this songwriting group were not entirely immune to the pressures of the music industry's old boys club. Traditionally, the only way for a woman to become famous was to sing; Greenwich and her friends King and Weil broke new ground by hitting it big as songwriters. "When I first came into the industry, in the middle of 1962, most of the women were background singers, or they were lyricists," Greenwich later remembered.
"There were very few women who played piano, wrote songs and could go into a studio, work those controls and produce a session. I wasn't your typical after-singer, as we called them, who could go in and read that piece of music on the stand, do 17 songs in three hours, boom-boom-boom. It was a whole different thing. I'd go in, think of the background parts, and put them down myself. I learned about overdubbing. Back then they'd call me the Demo Queen. Many different publishers would hire me to record demos of other writers' songs." Greenwich eventually specialized in writing hit songs for girl groups, penning some of the most famous female-driven hits of the decade.
The Voice of Girl Groups
Greenwich and Barry collaborated with legendary producer Phil Spector on hits such as "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "And Then He Kissed Me" for The Crystals and "Be My Baby" for The Ronettes. When asked which of her countless hits were most memorable, Greenwich replied, "I would say dear to my heart where it affected me in a very incredible way was definitely '(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry' [by Darlene Love]. I was hysterical when it first came out. 'Be My Baby' was an interesting story because Phil had recorded a couple of things that we had written for the Ronettes."
"And I preferred 'Why Don't They Let Us Fall In Love' to 'Be My Baby.' So when Phil went back to California… and said 'Be My Baby' was gonna be it, I… was so disappointed. Is that hysterical? And you know what's happened to me… back then I was just doing what I was doing. I was young, it was exciting, and I cried when I heard my songs on the radio," she said. "But I don't think it was until many years later—when I see how the songs have lived on—that I really understood. When I hear 'Be My Baby' now—when I hear that "Boom! Ch-chik! Boom!" intro—I get goose bumps. I really do."
In 1964, Leiber and Stoller left the Brill Building to form Red Bird Records, taking Greenwich and Barry along as fellow songwriters. The combined talent and drive of Leiber, Stoller, Greenwich, Barry and producer George "Shadow" Morton virtually defined the dominant girl-group sound of the era. In the mid-1960s, Greenwich wrote much of her greatest material, records such as "River Deep, Mountain High" for Tina Turner and a remake of "Chapel of Love" for The Dixie Cups (originally performed by the Ronettes). It was also during this time that Greenwich penned her most famous song, "Leader of the Pack," which she and Barry co-wrote for The Shangri-Las. To this day, it remains her most enduring hit.
In 1965, Barry and Greenwich recorded their own song, "Our Love Can Still Be Saved," which won decent airplay. But the song's title said it all: Their marriage was on the rocks and by the end of the year, the couple divorced. They continued to work together for several years after the breakup, but by the end of the decade their songwriting partnership had dissolved like their marriage had done earlier. Greenwich struck out on her own.
The late 1960s and '70s were a time of creative and artistic expansion for Greenwich, as she furthered her career as a producer at a time when female producers were scarce. She wrote Clio Award-winning jingles for television commercials and theme songs for shows like The Hardy Boys (1977-79), even while singing in demo sessions and arranging vocals for artists such as Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald, Leslie Gore, Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra. Greenwich also discovered Neil Diamond during these sessions and produced his early hits like "Cherry Cherry" and "Kentucky Woman."
As Greenwich later recalled, "I opened up a jingle production company, and was doing fairly well with jingles. That can be healthy money, when you are writing jingles and singing on them. The residuals can be kinda nice. I thought, 'Let me get away from records, and start a whole new thing.'" For a while, this new thing was a refreshing break for her, but the respite did not last forever.
In 1971, following the enormous success of fellow Brill Building alumna King's Tapestry, which went on to become one of the highest-selling albums of all time, Greenwich began feeling pressure to follow with her own record. In 1973, Greenwich released Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung, but her heart wasn't really in it. The album performed reasonably well in Europe but not as well in the United States. Greenwich was so scared to sing live on stage, in fact, that she lip-synched during the tour.
"Towards the end of '72, into '73, I fell apart," Greenwich said. "I guess you could say I had a nervous breakdown. I left the business for a little over two years. When I came back into the industry, I thought, 'Let me get back into background singing; I'm so happy on microphone.' I could pretend I was in a girl group, get a couple of other girls, have a good time. I inched my way back into the things I wanted to do. Then I started writing again. I had some records with Ellen Foley, then got involved with Cyndi Lauper. Slowly, I found my way in."
'Leader of the Pack'
In the early 1980s, Greenwich happened to stop by a New York club called the Bottom Line one night to see her friends Ellen Foley, a songwriter, and Nona Hendryx, an R&B singer, perform. This led to an auspicious meeting with the club's owner, leading to plans for an off-Broadway show, Leader of the Pack, based on her life and music. The production opened at The Bottom Line in 1984. "We had two shows a night. The response was phenomenal. Some people from Broadway came down and thought it might be a great idea to take to Broadway," Greenwich recalls. "We re-ran the show for a month… to wonderful reviews. We were sold out all the time. It was terrific." After moving to Broadway in 1985, the show enjoyed an impressive run, garnering a Grammy nomination for Best Cast Album, a Tony nomination for Best Musical and a New York Music Award for Best Broadway Musical.
Six years later, in 1991, Greenwich and Barry were jointly inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. Through the 1990s and into the 21st century, Greenwich continued to explore new creative avenues: writing a sitcom, drafting an original Broadway musical, writing the song "Christmas, Baby Please Come Home," which became a holiday fixture on Late Night With David Letterman. In 2004, Greenwich and Barry learned that six of their songs made the list of Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Best Songs. Her songs have been covered by myriad artists, including Mariah Carey, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Elton John, Death Cab for Cutie, Melissa Etheridge and Meatloaf.
At the age of 68, Greenwich died of a heart attack on August 26, 2009, leaving an astounding legacy of hit songs that are nearly ubiquitous in American culture.
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