Thursday, August 27, 2009

She Wrote the Songs

Ellie Greenwich, who wrote songs that provided the soundtrack for a whole generation of teens, has died.

The Brooklyn-born writer joined forces with producer Phil Spector and her then-husband Jeff Barry to compose elaborately crafted “Wall of Sound” tunes for the likes of the Crystals and the Ronettes, just as the Beatles were about to lead a shift away from outside songwriters.

Working out of New York’s famed Brill Building, a haven for singer/songwriters, she also shepherded a young performer named Neil Diamond, producing his early hits “Cherry, Cherry” and “Kentucky Woman.”

All told, Greenwich’s songs sold tens of millions of copies, and yielded 25 gold and platinum records, according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, into which she was inducted in 1991.

During 1963 alone, a year after she graduated university with an English degree, the trio hit the top-10 list with such tunes as the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me,” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” The following year, they hit No. 1 with the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.”

I actually had a lot of those songs — they came on these little plastic discs called “45’s” — and listened to them for hours on AM radio when I was in grade school. I never gave a second thought as to who wrote them. But Ms. Greenwich was a real pioneer; the pop music business is a tough world for anybody, and it must have been especially hard for a young woman in the early 1960’s.

“It wasn’t that accepted back then — a female being in that end of the business,” Greenwich said.

Even today, women usually break into the industry as singers. Greenwich was a good singer, but her Midas touch as a writer and producer earned her a perch in the Brill Building, New York City’s famed pop-music factory, along with Carole King. Greenwich told NPR that the girl groups she produced were not always happy about a woman being in charge.

“At first it was like, ‘Well, who does she think she is, giving us orders here or telling us what to do?’ ” Greenwich said. “But on the other end, if you were very open to them, they saw you could be their friend, and then it became an asset to be a woman dealing with girl groups.”

Thanks for the music, Ellie. You made a difference.