Who was Ellie Greenwich? you might be asking yourself. You might not have known her by name, but you know her musical legacy. Her compositions and productions will be with us as long as there are people who listen to music.
Ellie started writing music in the 1950s and continued to the present day. Along the way she recorded songs, produced groups, performed as a group as well as a solo singer, and was 100% integral to the success of producers like Phil Spector. Labels like Spector’s Philles Records and Leiber and Stoller’s Red Bird Records were enriched in countless ways by her contributions. There are myriad other details, but I am writing this post not to enumerate the many, many successes of Ellie’s legendary career, but to share what Ellie meant to me– though I will state that the lyrics and arrangements of Ellie Greenwich basically drove much of American pop music from 1962-1965.
You know her songs. Though she wrote with partners– e.g., Tony Powers, ex-husband Jeff Barry, Spector– these “girl-group” hits were practically always about girls pining for boys, so it’s Ellie’s name you remember as the songwriter. The watershed years of 1963 and 1964 graced us with many of her unforgettable hits, which you know of– Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me by the Crystals; The Boy I’m Gonna Marry and Wait ’til My Bobby Gets Home by Darlene Love; Be My Baby and Baby I Love You by the Ronettes; I Wanna Love Him So Bad by the Jelly Beans; I Have A Boyfriend by the Chiffons; The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget by the Raindrops… the list goes on. The Raindrops’ That Boy John, released in November 1963, gives us a remarkable fusion of girl-group-meets-jazz , a harbinger of what was still to come, but John F. Kennedy’s assassination that year basically drove the song off the airwaves. Not enough people became familiar with it. And multi-faceted Ellie Greenwich basically was the Raindrops: multi-tracked thanke to her amazing vocal range, these studio compositions leapt onto the charts, leading to demands for personal appearances and record album photos. Ellie duly posed with husband Jeff and sister Laura, and made “group” appearances with various musical performers in the industry– all in a day’s work circe 1963.
I discovered her work beginning in 1970, when anything recorded in the 60s was already considered an “oldie.” I started collecting 45 RPM records that year and was given some by older cousins. Ellie’s name was on so many, like the classics I named earlier. Who can forget Chapel of Love by the Dixie Cups? It was HUGE in 1964, tossing the Beatles out of the #1 spot… and then there was a little number called Leader of the Pack, recorded by the Shangri-Las. Another Number One, and a golden feather in Ellie’s cap. Men ran Red Bird, yet Ellie had a major, equal hand in the production of their biggest recordings. She was basically a contracted writer, but she had the luxury to be able to work and think beyond the limitations of the working world circa 1963, and blazed a trail for many women writers and producers who came after her.
Going through what I was going through in those years– I was fourteen for most of 1970– these records helped me to realize that, though we all pine for something, we usually get what we want in the end, once we realize exactly who we are and what we need. Those songs were like butterscotch pudding pouring out of my little record player’s speakers, and they spoke to me about hope and love and dating and maybe even one day finding someone perfect for me.
I met her in 1984 while she was starring on Broadway in Leader of the Pack, a musical that traced her artistic legacy. Big and blonde, she enveloped me in a great big bear hug after the show and rocked me back and forth, thanking me profusely for coming up from Florida to see the show. I’d never met the woman, but had boldly called her at home once just to say hello– and she remembered it that night. Then came the cards each Christmas season, and the little occasional notes. Clearly, this was a woman who loved her fans. She was patient with us all, even when we wanted to know things like the middle names of the Butterflys’ grandmothers.
I will miss knowing that she lives among us, yet there are still hundreds of 45s and albums and CDs to listen to whenever I need some butterscotch. Thanks, Ellie, for all the music, and the memories.