Ellie Greenwich 1940-2009

 1984 Publicity Photo. Copyrighted.

 

  

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.

Walking In the Rain

Ronettes 45

It’s been raining a lot lately, earlier this year than usual. And I never fail to think of  “Walking In the Rain.”  That’s a great song by the Ronettes, and the reason how I came to move to Florida in 1978.  It all started in the Summer of 1970 when the Crescitellis of Brooklyn traveled to Massachusetts to visit relatives in Milford and Mansfield. I think we stayed in a motel rather than move en masse into somebody’s house (albeit temporarily). I mean, there were six of us from my family alone, and no matter how much your cousins love you, they tend to develop glints in their eyes after three days– and you just know they’re wondering when the hell you’re going back to Brooklyn where you belong.

So there we were, eating in new restaurants by day, and sleeping on strange sheets by night. In between, we lounged around my father’s cousin John’s pool. It was big, and built in, and so naturally we were very impressed. Our pools in Brooklyn tended to be assemble-it-yourself above ground models with metallic walls that grew blazingly hot in the sun. Though these walls were festooned with innocent, cartoonish images of sea life, they were lethal. The pool liner itself– basically a large, blue plastic bag– gradually developed wrinkles so that it felt like you were stepping on bodies while romping. It was almost the best way to stay cool in the Summer, a close second behind cavorting in the huge geyser from the fire hydrants that the older kids used to uncap for us. Thirty five screaming  little kids in their underwear, running around in the gutter as the water pressure steadily dropped in all the houses on the block: priceless!

Compared to our watery diversions, the built-in pool in Mansfield was the height of glamour and sophistication. There was a diving board, and they even had painted something on the pool’s cement floor, some sort of graphic that I can’t recall. How cool was that? We were very humbled.

So there I was, swimming away in my silly bathing suit, wearing my black plastic-rimmed eyeglasses, and trying to coax myself into attempting a dive– something my much younger cousins did without thinking. I could never be like them; they were suntanned and breezy and white-blond, and I was thin and white and asthmatic. I had to be careful; anything as exciting as jumping off a diving board into six feet of water might easily kill me.

I relaxed onto a lounge chair across from my father’s cousin Claire; she was cool because she had once been sent home from school because her skirt was too short, an unforgettable episode from 1963 that I witnessed personally. Claire had the radio on and I immediately noticed the most beautiful song being played: it had thunder in it, and glorious choruses, and a winsome lead singer. Winsome! I asked Claire what this song was, but she didn’t know; a minute or so later the dee-jay said that we had just heard “Lady Walking In the Rain” by Ronnie and the Ronettes.

Well,  back in Brooklyn I embarked on a wild goose chase for this new record. In those days there were “record stores” scattered throughout the city, and I went to a few of them in pursuit of the elusive Ronnie and the Ronettes. Nobody knew who I was talking about! I even had to sing a bar or two for some of the clerks, which embarrassed me horribly. (And them, as it turned out.)

Finally, my father found a copy at the House of Oldies in Manhattan. It turns out that it was an “oldie” from 1964, and cost him seven dollars… SEVEN DOLLARS! That was a lot to pay for a single 45 back in 1970. And the song was called simply “Walking In the Rain.” I was beside myself with excitement, which is how I reacted to anything I became obsessed with in those days. Naturally I made him tell me everything about the place, and asked if the clerk told him anything about the Ronettes. It turned out that they were “black chicks,” Dad said. Black chicks! Was I cool, or what? I liked black music!

“Walking in the Rain” was produced by the notorious Phil Spector, and featured lead vocals by Veronica Bennett, the woman who would eventually become his second wife. It was their fifth chart hit; three more records would follow, none of which reached the Top 40. By 1967, the Ronettes were already musical history.

And the song brought me to Florida. In those pre-Internet days, there were a lot of publications dedicated to record collectors. I had, by 1973, become a fanatic girl-group aficionado, especially taken by the productions of Phil Spector. Older cousins let me sift through their stacks of 45’s , and I unearthed gems by the Crystals, more by the Ronettes, the Chiffons, the Shangri-Las… it was an unending mother lode of musical butterscotch. One collector’s magazine featured want ads by people looking for certain records to buy or to trade, and in September of 1973 I struck up a correspondence with a collector in Winter Park, Florida that turned into a friendship and eventually a relationship. Things can be intense when you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty… even through the U.S. Mail!  And by 1978 I was living here.

Not everything lasts forever– some things do, but not everything. Our situation changed and I went off in another direction which lasts to this day. Phil Spector is in jail on a murder rap (he was always loose with the guns), and I still play those songs occasionally. (One never really grows tired of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” especially played at full volume on a Ford Focus CD player.)

And every time it rains, I think of the Ronettes and their thundering little three minutes of teen-aged longing. It can snap me back thirty-eight years in an instant, which proves one thing– rock and roll keeps you young !

Ronettes LP

Big Dreams … Bigger Hair … Girl Groups !

The Secrets, 1963

The Secrets, 1963... From ThatPhillySound.com

Big dreams. Bigger hair. The Secrets… the Crystals… the Ronettes… the Tammys. In 1963, there were ninety-three million girl groups, but it was all about the hair. If you had big hair, and a voice that could stay more-or-less on key, then you were allowed to record a 45. If the record was a hit, then your next 45 was allowed to have a picture sleeve. If  THAT record was a hit, then you were able to record an “album” of your “greatest hits–” the four songs from your two 45s, plus eight other songs (usually covers of other people’s hits). By 1964, you and your career were off the charts. Sucks, huh? Still, 1963 was a banner year for girl group music, with many chart hits devoted to the sound. And, actually, just a few writers and producers based in the Brill Building were responsible for most of the butterscotch that poured from transistor radios that year. Phil Spector (yes, him) worked with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil  over at Philles Records (for the aforementioned Crystals and Ronettes, plus the great Darlene Love); Carole King and Gerry Goffin worked with Don Kirschner at Dimension (Little Eva; the Cookies); and Leiber and Stoller worked with Barry and Greenwich at Red Bird, who were responsible for massive hits by the Shangri-Las, the Butterflys, and the Jelly Beans. The Secrets were a group of sweethearts from Ohio, who loved doing sock hops and driving from gig to gig in their car; they probably had the biggest hair of all. Another group, called the Girlfriends, recorded my namesake song that year– penned by David gates of “Bread” fame,” “My One and Only Jimmy Boy” was a mid-chart stormer that year.  That particular ditty sounds like a femme thunderstorm rolling from your speakers.

And then there were the Faith Tones, whose picture you see below. Since this is a Christian girl group, the hair could place them as having posed anywhere from 1959 through 1979. Who can say? And do higher hairdos denote a person’s furthercloseness to God and the heavens? All that hairspray is RUINING the heavens… but I guess the Faith Tones were warbling before things like Earth Day and Earth shoes were hot. Further research may unearth the particulars regarding this album. (Do you have a minute?) The Faith Tone on the right resembles a boy I went to high school with. (Jeff, do you know who? Stephen, how about you?) I wonder if they all went to the beauty parlor together that day… and how long did they take for them to decide who wore which scarf?  And why didn’t she take off her glasses? Maybe she had an unsightly sty.  Who knows? The answers are lost in the mists of the 60s, along with their boyfriends…

hair

The Joyful Sounds, also a Christian group, were adept at convincing their mothers to whip up matching creations from Butterick patterns:

joyful

And last, but not least, the fetching Geraldine:

geraldine

HAPPY EASTER (BASKET) EVERYONE !

A Little Fun with Sharon Marie

Sharon Marie

Sharon Marie Esparza is a favorite unheralded girl-group wonder from 1960s California. Run Around Lover is one of my favorite “girl-group” songs, though recorded by a single lass with a refreshingly basso voice– so unlike the many high-pitched stars of 1963 radio: Lesley Gore, Marcie Blane, etc. She was a Beach Boys protege, and I’ve read that she dated one of them– Mike Love?  [That may not be true, according to a message posted to this blog.] In any event, this is a good example of Brian Wilson recording in the “Phil Spector style,” heightened with fabulous surf drums. Sharon Marie recorded eight songs; this is the best. The background vocals are provided by The Blossoms, the lead singer of whom is my favorite– Darlene Love. You can clearly her smoky warbling throughout the song, as the Blossoms do a great call-and-response to Sharon Marie’s confident, thunderous lead: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFKaPyBjXvw

Sharon Marie has BIG HAIR !! The pictures are from her Facebook page. I copied them today, and if she sees this and yells at me, I will certainly understand if I have to remove them… but I did want to share them with you!

And here’s a Brian Wilson compilation disc that features Sharon Marie in the center…