The New York record business at the start of the 1960s was very much the leader in the field and was dominated by the idea of the crafted pop song.
The city was full of writers, arrangers and session musicians who were influenced to varying degrees by the existence of Broadway musical theatre, around which these separate jobs had thrived since the 1920s.
Much of the white-dominated scene operated from the few blocks around Times Square where certain buildings dominated the industry.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had an office at the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, in the heart of New York’s music district – although many of the writers were starting to assemble across the road at 1650 Broadway, at Don Kirshner’s newly set-up Aldon Building.
Here it was that Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka and many others were starting to churn out the bulk of what has become known as Brill Building Pop. The term ‘Brill Building’ came to refer to three separate addresses spread over five blocks of Broadway.
By the mid-60s, the action had mostly shifted to 1650 Broadway. An inscription above the door at that address reads “The best-known address in the entertainment field”.
The third Brill address was 1697 Broadway, where the black acts were based. Al Kooper says in his memoir, Backstage Passes And Backstabbing Bastards, the few white people who had office space there felt obliged to have one R&B hit. This is where The Tokens (“Jewish as the driven snow”) wrote He’s So Fine for The Chiffons.
It was said in the 1930s and 1940s that Tin Pan Alley was “located just across the street from the nearest dollar”. This new Tin Pan Alley could be located more precisely because, in effect, the Brill Building had become a production line for quality pop music, much of it under the guidance of one man, Don Kirshner.
Kirshner’s first experience of the music industry had been in an unsuccessful songwriting partnership with the equally unknown Robert Cassotto, who later changed his name to Bobby Darin and became a bonafide teen idol.
Kirshner decided to take the energy of rock music and re-apply the old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley disciplines of craft and professionalism to the art of marketing hits for the youth market.
With new partner Al Nevins he formed Aldon Music – One of their first signings was the songwriting duo of Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield whose Stupid Cupid provided a hit for Connie Francis in 1958. As a solo performer, Sedaka then turned out Oh Carol, Calendar Girl, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and a string of others.
Sedaka’s ex-girlfriend Carole King was also brought on board as a songwriter, on a wage of $75 a week, along with her current beau, Gerry Goffin.
She was soon pumping out hits including Will You Love Me Tomorrow? for The Shirelles, Take Good Care Of My Baby for Bobby Vee, Crying In The Rain for The Everly Brothers, and The Loco-Motion for Little Eva.
Kirshner’s next coup was a liaison with Barry Mann (writer of Who Put The Bomp?). Teamed up with Cynthia Weil, the duo quickly scored with Bless You by Tony Orlando, Uptown for The Crystals, and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ for Phil Spector protégés, The Righteous Brothers.
Describing conditions in the Brill Building, Mann revealed, “Cynthia and I work in a tiny cubicle, with just a piano and a chair, no window. We go in every morning and write songs all day. In the next room Carole and Gerry are doing the same thing, with Neil in the room after that. Sometimes when we all get to banging pianos, you can’t tell who’s playing what”.
Never as feted as their Brill Building contemporaries, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry are chiefly remembered for I Can Hear Music (The Beach Boys), River Deep and Mountain High (Ike & Tina Turner) and Do-Wah-Diddy (originally for The Exciters but most famously – and successfully – recorded by Manfred Mann).