Eleanor Louise Greenwich was born in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, then a family neighbourhood of New York in October 1940. Both her parents were of Russian ancestry, but she was brought up amid two religions, Catholic on her father’s side and Jewish on her mother’s.
When she was 11, the family moved to Levittown, a pioneering suburban development on Long Island. There was music in the house, some of it coming from her father’s balalaika and from an accordion on which Ellie became so proficient that she was turned down by the Manhattan School of Music only because it had no one to teach her the instrument.
At 14 she was taken by her mother to audition for Archie Bleyer, the head of Cadence records in New York, who liked the song she played for him, titled The Moment I Saw Him, but advised her to finish her education. Back in high school, she formed her own group, The Jivettes, but she heeded Bleyer’s words and went on to earn an English degree at Hofstra University.
A month’s teaching experience was enough to send her back to New York and to the Brill Building, the Broadway headquarters of the music publishing industry.
There she befriended the experienced writer Harold “Doc” Pomus, who brought her to the attention of the producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, already famous for their work with The Coasters and The Drifters. Under a loose arrangement with their publishing company, she began to write with a variety of partners.
It was with her future husband Jeff Barry (born Joel Adelberg), two years older than Greenwich, that the magic struck.
When Ellie first met Barry at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1960, she wrote a song called (Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry. Hearing Darlene Love’s recording of the composition for the first time on the radio some time later, she was so overcome with emotion that she crashed her car into a phone box.
By the time they were married, in 1962, Greenwich and Barry were competing for chart supremacy with two other Broadway-based songwriting couples, Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Working closely with Phil Spector, Greenwich and Barry came up with the songs that helped define the producer’s distinctive sound, culminating in the epic River Deep Mountain High for Ike and Tina Turner.
The work of Barry and Greenwich marked a break with the old Tin Pan Alley culture. The pair were hardly any older than their target audience and wrote without airs and graces. Lines such as “I met him on a Sunday and my heart stood still” and “Remember what you promised my mama/You told her that I’d be in by two” came naturally from the mouths of The Ronettes‘ Ronnie Bennett and The Crystals‘ 15-year-old La La Brooks.
When Leiber and Stoller started the Red Bird label in 1964, Greenwich and Barry became their unofficial talent scouts. Greenwich introduced George “Shadow” Morton, an aspiring writer and producer she had met in high school. He brought with him The Shangri-Las, four tough-looking white girls who proved the perfect mouthpieces for Leader of the Pack, a miniature Greenwich and Barry soap opera to which the inventive Morton added the roar of motorcycle engines and the scream of tyres.
Greenwich and Barry also wrote and produced the million-selling Chapel of Love and Iko Iko with a girl group from New Orleans, The Dixie Cups. When they switched from the declining Red Bird to the new Bang label, they took with them the young writer and singer Neil Diamond, whose career they launched with such hits as Solitary Man and Cherry, Cherry.
Since she often sang lead on the demos of her songs and was particularly adept at concocting background vocal parts (a skill she later employed on Aretha Franklin‘s Chain of Fools and Cyndi Lauper‘s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), it was widely expected that Greenwich would go on to have a singing career of her own.
Before meeting Barry, she recorded a handful of 45s under various names and together, as The Raindrops, they had a hit in 1963 with The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget. A dramatic Spector-style solo single, You Don’t Know, met with surprising indifference in 1965, and when she topped the charts in Japan in 1968, it was with a song, Niki Hoeky, that she had not written.
Her husband’s lack of enthusiasm had led her to reject her most promising opportunity as a singer, an offer to travel to record in London in the mid-60s.
Their separation in 1965 was a traumatic one, leading to her breakdown, and its imprint can be detected in the elegiac mood of her fine 1973 solo album, Let It Be Written – Let It Be Sung, an artistic success despite its commercial failure.
Although collaborations with other professional partners did not match the heights she had once scaled, she went on to enjoy a long and fruitful career as a writer of advertising jingles.
In 1984 she created and starred in Leader of the Pack, a musical based on her life and times, and watched it transfer to Broadway, where it won a Tony award, and thence around the world.
Ellie Greenwich died on 25 August 2009.