Always Magic In The Air: The Bomp and Brilliance Of The Brill Building Era By Ken Emerson

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Book Reviews,   From Issue 804   By: Robert 'Bo' White

05th February, 2015     0

Ken Emerson fashioned an incredible family portrait of fourteen songsmiths of that bygone era of the fifties and sixties. The music was all encompassing as Tin Pan Alley shifted and changed with the times.  Incredible craft and no small amount of competitive spirit merged with Baion Beats, augmented chords, polyrhythms and nonsense syllables just for fun.

This was a multi-cultural melting pot of great music; Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller wrote Young Blood, Searchin’ and Yakety Yak for the Coasters; Jailhouse Rock and Loving You for Elvis and collaborated with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil for the hit On Broadway. They wrote over 70-charted hits.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David worked almost exclusively with Dionne Warwick. She was a conservatory-trained vocalist who helped interpret the writer’s deeper meanings in the lyrics. All told Warwick scored 38 charting songs written by her mentors including Walk on By, There’s Always Something There to Remind Me. They penned hits for Gene Pitney (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence), My Little Red Book (Manfred Mann) and Jackie Deshannon (What The World Need Now). They registered 73 hit records as one of the most successful songwriting teams in music history.

Doc Pomes and Mort Shuman wrote for Hill and Range Music and composed an incredible body of music that embodied the hit potential of blued based pop songs such as Turn Me Loose (Fabian), A Teenager in Love (Dion & the Belmonts), This Magic Moment (The Drifters), Little Sister and Viva Las Vegas (Elvis). Pomus struggled with post polio syndrome and often used a wheelchair to enhance his mobility. He performed onstage singing the blues, his favorite idiom.

Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield were partners in chutzpah. Their early hits were a bit thin, songs like I Go Ape and The Diary were not well received but he hit his stride with Calendar Girl, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and his signature song Breaking Up is Hard to Do. By the time the British Invasion conquered America, Sedaka’s career as a songwriter and performer stalled. It wasn’t until he collaborated with future members of 10CC on an album entitled Solitaire that Sedaka’s career enjoyed an incredible resurgence. The comeback was complete as he enjoyed several chart topping hits such as Love Will Keep Us Together performed by Captain and Tennille as well as his own success with Laughter in the Rain, The Immigrant and Bad Blood.

Gerry Goffin and Carole King were in their teens when they married and forged a career as songwriters. King was a gifted arranger and knew how to build a song with hooks and subtle chord embellishments while her partner was a tuned-in lyricist. They were Aldon Music’s most bankable assets. They had an incredibly diverse canon of music from Don’t Let Me Down (The Animals) and Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) to The Locomotion (Little Eva) and One Fine Day (The Shirelles). Their union ended up in divorce as substance abuse and mental illness caused a fracture in their relationship

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were a young married couple in 1961 when they started their ascent at the Brill Building. They became staff writers at Aldon Music, which was owned by Don Kirchner and Al Nevin.  They tended to write songs that had a layer of social consciousness with such notable sons as Uptown (the Crystals), We Got to Get Out of This Place (the Animals), Magic Town (The Vogues), Kicks (Paul Revere & the Raiders) and Shades of Gray (The Monkees). Mann and Weill co-wrote You’ve Lost that Lovin Feeling with Phil Spector. They also took the Righteous Brothers under their wings with two great songs You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling and (You’re My) Soul and Inspiration. They continue to write and perform.

Emerson’s narrative is an interwoven tapestry of life at the Brill Building. His writing is fluid, and suspenseful, keeping the reader on edge with more suspense and detail of these pioneers of early rock & roll. The Brill Building songwriters have been vilified in the past for writing silly songs on cue in order to sell more disposable product, yet as formulaic as the songs could be, the truth is that the songs were incredible and have stood the test of time.

Perhaps it is the clash and melding of cultures that never gave a damn about ethnicity when it comes to great music. The song craft at 1650 Broadway was essential to the later development of Motown, The Beatles and the British Invasion.

Wordsworth once talked about nostalgia…

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

But to be young was very heaven



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