ARCHIVES: Ellie Greenwich (1940-2009)

Ellie Greenwich: the true leader of the pack.

This pre-Franorama World post was from my MySpace blog Aug. 27, 2009, 12:30 p.m. PDT:

Lost among the platitudes for Ted Kennedy and the news of Dominick Dunne and ignored by the broadcast media was the death of one of our generation’s all-time greatest songwriters. Ellie Greenwich, 68, passed away of a heart attack yesterday in New York.

I believe the quote about Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt London after the Great Fire, was “If you seek his monument, look around you.” If you seek Ellie’s monument, turn on an oldies station. No, wait — they’re playing all that sappy ’70s and ’80s wine-and-cheese shit now. If you seek Ellie’s monument, dig into your record collection, or iTunes, or MySpace (well maybe not so MySpace — a couple of my favorites couldn’t be found here) … You’ll mourn with a smile.
Okay, there’s the litany of great pop tunes: “Leader of the Pack.” “Da Doo Ron Ron.” “Be My Baby.” “Chapel of Love.” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” “I Can Hear Music.” “And Then He Kissed Me.” “Baby, I Love You.” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” “River Deep Mountain High.” “Hanky Panky.” “Maybe I Know.” “Out in the Streets.” “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry.” “The Train From Kansas City.” “I Wish I Never Saw the Sun Shine.” “Take Me Home Tonight.”

So here’s why she was so important:

* She was a girl who broke through in what was a boys’ game. Like Carole King (who wrote back then with her then-husband, Gerry Goffin), Ellie (with then-husband Jeff Barry) made it big in the ultra-competitive Brill Building songwriting factory in early-’60s New York. And, like King, her writing has more than stood the test of time.

* She gave Phil Spector much of his soundtrack. Back when he was merely a quirky and petulant pop genius and not pulling guns on anyone, Spector relied heavily on Ellie. Look at that list above, starting with “Be My Baby.” Then throw in “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “I Can Hear Music,” “And Then He Kissed Me,” the immortal “Christmas” and the fabulous “River Deep Mountain High.” She didn’t write all his great works (“He’s a Rebel” was Gene Pitney’s), but where is his discography without her?

(And what pisses me off about MySpace today: For all the music they boast of having, the classic Ike-Tina 1966 “River Deep” and the original “Christmas” were nowhere to be found. Would’ve loved to have had them on my playlist. I really needed to have them there …)

* Brian Wilson. My all-time favorite’s all-time favorite song is The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” It was the song that influenced him and spurred him to become the legendary producer he became, taking the Wall of Sound in his own dizzying directions. It was the record he played over and over in his bed, about 300 times a day, in his lost days of madness in the ’70s. And it’s a song he still talks about glowingly today. Where would The Beach Boys have been in the music pantheon had Brian not been mesmerized by that one song? They’d have been Mike Love and Bruce Johnston doing “Kokomo” — no, wait, that’s what they do now …

And two footnotes: 1) Brian was inspired enough by that song to write “Don’t Worry Baby” in the hopes of getting Ronnie Spector to sing it. Phil hated his competition, so it wasn’t till decades later that Ronnie recorded a version. 2) After Brian began his descent into madness, brother Carl Wilson had his great turn with Ellie’s music by way of Spector, producing and singing lead on their 1969 version of The Ronettes’ “I Can Hear Music.” It was the last hit of the first chapter of The Beach Boys’ history …

* The Beatles. OK, here’s the progression: Were it not for Ellie writing “Be My Baby,” Spector would never have recorded it, Brian Wilson would never have heard it and might never have recorded “Pet Sounds,” and Lennon and McCartney might not have been inspired to top Brian by creating “Sgt. Pepper.”

* She had a lot to do with influencing punk after her. She did that, originally, by writing “Leader of the Pack,” and thus making The Shangri-La’s the badass chicks of the girl-group era. Shadow Morton infused Mary Weiss and crew with a slew of teen/early adult melodrama, but the image was solidified early on with “Leader of the Pack.”

Fast-forward to the mid-to-late ’70s. For all the political and style-points baggage punk took on later, the original punk was a bunch of young misfits and their friends in New York trying to re-create the ’60s sound they heard on WABC, or even WMCA or WINS. Debbie Harry draws a line straight back to The Shangri-La’s — badass, though much more styling and glamourous than them — and Blondie even recorded a version of “Out in the Streets.” The Cramps’ early recordings and set lists were essentially their demented interpretations of the ’50s and ’60s — rockabilly, R&B and bubblegum top 40. The first time I saw them, at Malibu on Long Island in ’81, they covered “Hanky Panky.” Joey Ramone kinda goes without saying — though his dream went badly when The Ramones let Spector (and his gun) produce “End of the Century” and they walked away the worse for it.

And keep in mind that Ellie wrote most of the body of work in about four short years (1961-65). I think anyone who writes songs would kill for four years of music this glorious …

But anyway, if you love music, that’s much of why you should care about Ellie Greenwich and celebrate her work …

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