Thursday, August 27, 2009

RIP: Ellie Greenwich

Debbie Harry and Ellie Greenwich flex their creative muscles

Ellie Greenwich, a songwriter who collaborated with Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and others to create the pop-music soundtrack of the 1960s, died yesterday at age 68 in Manhattan. It's hard to believe that someone I've never met and never even seen interviewed could have such an impact on me. But it would be impossible to quantify the amount of joy she brought into my life, having co-written literally a dozen of my favorite songs of all time, including "Be My Baby," "River Deep, Mountain High," "Leader of the Pack," "Da Do Run Run," "Then He Kissed Me," "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry," "Out in Streets," "Chapel of Love," "Why Do Lovers Break Each Others' Hearts?" and the holiday classic, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." (Later, in the 1980s, she even co-wrote the Cyndi Lauper b-side "Right Track, Wrong Train"!!!)

Given that she was part of group of songwriters, music publishers and producers working at the famed Brill Building, which was the center of pop music in the early 1960s as home to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Carole King and Gerry Goffin, it's ironic (or, in my case, perhaps fitting) that I first learned of Greenwich (by name, anyway) by way of another legend of pop music -- Blondie. I vividly recall seeing Ellie's name as a backing vocalist on "In the Flesh" and "Man Overboard" on the group's '76 debut, and later "Dreaming," "Atomic" and "Slow Motion" on "Eat to the Beat" in '79. I also recall seeing her name as a writer on Blondie's early demo that featured a cover of "Out in the Streets," one of my favorite Shangri-Las songs. Debbie wrote in "Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie" that they liked Ellie because of all the songs she'd written and the producer of their first album, Richard Gottehrer -- a fellow Brill Building producer who worked on singles like "My Boyfriend's Back" by the Angels and "I Want Candy" by the Strangeloves -- knew Ellie, so he got her to sing backups. Years later, of course, I would realize Ellie was something far bigger than a backup singer for Blondie.

The New York Times obituary says that "Leader of the Pack" is "perhaps" her most famous song. But I would argue that "Be My Baby" -- the greatest single of all time to not go to No. 1 on the Billboard charts -- deserves the honor. If Ellie's loved ones happen to see this, please know that she will be loved and cherished for eternity. They truly don't make 'em like that anymore.

Would love to hear what your favorite Ellie Greenwich song, in the comments section below.

Hear Ellie sing lead on another would-be hit. Sure sounds like she could have done her own "Tapestry" if she'd wanted to:


Stephen said...

I have always been fascinated by the Brill Building crowd. She was truely amazing as a song writer & she was a gifted singer. We never got to know her like we did Carole King etc.
This was an excellent post...I wish I had written it!
I am a daily reader of K in the (212).

Anonymous said...

"And Then He Kissed Me" is my favorite by far, although she really racked up some impressive, touching songs.

I always try to catch the ending of the silly movie "Adventures In Babysitting" (1987) when it turns up on TV, if only because it makes such an incisive use of "And Then He Kissed Me" on the soundtrack.

Unknown said...

Hey Kenneth,
Ellie made some great records with the Raindrops as well as some super solo stuff !
my favorite Ellie penned songs:
Da Doo Ron Ron
Out In The Streets
Maybe I Know
Hanky Panky
Do Wah Diddy Diddy
The Train From Kansas City
Then He Kissed Me
River Deep Mountain high
Be My Baby
Give Us Your Blessings
She Hangs Out
Wait Till My Bobby Gets Home
There are so many ! We were blessed by her writing !She wrote the soundtrack to my youth.

John said...

I'm so glad to see Ellie Greenwich's death widely reported in the gay blogosphere. She co-wrote so many stellar pop classics yet has little name recognition to the general public.

While I never tire of "Be My Baby" or "River Deep" (check out Darlene Love doing it live on Letterman), if I had to pick one Greenwich song, it would be "I Can Hear Music", specifically the Mark Wirtz version with vocals by The Breakaways. It's the same arrangement as the Beach Boys version but with Margo Quantrell giving a gorgeous Dusty Springfield-like lead vocal.

Check it out on youtube:


A true stereo mix of Ellie Greenwich's cult single "You Don't Know" has surfaced on the Real Gone Music CD The Red Bird Girls: First Time in True Stereo. It is available on and well worth having in your collection. Miss Ellie, who I exchanged a few emails with, was a genuinely nice and amazingly generous person. Unfortunately, her life was plagued by a few people who were anything but nice. She's in Heaven now, singing a sweet song for God.