Music superfan Mary's fantasy job from the past? To be one half of a songwriting duo at the Brill Building
A One-Stop-Shop for Hit Songwriting
If you were a musician at the Brill Building NYC circa 1962, you could pick out a brilliant new pop song, have it arranged, cut a demo, and make a deal with radio promoters -- all under this one famous roof. The 11-story, Art Deco Brill Building -- 1619 Broadway, at 49th St. -- became known as a one-stop-shop for recording artists, but above all as an almost mythical place for songwriting. Here, hundreds of high-quality hits were cranked out in assembly-line fashion for girl groups, R&B luminaries, teen idols and more. Together, Brill Building songwriters bred a blissful soundtrack for the Mad Men era.
How thrilling that in 2014, the Broadway show about Carole King, "Beautiful" (as of early 2022, still successfully touring around the country) was Tony nominated for best musical and earned a Tony for Jessie Mueller's lead performance. And how thrilling, too, that the seminal solo work of this Brill Building queen, the Tapestry album, celebrated its 50th anniversary (shocking, right??) in 2021. From half of an amazing young songwriting couple at the Brill she went on to create a truly enduring musical "declaration of independence,"
Big Band: The Brill Building in the 1940s
Brill Building songwriters were following in the footsteps of Tin Pan Alley craftsmen such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tin Pan Alley song publishing ecosystem -- and some of the best American songwriters in history -- moved north along Broadway in New York City, from 28th Street up to 49th.
By the 1940s, music publishers such as Leo Feist Inc., Mills Music Inc. and Lewis Music Inc. had set up offices in the Brill. Famed composer Johnny Mercer (pictured) was joined there by the likes of Buddy Feyne, Rose Marie McCoy, Billy Rose and Irving Mills. They crafted songs for Big Band acts like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey and consistently reached the top of the Hit Parade. (A thrilling side note on the Brill Building for jazz fans is that besides music publishers, the Brill housed live venues in the 1940s and even 1930s where stellar big-band and vocal jazz artists routinely played, according to this jazz history buff.)
The music publishers would send songs out to bands via "song pluggers" who would demo the tunes, trying to convince bands to record them.
Pop Explosion: The Brill Building in the 1950s & 60s
By 1962, the Brill housed well over 100 music businesses and some of the most famous songwriters in pop history. These tunesmiths worked in tandem with close friends, business associates, or spouses. Some of the most successful married-couple songwriting teams at the Bril Building were Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (read a delightful interview with this classy, uber-talented couple here from the Sound Opinions rock-and-roll talk show -- they would definitely make my desert-island dinner part guest list!) -- and Ellie Greenwich (interviewed here) and Jeff Barry. Some of the best '60s love songs were written by these young couples -- but some of the best breakup songs, too.
Jeff Barry also partnered with Canadian-born Andy Kim, cowriting the megahit "Sugar, Sugar" and other tunes for the Archies.
"Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector worked at the Brill as both producer and songwritier, collaborating with other composers on some of the most emblematic tunes of the time.
Some of the Brill's top composers -- Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Burt Bacharach, Carole King -- hit gold by recording their own music.
The whole environment was creatively charged, Carole King suggested in Simon Frith's The Sociology of Rock (1978), with publisher/producer Don Kirschner -- known as "The Man With the Golden Ear" -- pitting one songwriter against another to produce smash-hit tunes. It was a pressure cooker, but in the same way that pressure cookers can produce some fabulous meals, the system seems to have pushed personnel to their best work.
Perhaps surprisingly, a young Donald Fagen and Walter Becker -- who would eventually form the very successful band Steely Dan -- reportedly worked there as songwriters. This was in 1971, after the most celebrated Brill Building pop era.
~~ Who else worked at the Brill? Here's a fuller list with some detailed descriptions.
Girls to the Front
Some of the most successful Brill Building pop acts were 1960s girl groups like the Dixie Cups, the Ronettes, the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las. And their hit songs were often written by women. Perhaps due in part, at least, because the Brill's golden era predated the mainstream women's liberation movement in the USA, several of these women wrote -- very successfully -- in tandem with their husbands: Carole King (with husband Gerry Goffin), Ellie Greenwich (with husband Jeff Barry), and Cynthia Mann (with husband Barry Mann). Female songwriter Beverly Ross also worked with Jeff Barry and others; arguably her best-known tune from the Brill's golden era is "Lollilpop," written in 1958 with Julius Dixson and a hit for yet another all-female group, the Chordettes.
A "Brill Building Sound"?
There's some debate on this, and a good way to see where you stand is to listen to the 10 tunes below! Decide for yourself: Is there a coherent sound, or just some common elements?
It's safe to say that in the late '50s through the '60s, Brill Building songwriters cranked out blissful, poppy tunes that were teen-friendly but not trivial. String sections were a common thread, as were Latin influences. Lyrics, of course, could get silly but often revolved around that one true rock-and-roll theme: the vagaries of love.
~ Here's a nice writeup on the Brill Building sound ~
Brill Building Pop Timeline: 10 Tunes From the Golden Era!
Were you there for the Brill's golden era? This musical tour will take you back to those days. Too young? Imagine your favorite complicated Mad Men characters partying (or squabbling!) to this soundtrack...
1958 ~ "Yakety Yak" -- written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, recorded by The Coasters for Atlantic Records
This tune, not only written but also produced and arranged by Lieber and Stoller, became the Coasters' first number-one hit on the Billboard Top 100. "The song’s lyrics were clearly aimed smack dab at the group’s teenage audience," opines Soulmusic.com on this rather lighthearted ditty, "who were well familiar with being ordered to take out the papers and the trash, lest they fail to receive any spending cash." That teen and tween Baby Boomer discretionary cash -- and the collective spending power it represented -- would had a profound effect on American pop music in the 1950s and '60s, much as the Boomers' Millennial children would push pop tastes into new directions decades later.
1960 ~ "Calendar Girl," written by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, recorded by Neil Sedaka for RCA
Rumor (well, Wikipedia) has it that Greenfield got the title of this tune from an old movie listed in the TV Guide magazine. There's a 1947 musical romance with that name, set in 1900, so maybe that was the one. At any rate, this is a family-friendly, musical rather than visual tribute to pinup girls like Betty Grable, whose movie studio famously insured her legs for $1 million. The song charted at #4 in the U.S., becoming Sedaka's first top 5 tune.
1960 ~ "Spanish Harlem," written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, recorded by Ben E. King for Atlantic Records
Because he wrote a piano part for this song, Mike Stoller (Leiber's usual songwriting partner) arguably deserves co-credit, along with Leiber and Spector. "Spanish Harlem" hit big for Aretha Franklin (in 1971) as well as Ben E. King, with the rose in Spanish Harlem sprouting up through, in Aretha's version "Black and Spanish Harlem." For a fuller scoop on how this tune came about, check out this American Songwriter piece.
1960 ~ "Save the Last Dance for Me," written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, recorded by The Drifters for Atlantic Records
As with "Spanish Harlem," the not-so-secret weapon here is Ben E. King -- perhaps most famous for, later, "Stand by Me" -- on lead vocal. Swirling strings add dimension to the song, which has an allegedly bittersweet backstory. Doc Pomus, who used a wheelchair due to polio, reportedly "wrote it after his wedding day when he saw his wife, an actor and dancer, enjoying the party chatting and dancing with guests," wrote Simon Hoggart for the Guardian in 2012. Later covers would come from country luminaries Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and others, but it's more or less impossible to top the Drifters on this one.
1961 ~ "Take Good Care of My Baby," written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin, recorded by Bobby Vee for Liberty Records
The warm, generous sentiments of this bittersweet pop masterpiece helped propel it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1961. Of course everyone knows Bobby Vee's smash-hit version, but did you know the Beatles covered this one (with George on lead vocals!) during their Decca Records audition on New Year's Day 1962? Unlike other tunes from that audition, they kept it off the Anthology compilation, for reasons incomprehensible for us megafans of both this song and the Fab Four.
1962 ~ "The Loco-Motion," written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, recorded by Little Eva for Dimension Records
With this one, King and Goffin gained a hit but lost a babysitter. Before she was Little Eva, 17-year-old Eva Boyd was employed by the young couple (King was only 19, and Goffin 22) to look after their young daughter. According to Songfacts, "King came up with a melody that Goffin thought sounded like a locomotive, and when he saw Eva dancing with their daughter to the tune, he got the idea to make the song about a brand new dance -- The Loco-Motion." Once Goffin hammered out the lyrics, the couple brought Eva into the studio to record a demo. Producer Don Kirshner liked it enough to have Boyd (newly christened "Little Eva") record a final version, which would go on to earn money enough that she no longer had to work as a sitter.
1963 ~ One Fine Day, written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin, recorded by The Chiffons for Laurie Records
Reportedly written for Little Eva, following her King- and Goffin-penned hit the year before, this song ended up in the capable hands of the Chiffons, who took it to #5 on the pop charts in 1963. (Their beehive haircut and sleek matching dress look was a hit as well.) "One Fine Day" proved to have legs, charting several more times over the years: for Julie Budd in 1976; Rita Coolidge in 1979; and King herself in 1980, when she released it as a single from her album Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King. And in 1996 it was leveraged as both movie title and theme song for a George Clooney/Michelle Pfeiffer rom-com.
1964 ~ "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil & Phil Spector; recorded by The Righteous Brothers for Philles Records
Long before Hall & Oates, the Righteous Brothers owned the blue-eyed soul sector of pop music. The song was reportedly expensive to record, and Righteous Brother Bill Medley had serious doubts about its chances on the pop charts, fretting that "It was too slow, too long, and right in the middle of The Beatles and the British Invasion." He needn't have worried. Not only did the Righteous version hit #1, but according to BMI music publishing, when all versions are totaled up, the song was played more times than any other on American radio and TV in the 20th century.
1965 ~ "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," written by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, recorded by The Animals for Columbia/MGM
Weil and Mann, wrote Laura Barton in 2009 for the Guardian, "were the beatniks of the Brill, and their songs often reflected the darker strains of pop culture, influenced by the underground scene of jazz and poetry spilling out of Greenwich Village in the early 60s." This song is a terrific example.
1966 ~ "River Deep -- Mountain High," written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich & Phil Spector, recorded by Ike & Tina Turner for Philles Records
Not commercially successful in the United States, initially, this song hit big in Europe. The recording process was grueling for Tina Turner, she has said, due to Spector's perfectionism in a marathon session involving 21 instrumentalists, the same number of backup singers, and an audience that included Mick Jagger and Brian Wilson.
Poll: Music or lyrics?
Read All About the Brill Building Songwriters
Ken Emerson's 2006 book Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era will tell you much, much more about the amazing Brill Building songwriters who melded diverse sounds -- and diversified the audience for American pop music -- in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Homage on Film
Talented director Alison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) pays tribute to the Brill Building in the 1996 comedy-drama Grace of My Heart. It's well worth a watch if you can tolerate the script's (or the studio's? who knows...) conversion of a scrappy NYC Jewish girl--songwriter Carole King, whose story the film seems at least loosely based on--to a somewhat less scrappy Philadelphia Main Liner. Producer Phil Spector and Beach Boy Brian Wilson also appear to have inspired characters in the film.
While this doesn't constitute a complete Brill Building documentary, the 8-part Netflix docuseries This Is Pop, released in spring 2021, included an episode called "The Brill Building in 4 Songs" that is also worth checking out.
An earlier documentary, the 2001 film Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music also sounds worthwhile, if only I could figure out how to stream it!
What's With the Bust?
The Brill's polished bronze bust of a young man, visible from the street, most likely represents Alan E. Lefcourt, son of developer Abraham Lefcourt, who built the structure in 1930-1931. Alan died tragically young, at only 17, and his dad hit hard times financially while still grieving his son.
~ Want the full story? The New York Times tells it in "Built With a Broken Heart" ~
(photo: Americasroof at en.Wikipedia)
Breathing New Life Into the Brill
It's not an ongoing occurrence, but indie pop supergroup The New Pornographers invaded empty retail space at the Brill Building in 2014 to play a live show, following the release of their Brill Bruisers album. The band's got its very own vocal "wall of sound" that I've always loved, and you might too. Check out the show here.
Another hip musician to breathe new life into old hits is super-talented jazz singer Kurt Elling, who in 2012 released a well-reviewed album of Brill Building songs, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project. Definitely worth a listen!
Finally, music producer Kramer enlisted renowned guitarist Bill Frisell for a 2017 collection of Brill Building song takes that might not be everyone's cup of tea but are certainly interesting.
Visit the Brill Building NYC
More filmmakers than musicians work there now, but who knows, you may bump into Paul Simon, who retained offices in the building way past the golden era of songwriting there.
If you make a Brill Building NYC pilgrimage, be warned: There's a CVS store in the Brill now. Sigh. Don't let that stop you from stopping by to at least view the exterior of this pop-music temple, named a New York City landmark in 2010.
Public radio program/site The World has a good writeup and audio story called "New York Icons: The Brill Building."
We can forgive the mildly derogatory title "Assembly-Line Pop" for the useful info this brief Brittanica article contains on Brill Building songwriters.
"The Brill Building's Hitmakers in Their Own Words" is an interesting listen from the New York Public Radio Archives.
This Daily Telegraph article talks about the legacy of Brill Building pop and includes some great photos from the golden era.
The Brill Building and the Girl Group Era is an lesson plan overview from a rock education curricuclum.
The Music Origins Project discusses the Brill Building sound and influence here.
This New York Times article discusses the Brill's more recent struggle to attract tenants.
The Times talks about the Abraham and Alan Lefcourt story in this piece.
Here's an interview with George "Shadow" Morton, songwriter (most notably, the 1964 Shangri-Las classic "Leader of the Pack," in collaboration with husband-and-wife songwriting team Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry) and producer of numerous Brill Building hits.
Speaking of the ubertalented Ellie Greenwich, you might also enjoy this transcript of Charlotte Greig's interview with her for Spectropop, as well as informative obituaries (Greenwich, sadly, passed away in 2009 at age 68) by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Shortly after Greenwich's death, the Guardian published the wonderful piece "Simply Brill: The Women Who Shaped Rock'n'Roll."
Have you ever been to the Brill Building? What's your favorite song composed there? Who are your fave Brill Building songwriters or writing team? Any personal memories or stories to share?
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on August 03, 2015:
Wonderful article. Great historic overview of this beautiful building.
magictricksdotcom on May 27, 2012:
Great lens. I've worked with some of those famous songwriters, and they tell fascinating stories about the super-cramped quarters with room after room of talented people noisily creating those now-classic hits. You did a great job.
UKGhostwriter on May 25, 2012:
anonymous on May 24, 2012:
Wow, it's amazing that they had so much talent under one roof. Congrats on making the Squidoo front page!
domjohnson lm on May 24, 2012:
I had never heard of the Brill building, but I still enjoyed reading your lens :)
CoeGurl on May 24, 2012:
I've been fascinated with the Brill Building for a long time. Thanks for a good read!
Andycakes on May 24, 2012:
What a terrific lens. I love so many of the songs and songwriters from the Brill Building - Carole King, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Barry and Cynthia. Such great music and a really cool format for your lens - I love the way you have done it.
Fcuk Hub on May 24, 2012:
I have negative answer to all your questions. Sorry :) But the level of this lens is very high. I have enjoyed read it.
hughgrissettsr lm on May 23, 2012:
brendajoy on May 22, 2012:
I remember every one of those great songs! Wow, what a great lens. I knew of the Brill Building, but I never realized the emensity of the talent and hits that came out of that place. Great work, KarateKatGraphics
getmoreinfo on May 22, 2012:
some great music came out of the brill building, I have not got the chance to go there but I do admire the composers very much.
anonymous on May 21, 2012:
I have not, but I now know more than i did!
anonymous on May 21, 2012:
Terrific lens with a fabulous title -- totally piqued my interest. Never heard of the building or its history. Thanks for the enlightenment!
CameronPoe on May 20, 2012:
I love the 60s music era. It seems so romantic especially the New York scene.
Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on May 20, 2012:
What a nice nostalgic lens. Thank you.