Music superfan Mary's fantasy job from the past? To be one half of a songwriting duo at the Brill Building
This one-stop-shop for hit songwriting bred a blissful soundtrack for the Mad Men era
If you were a musician at New York City's Brill Building 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 & more.
How thrilling that in 2014, the Broadway show about Carole King, "Beautiful," was Tony nominated -- and 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 enuring musical "declaration of independence."
(image: Rev Stan cc ~ cropped for shape)
Big Band: The Brill Building in the 1940s
By the 1940s, music publishers such as Leo Feist, Mills Music and Lewis Music 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.
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. They often 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.
"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 cookies can produce some fabulous meals, the system seems to have pushed personnel to their best work.
~~ Who else worked at the Brill? Wikipedia has a longer list ~~
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! 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 ~
A Brill Building Tuneful Timeline - 10 tunes from the late 50s through mid 60s -- the Brill's golden era!
1958 ~ "Yakety Yak" -- written by Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller, recorded by The Coasters for Atlantic Records
1960 ~ "Calendar Girl," written by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, recorded by Neil Sedaka for RCA
1960 ~ "Spanish Harlem," written by Jerry Leiber & Phil Spector, recorded by Ben E King for Atlantic Records
1960 ~ "Save the Last Dance for Me," written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, recorded by The Drifters for Atlantic Records
1961 ~ "Take Good Care of My Baby," written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin, recorded by Bobby Vee for Liberty Records
1962 ~ "The Loco-Motion," written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin, recorded by Little Eva (who had been babysitting for King and Goffin -- talk about a big break!) for Dimension Records
1963 ~ One Fine Day, written by Carole King & Gerry Goffin, recorded by The Chiffons for Laurie Records
1964 ~ "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil & Phil Spector; recorded by The Righteous Brothers for Philles Records
1965 ~ "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," written by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, recorded by The Animals for Columbia/MGM
1966 ~ "River Deep -- Mountain High," written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich & Phil Spector, recorded by Ike & Tina Turner for Philles Records
Read All About It
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.
Have you ever been to the Brill Building? What's your favorite song composed there? Who's your fave Brill songwriter or writing team? Any personal memories or stories to share?
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, with characters based loosely on songwriter Carole King, producer Phil Spector, and eccentric Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Check it out!
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)
In NYC? Stop by the Brill Building
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 go, 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.
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.