Some of the biggest girl-group hits in the '60s were co-written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. The list includes Be My Baby and Baby I Love You (the Ronettes), Leader of the Pack (the Shangri-Las), Chapel of Love (the Dixie Cups) and many more. For years, many people assumed that Greenwich was the brains behind the lyrics that won girls' hearts. The truth is Jeff wrote the words, Ellie the music. How did a guy wind up knowing so much about the female teenage psyche?
In tomorrow's Wall Street Journal (go here), I interviewed Jeff for the Leisure & Arts section on that very topic. Jeff's father was blind and his sister was intellectually challenged, which forced him to be a vivid storyteller. What's more, when his mother and father divorced when he was seven, his mother moved him, his sister and her father into an attic of her brother's house, which made him sensitive. A low-income family, they moved back to Brooklyn four years later into an equally tight space, where Jeff remained until his songwriting career took off when he was about 20. [Pictured above: Ellie Greenwich]
It's the story of a caring songwriter who wrote with his gut and a vivid imagination. His understanding of what girls wanted and why—along with Greenwich's sizzling melodies—resulted in 17 Billboard hits in 1964 alone, which is pretty astonishing. Phil Spector's production was a factor, as was Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's guidance after '64 on their Red Bird label. [Pictured, from left: Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Ellie's sister Laura]
I spent an afternoon with Jeff at his home in Santa Barbara a few weeks ago. His wife Nancy made a terrific lunch and we ate outside in the Tuscan gardens behind his home. Jeff is just over 6 feet tall with piercing eyes and a warm, friendly smile. He's also as casual and as gentle as they come. He seems truly mystified by his ability to write lyrics that connect with teens. Which adds to the fun and his mystique.
Jeff's secret? "Lyrics have to tell a story and touch on things kids are going through—finding boyfriends, managing their social status, getting caught up in drama, and so on," he said. "I've always managed to figure out what's important to teens by observing them and then imagining them in a film acting out those situations to write the lyrics." [Pictured above: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich with the Dixie Cups]
My favorite moments though came when Jeff took out his laptop and played me some of the songs he's working on now with artists. Which led me to ask: "Are teenage girls today different than they were 50 years ago?" His answer was priceless:
"Today's girls aren't as cynical as you'd think. Find me a 15-year-old boy singing 'I love you, baby,' and you'll see that girls still believe in true love. I still believe." [Pictured: the Ronettes in studio mode with hair down]
JazzWax tracks: Two great Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich collections are Da Doo Ron Ron: More from the Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry Songbook (Ace) here and Do-Wah-Diddy: Words and Music by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (Ace) here. The sound is great on both.
JazzWax clip: One of my favorite off-beat, lesser-known hits by Jeff Barry and Elli Greenwich is Leslie Gore's Look of Love, which was produced by Quincy Jones in '64...