24 June 2006

Barry, Greenwich and Spector

Fabulous Ronettes

Be My Baby
The Fabulous Musical Legacy of
Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector
by Donny Jacobs
Yes, that’s none other than Ronnie Spector smouldering atop this page, the beautiful and talented Pop singer with the incomparably sexy singing voice. Can you even imagine what Rock‘n’Roll history would be like without Ronnie? What if you’d never heard her voice? What if you’d never known anything about her? She might be totally unknown today were it not for a certain song she recorded back in the summer of 1963. Of course, that song is “Be My Baby,” and when issued as a single on Philles Records, its runaway success secured for her the stardom she deserved.

“Be My Baby” was part of an incredible catalog of Pop tunes written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector. A husband-and-wife songwriting team, Barry and Greenwich worked out of New York City’s Brill Building while Spector made Hollywood’s Gold Star Recording Studios his base of operations. They established a bi-coastal working relationship that provided over a dozen memorable chart singles for the mostly female artists signed to Spector’s Philles label. Produced by Spector and originally sung by The Crystals, The Ronettes, Darlene Love, Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans and Tina Turner, these unforgettable records set the standard for what has become known as the Girl Group era. They were widely imitated but seldom bettered.

To be sure, Phil Spector worked with other songwriters, and Barry and Greenwich didn’t even write his most successful Philles release. That honor goes to Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, whose “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” is not only Spector’s most lucrative copyright but also the most played Rock‘n’Roll song of all-time. However, the string of hits Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich wrote with him between 1962 and 1967 are what Philles Records built its esteemed reputation on.

The individual songs of Barry, Greenwich and Spector have gone on to achieve cultural icon status; they’ve outlived their maiden interpretations by more than four decades. Vintage Barry/Greenwich/Spector creations like “Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby” and “I Can Hear Music” continue to be a staple of Oldies radio even as they appear ever more frequently on the soundtracks of TV shows and major motion pictures. They never seem to lose their freshness because new generations of Rock and Pop singers revive and reinterpret them on a regular basis. As a catalog, they are spoken of with reverence and awe by Rock historians and vinyl record collectors. Here, for the first time anywhere, The Pop Culture Cantina shines a spotlight on the complete musical canon of Barry, Greenwich and Spector.

April 1961
Ruth Brown

Atlantic Studios, New York City
Anyone But You

(Jeff Barry)

Long before the Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich songwriting dynamo had begun to fire its twin engines, Phil Spector sampled its future greatness. Assigned by Atlantic‘s A & R chief Jerry Wexler to jump start the stalled singing career of ‘50s R & B legend Ruth Brown, Spector chose to record “Anyone But You” at his first and only session with her. It’s an early Jeff Barry Rock ballad which, as interpreted by Wexler and Spector, has too much ballad and too little Rock in it. Their production is so understated, it has almost no aural impact at all, and predictably, the single did nothing to reverse Ruth Brown’s dwindling chart fortunes. In the hands of a Rock ballad specialist like Connie Francis, both the song and the production would undoubtedly have amounted to something very special.

November 1962
Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans
featuring Darlene Love
Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts?

(Greenwich, Powers, Spector)

Despite a stormy first encounter in Manhattan’s Brill Building, Spector can’t ignore the jumbo-sized songwriting talent of Ellie Greenwich, a rising star from the staff of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Trio Music. From her catalog of previously-written songs he chooses this catchy doo-wop number and interprets it as a Western Swing two-step minus the fiddles and steel guitars. Leon Russell’s barroom-style piano parts provide much of the record’s old-time flavor, leaving the decidedly uptown vocals of Darlene Love, Fanita James and Bobby Sheen to preserve the song’s streetcorner Soul elements. Barely cracking Billboard’s Top 40, “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts?” was perhaps not an ideal follow-up for its groundbreaking predecessor “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Even so, it’s a wonderful record that spawned numerous imitations (the best known being “What Makes Little Girls Cry” by The Victorians) as well as a hit revival by the English group Showaddywaddy in 1980.

March 1963
Darlene Love

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry
My Heart Beat A Little Bit Faster

(Greenwich, Powers, Spector)

Phil Spector released these tracks as the respective A and B-sides of Darlene Love’s début single. His second (and as it happened, final) recording session devoted to Ellie Greenwich/Tony Powers material yielded two Rock ballad performances that are as soulful as his 1961 effort with Ruth Brown was tepid. Stepping away from the androgynous style she employed on “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Heart,” Darlene fully unleashes her considerable Gospel acumen on both songs and stakes her claim to the title of Philles Records‘ Queen of Hearts. As well-deserved as the praise for “The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” is, “My Heart Beat A Little Bit Faster” is clearly the best of the two sides; it’s pure Gospel from start to finish, with Billy Strange’s twangy guitar licks being the only concession to Pop music sensibilities.

Unfortunately, it got bumped from the B-side very soon after Darlene’s début single was released; Spector replaced it with a bluesy title of his own composition called “Playing For Keeps.” The original track later appeared as an album cut on both Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans’ Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah LP and the label compilation Today’s Hits, both released on Philles Records in 1963. Neither of those albums are easy to find, so Girlpop fans were grateful when "My Heart" was finally given wide release on Abkco Records’ Best Of Darlene Love compilation in 1992.

March 1963
The Crystals featuring La La Brooks

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Da Doo Ron Ron
Heartbreaker

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

Just before Phil Spector recorded his first Ellie Greenwich composition, the bodacious blonde up and married Jeff Barry, the top songwriter at Bobby Darin’s TM Music. By the time this historic session rolled around, Jeff had joined her on staff at Trio Music and she’d broken off her partnership with Tony Powers to write with him full-time. Jeff and Ellie’s combined enthusiasm and wellspring of youth-oriented song ideas lit a creative flame under Spector, drawing him into a musical collaboration unlike any he’d known before. The dynamic aspect of that collaboration is evident in the sound of these Crystals tracks.

Also working in their favor is Spector’s effective use of Latin rhythms (the Dominican merengue in the case of “Da Doo Ron Ron” and the Cuban habanera on “Heartbreaker”) not to mention the exciting lead voice of Dolores "La La" Brooks, The Crystal’s newest member. La La didn't quite possess the vocal power of Darlene Love, nor could she match the electric vibrato of Ronnie Spector, but she sang with a sense of high drama that no other Philles vocalist could touch. Her imperative phrasing made teenybopper sentiments come across like major events!

With its provocative “scat” lyric that harkened back to beloved Rock’n’Roll novelties like “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and “Papa Oom Mow Mow,” the fabulous "Da Doo Ron Ron" became Spector’s first unqualified smash hit outside of the United States. Of course, it was also a huge stateside hit, and had it been released, “Heartbreaker” would undoubtedly have been one, too. Its sassy bump-and-grind ambiance translates as a potential Dance Rock classic; Spector’s failure to market the track qualifies as one of his biggest missed opportunities. Still, the Top Five chart-placement of his first production with Barry and Greenwich’s input announced the arrival of a formidable new trio of contenders on the Pop music scene.

March 1963
Veronica

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love?

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

This was the first new song Phil Spector worked on with Veronica Bennett AKA Ronnie Spector, his future wife and the woman whose voice he considered the perfect compliment to his production style. Until fairly recently, most people knew it as an album cut from Sonny and Cher’s 1965 début album Look At Us. Ellie Greenwich lobbied hard for “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love” to be The Ronettes’ first single, but in retrospect, it obviously wasn’t the best choice. The song lacks the majesty of “Be My Baby,” and Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement isn’t commercial enough to have garnered Top Ten radio airplay.

In an ill-advised move, Nitzsche recycled the bump-and-grind/habanera rhythm of “Heartbreaker“ for this session; the pleading, angst-ridden lyric fairly begged for a more subtle approach. Both Jeff and Ellie’s recording with The Dixie Cups (released under the title “Gee, The Moon Is Shining Bright”) and the aforementioned Sonny and Cher version are better representations of the song on vinyl. Ronnie Spector’s original waxing did get released as a single, but only for a few weeks and only on the East coast. Spector quickly recalled it, and his production of “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love” wouldn’t see the light of day again for seventeen years.

April 1963
Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans

featuring Darlene Love
Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Not Too Young To Get Married

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

The rhythmic urgency of the merengue beat perfectly matches the emotional urgency of young lovers on this wildly up tempo production. Phil Spector masterfully recreates producer Frank Guida’s circa 1960 drunken house party sound as heard on the hits of Gary US Bonds. Disguising herself as a fifteen-year-old boy for the last time, Darlene Love is totally convincing as she feverishly pleads the case for teenage nuptials. This final release by Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans has lost none of its charm over the years, but it unfortunately has lost much of its relevancy. Sexual mores of American teens had changed so radically by the time “Not Too Young To Get Married” was featured in Ellie Greenwich’s 1985 musical retrospective Leader Of The Pack, the matrimonial thrust of the lyrics sounded altogether naïve and dated.

May 1963
Darlene Love

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home
Run, Run, Run Away

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

Ellie Greenwich loved the sound of 1940s Swing, and its influence can clearly be heard in the single that was culled from this session. With different instrumentation, “Wait ’Til My Bobby Gets Home” would’ve been a great three-part harmony number for a group like The Andrews Sisters. It might also have made a fine vehicle for The Wright Sisters (Darlene and Edna) had Phil Spector not saddled it with a weak production that tried but failed to bridge the gap between Swing and Rock‘n’Roll.

The musicians sound like they’re holding back. Rather than the kids who were the target audience of Philles releases, Jack Nitzsche’s cocktail lounge arrangement probably appealed more to their parents! The spirited duet vocals of Darlene Love and her sister Edna Wright salvage this disappointing record, which stubbornly refused to break the Top Twenty. Its session mate is an unreleased reworking of “Da Doo Ron Ron” that begs for the dramatic touch La La Brooks could’ve given it. Darlene tries her best, but “Run, Run, Run Away” just isn’t her kind of vehicle anymore; her artistry has matured to the point that she’s no longer credible in this juvenile “It’s My Party” setting. England’s Beverley Jones couldn’t hold a candle to Darlene vocally, but her rowdy, foot-stomping version of “Wait ’Til My Bobby Gets Home” is the closest you’ll get to finding a definitive reading. Ten years later, Ellie Greenwich cut a Gospel-tinged Adult-Contemporary version that worked nicely in a Soft Rock context.

June 1963
The Crystals featuring La La Brooks

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
All Grown Up

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

Phil Spector seems not to have been at his creative peak during the early summer of ‘63. Take away the Big Band horns, and “All Grown Up” stands revealed as a rather blatant rip-off of Chuck Berry’s 1959 single “Almost Grown.” Jeff and Ellie were obviously inspired by Berry’s tune, but the inspiration didn’t have to sound quite so obvious! La La Brooks’ talents are completely wasted on this overblown production, and it’s a good thing that Spector held back releasing it for a year; had he chosen it to follow up “Da Doo Ron Ron,” The Crystals’ relatively short string of hits would have been even shorter.

In May 1964, he took La La Brooks back into the studio and waxed a second version. This time, he produced a thumping good track that successfully revived his circa 1962 Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans sound. Yet Spector ultimately decided to issue the derivative original master on 45. When it predictably failed to garner airplay, he lost interest in The Crystals and began lavishing all his attention on The Ronettes. His flagship Girl Group subsequently bought out their Philles contract and signed with United Artists Records. The new, improved “All Grown Up” languished in a tape vault for far too many years. Even worse, so did a killer Gospel version that Jeff and Ellie cut with The Exciters under Leiber and Stoller’s auspices. What a waste of a great song!


July 1963
The Crystals featuring La La Brooks

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Then He Kissed Me

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

Spector finally hits his stride with this stellar production. His Wall of Sound technique comes of age in a very stylish Latin setting: Thrilling pasodoble orchestration, a strong habanera rhythm foundation, and a truckload of flamenco-style percussion set adrift in a sea of echo. The famous guitar refrain (played by Tommy Tedesco and other members of Liberty Records’ Fifty Guitars studio group) sweeps over and around the lyric like a fancy matador’s cape.

Only La La Brooks could have done this song justice! She emotes like a grand opera diva, transforming Jeff and Ellie’s black-and-white home movie of a teen love affair’s progression into a romantic Technicolor epic à la Dr. Zhivago. In later years, “Then He Kissed Me” would be essayed by The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Sonny and Cher, Rachel Sweet, Gary Glitter, Ellie Greenwich and numerous others, but none of these versions ever came close to surpassing the magnificent original. One of the Top Five Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich compositions, it provided Philles Records with a second consecutive international smash.

July 1963
The Ronettes
featuring Veronica
Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Be My Baby

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

The quintessential Habanera Rock recording and, according to The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, the finest Pop single ever recorded! “Be My Baby” is the ultimate realization of the Spanish Harlem musical ethos Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first created on Drifters singles in 1959. It conjures up exotic images of tiered lace Communion dresses, boots with Cuban heels, Cadillacs adorned with miniature Puerto Rican flags, crowded neighborhood bodegas, red bandannas wrapped around shaggy Ché Guevara haircuts, and tenement kitchens where steaming pots of arroz con pollo get served up nightly. How fitting, then, that a girl from Spanish Harlem should sing the lead vocal.

When The Ronettes auditioned for Phil Spector in early 1963, Phil Spector pointed a bony finger at Veronica Bennett and screamed “that’s the voice I’ve been looking for!” That distinctive voice was one part Eartha Kitt and two parts Frankie Lymon, a winning combination of nightclub chanteuse and street corner belter that oozed sass and sensuality. Upon hearing its insistent demand be my baby now, millions of teenage boys (and not a small number of girls) dreamed of holding Veronica in their arms. They took the lyrics of “Be My Baby” to heart, and so did its producer! As enamored of the girl as of the voice, he legally changed her name to Ronnie Spector in 1968. (Well, actually, John Lennon changed it in 1971, but that’s a whole other story.)


September 1963
Darlene Love

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
A Fine, Fine, Boy
Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

These songs were most likely cut at two separate dates, the latter during sessions for Phil Spector’s legendary yuletide album A Christmas Gift For You. They are Darlene Love’s best Philles releases. Rocking on a solid boogie woogie foundation, “A Fine, Fine Boy” is an exuberant pride anthem, Barry and Greenwich’s most joyful celebration of young love. Darlene delivers it in a breathless, giddy style but manages to retain her full vocal power. While kettledrums pound and brass blares, she shouts the praises of the boy with a sweet, sweet kiss and a true, true heart. When she ad-libs he’s a fine, fine, superfine boy in an affected Southern accent dripping with Scarlett O’Hara charm, she brings down the house. This record has the same brash energy of Jeff and Ellie’s releases as The Raindrops, only set at a much higher volume!

“Christmas” is Darlene’s signature tune, a splendid holiday lament that draws heavily on her Blues and Gospel instincts. Of her previous waxings, only “My Heart Beat A Little Bit Faster” makes better use of them. While other girls are cozy at home opening presents under the tree, she’s walking the frozen streets, tears staining her face and her heart in pieces. Her lover has abandoned her, and all she can do is wail baby, please come home! from the bottom of her tortured soul. Off in the distance, the background voices of Sonny and Cher lead a host of mournful carolers singing the word Christmas over and over, as if to accentuate Darlene’s pain. If A Christmas Gift To You was the producer’s greatest artistic statement, as most Rock historians contend, then “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” was surely its most potent expression.

November 1963
The Ronettes featuring Veronica

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Baby, I Love You
I Wonder
Chapel Of Love

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

These tracks undoubtedly hail from sessions for The Ronettes’ 1964 début album. With a cha-cha rhythm underpinning its pasodoble flair, “Baby, I Love You” rumbles and churns across the firmament like a musical thunderstorm. It arguably boasts the most magnificent vocal track of any Phil Spector production. Still, the percussion-heavy remake Jeff Barry produced for Andy Kim in 1969 boasts a majesty all its own, and Spector’s 1975 tracking of the song with Cher is one of the most achingly beautiful Blues performances you’ll ever hear. On the other hand, the less said about The Ramones’ appalling 1980 rendition, the better!

Although the definitive version of “I Wonder” would be cut by The Butterflys the following year, The Ronettes’ original is an enchanting marriage of Latin styles: A dashing pasodoble groom and a haughty merengue bride whirling their way down the aisle. A British release of the same song by The Crystals made the UK Top Forty in March of 1964, but La La Brooks’ superb lead vocal is all that recommends it; recorded in New York City, this turgid London Records single suffers from what sounds like a hurried production and an unpleasantly dense sound mix.

“Chapel Of Love” was first cut by Darlene Love in April 1963; a lugubrious mess, it never stood a chance of being issued commercially. Ronnie’s record clearly has the edge with its funky musical backing and half-crazed doo-wop harmonies courtesy of Bobby Sheen, lead singer of The Alley Cats and Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans. Neither version would meet with Phil Spector’s approval, though, and it was left up to Red-Bird Records' Dixie Cups to turn Jeff and Ellie’s honeydripper of a wedding anthem into a Rock’n’Roll standard.

Bobby Sheen

November 1963
The Crystals featuring La La Brooks

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Girls Can Tell
Little Boy

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

This session yielded one good production, one great production, and two exceptional Barry/Greenwich tunes. The first version of “Girls Can Tell” that most people heard was a jazzy cut on The Dixie Cups’ 1964 Chapel Of Love album. The second was a Ronettes track featured on the 1976 Phil Spector International compilation Rare Masters, Volume One. The lead vocals on both of those versions are heavily syncopated. La La Brooks’ straightforward march-time lead voice on this unreleased original track takes some getting used to. However, once you realize that backing vocals on both The Crystals and The Ronettes’ sides are also sung in march time, it becomes clear that La La is singing the arrangement as it was meant to be sung. Her volcanic phrasing on the choruses is reminiscent of her equally explosive work on the Christmas album. It gives the Crystals record a pugilistic quality that the other versions lack.

“Little Boy” may be the best thing our Miss Brooks ever put on tape for Spector; like “Then He Kissed Me” and “Be My Baby,” it’s a dramatic pasodoble-habanera number that sounds like an excerpt from a Spanish zarzuela. Vocally assuming the role of a virtuoso flamenco dancer, La La thrills her audience with a series of dazzling dips, spins and extensions. Except for remakes of her Philles sides, she would never again record this type of material. For The Crystals’ singles on United Artists Records, La La Brooks was recast as an R & B belter in the Motown style; while her work on those sides is typically top-notch, it hardly reaches the level of excellence she achieved on marvelous Barry/Greenwich/Spector creations like “Little Boy.”

La La Brooks

May 1964
The Ronettes featuring Veronica

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
Keep On Dancing, Little Girl

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

This unreleased track features a tandem lead vocal by Ronnie Spector and her cousin, Nedra Ross. The lyric plays against the traditional jealous-girlfriend-confronts-rival formula; instead, the girl watches with a knowing smirk while a would-be boyfriend-stealer flirts shamelessly with her steady on the dance floor. You’re only wasting time/He’s all mine, she chuckles confidently to herself. He loves me/Keep on dancing, little girl. With a little more bite in the percussion track, and a bolder vocal mix, this catchy cha-cha rocker might have been commercial enough for single release.

July 1964
The Crystals featuring Barbara Alston
Broadway Studios, New York City
A Bob Crewe Production
Please Be My Boyfriend
(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

The production credits for this session are not confirmed, and as of this date, neither is the authorship of the song. John Clemente, author of the invaluable reference book Girl Groups, believes “Please Be My Boyfriend” was penned by Spector protégés Pete Anders and Vini Poncia. That theory was recently supported by members of the Lovelites girl group, who cut an incomplete version of the tune with Anders and Poncia while signed to Philles Records’ Phi-Dan subsidiary.

Not so fast, though! The title doesn’t appear in Anders and Poncia’s BMI database, and it isn’t listed among their copyrights, either. However, a song with a similar title (“I Want You To Be My Boyfriend”) does appear in BMI’s records, credited to Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector. More clues: The lyrics are vintage Jeff Barry(the exclamation “Gee, Baby” is not something you’d expect to find in an Anders/Poncia song); the pronounced habanera intro mirrors the intro of “Be My Baby”; the bomp-shu-bomp backing vocal refrain is lifted straight off The Chiffons’ 1963 single “I Have A Boyfriend”, which Barry and Greenwich wrote; and the coda is a direct swipe from Diane Renay’s hit “Navy Blue” . . . a record that Ellie Greenwich sang background on.

What’s more, the song couldn’t have been written for The Lovelites, because The Crystals got first crack at it in July of ’64. The Lovelites reportedly didn’t begin working on it until September. In all likelihood, Phil Spector gave Pete and Vini the rejected backing track for their first session with The Lovelites. Could the fact that it never got finished have anything to do with the boys’ likely lack of enthusiasm for producing a number they didn’t write? Even if it turns out that they did write the song, “Please Be My Boyfriend” positively reeks of the Barry/Greenwich/Spector idiom. Barbara Alston, previously heard only as a ballad singer on early Crystals hits, does a great job subbing for La La Brooks on this vaguely Middle Eastern-flavored beat number.


March 1966
Ike & Tina Turner featuring Tina

Gold Star Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
River-Deep, Mountain-High
I’ll Never Need More Than This
Hold On, Baby

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

By 1966, Phil Spector’s halcyon days had drawn to a close. The Ronettes were the only act left on his roster, and their records weren’t selling particularly well. He needed to show the music industry that he was still a major contender, and toward that end he reunited with his estranged creative partners, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Once they started producing big hit records on their own in 1964, he’d shunned them, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that they’d authored his greatest body of work. Now, as he prepared to make his most grandiose recording yet, he realized that he needed them again.

The primal Blues voice of Tina Turner, whose services were leased to Philles Records by her ambitious husband Ike, would be their new vehicle. Spector reassembled his mighty Wall of Sound orchestra and crafted the most earth-shaking Habanera Rock track yet committed to tape. Like a crazed chef, he flung voices, rhythm, melody and sweetening into a boiling stew pot, not caring whether the flavors blended or clashed. This shotgun marriage of old and new musical elements gave birth to a thing of arcane beauty: The single “River-Deep, Mountain-High.”

The original release was very different from the versions heard today on reissue compilations. Spector mixed the record to make Tina Turner sound as if she were singing from the depths of some huge cavern; the musical accompaniment was like a violent storm raging overhead. Yet, underneath all the bluster and distortion was a beguilingly simple song about the depth of a woman’s love for her man. In Europe, they hailed this strange disc as a stroke of pure genius; in North America, they fled from it in horror. Jeff and Ellie’s epic love declaration did acquire hit status stateside, but not until 1970, when Motown Records employed it to showcase the latest pairing of its resident super groups, The Supremes and The Four Tops. (The definitive reading of “River Deep, Mountain” wouldn’t appear until 1985, when Darlene Love sang it for the cast album of Ellie Greenwich’s Leader Of The Pack musical.)

Stunned by the rejection of his masterpiece, Phil Spector recovered long enough to issue a pair of follow-ups; the first was “I’ll Never Need More Than This.” Sporting a melodic samba bounce and idyllic love lyrics, it was a much more conventional Pop recording. However, Spector’s cynical assumption that the American public preferred ear candy to artistic depth was disproved when the new single fared worse commercially. It floundered for a month on Billboard’s Bubbling Under chart and then disappeared. It even flopped in Europe.

Meanwhile, the most commercial side from the “River-Deep” recording sessions got passed over. “Hold On, Baby” (not the same Barry/Greenwich tune that scored Top Ten R & B for Sam Hawkins in 1965) is a remarkable track; it careens through the ether like the wildest of roller coaster rides, a fiery rhumba that shoots upward, comes to a dead stop, and then plunges back down to earth at breakneck speed. When you hear Tina scream they’re trying to tear us apart/You know they’re trying to break our hearts, you can’t help but interpret the song as a Latin Rock requiem for Jeff and Ellie’s marriage, which at the time was being torn apart by outside forces.

Could a concentrated promotional push have turned this incendiary production into the comeback hit Spector was wishing for? We’ll never know, because he was far too demoralized to exploit it. He soon stopped producing studio dates altogether and turned Philles A & R duties over to Jeff Barry and Bob Crewe. A few months later, his label was history.

April 1966
The Ronettes featuring Veronica

United Western Recording, Hollywood
Arranged by Perry Botkin, Jr
I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

An unreleased Jeff Barry production of this song exists. It has a bittersweet flavor and a lighthearted tropical setting that plays against the pathos of the lyric. By contrast, Phil Spector emphasizes the tune’s sorrowful sentiments with an ambiance that's nothing less than apocalyptic. In his hands, the song becomes multi-handkerchief soap opera; the singer’s suicidal mental state is mirrored by intense orchestration that roars and rumbles like crashing ocean waves. The title alone conveys a desolate outlook, and desolation doesn’t really suit Ronnie Spector’s upbeat personality . . . it’s hard to imagine her laid quite so low. That said, she pulled a surprisingly anguished performance out of herself at the session, one that had everyone who heard the track begging Spector to release it on 45.

He wouldn’t even release it on an album until 1981, and then only in England, but Ronnie never forgot about the Barry/Greenwich ballad that had moved her so deeply. She re-recorded it with producer Stan Vincent while signed to Buddah Records in 1973, and later named it her favorite of all the numbers she waxed for Philles Records. More recently, British song stylist Beth Orton cut a shimmering acoustic version, lending credence to Jeff Barry’s belief that a solid musical composition can shine in almost any kind of setting. As composition, as performance, and as a recording, “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” ranks on a par with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.’” With or without the Wall of Sound, it’s the very embodiment of musical grandeur.

September 1966
The Ronettes featuring Veronica

Mirasound Studios, New York City
A Phil Spector Production
 Produced by Jeff Barry
I Can Hear Music

(Barry, Greenwich, Spector)

This was the second hit song to emerge from the final Barry/Greenwich/Spector songwriting sessions. Like “River-Deep, Mountain-High,” “I Can Hear Music” was destined to have delayed commercial impact; The Ronettes got scarce traction out of the tune, but The Beach Boys had no trouble surfing into the Top Forty with their sparkling 1969 rendition. Jeff Barry produced the Bennett siblings’ last Philles single with all three girls present at the session for the first time in years! When Phil Spector recorded a group, he rarely used anyone but the lead singer on the date.

Jeff's realization of the song is a Rock 'n' Roll update of “Pomp and Circumstance“, a stately love processional on wax. Crowned Queen for a Day, Ronnie Spector leads this royal pageant with her head held high. A line of flugelhorns announces her arrival with tastefully restrained blasts, and the Queen’s assembled subjects set a leisurely pace for her procession by clapping hands in ¾ time. Never one to make his vocalists compete with a studio band for attention, Jeff places Ronnie’s voice ‘way out in front so she can deliver the most lovesick Barry/Greenwich lyric to date in a clear, ringing vibrato. The sound of the city, baby, just disappears, she proclaims. I can hear music, I can hear music/Whenever you touch me, baby/Whenever you’re near.

How very ironic that Jeff and Ellie would write their most unabashedly romantic song while in the midst of divorce, and how very unfortunate that the public overlooked this sublime original version. “I Can Hear Music” has the distinction of being the first solo recording by Freddie Mercury; he issued it in 1973 under the name Larry Lurex.

1975
Jerri Bo Keno

A & M Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Nino Tempo
Here It Comes And Here I Go

(Barry, Spector)

When this session took place, Philles Records had been out of business for nearly a decade. Phil Spector had secured his place in the annals of Rock’n’Roll by co-producing the Beatles’ Let It Be album as well as several other million-selling platters for John Lennon, Yoko Ono and George Harrison. Still based in Hollywood, he had simultaneously launched two boutique labels in 1974, one in the United States (Warner-Spector) and another in England(Phil Spector International).

Hollywood was now Jeff Barry’s home base, too; he was working as a staff producer for A & M Records. Ellie Greenwich had remained in Manhattan. With two new partners, Steve Feldman and the late Steve Tudanger, she’d founded a production company called Jingle Habitat and was busy writing and singing advertising jingles.

Other than reissues of his Philles Records masters, not much resulted from Spector’s new musical ventures. However, he did wax fresh material with ascendant solo superstar Cher(who, with ex-husband Sonny Bono had sung backups for him at Philles), former teen idol Dion DiMucci, and an ingenue named Patricia Bocchino. Jeff Barry discovered her singing in a group called The Tootsie Rock Revue and brought her to Spector’s attention. He changed her name to Jerri Bo Keno, and then he and Jeff wrote a song for her.

Contrary to the opinion of some misguided critics, “Here It Comes And Here I Go“ is not a Disco song. It's a Country/Pop number that the producer turned into even more of a hybrid by setting it to a jerky rhumba beat and overlaying a sound effects track of someone stomping the Hell out of a plywood board. The resulting single was more than a little reminiscent of early Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons hits.

While it certainly gets your attention in a hurry, “Here It Comes” never quite gels as a record. Right after the single was released, Ms. Bocchino admitted to Melody Maker Magazine that she "didn’t (even) touch the melody and had to do the vocal over and over again.” It‘s true, she never did come to grips with the melody, and that’s undoubtedly why the platter tanked. Too bad, because with someone like Ronnie Spector on lead vocals, it might’ve really caused a stir.

Phil and Ronnie

1975
Dion

A & M Studios, Hollywood
Arranged by Nino Tempo
Baby, Let’s Stick Together

(Barry, Spector)

A & M Studios was Phil Spector’s preferred recording site now. Jeff Barry was a constant presence at his sessions during this period, usually playing percussion instruments. Jeff was a longtime fan of Dion, and when Spector asked him to collaborate on a new tune for the singer, he jumped at the chance. “Baby, Let’s Stick Together” hit the streets a year after Dion’s Born To Be With You album was completed, and like the album, it was only issued in England.

The habanera rhythm is a nod to the old days, but in all other aspects the song conveys the happy-go-lucky late '60s swing of Jeff’s Bubblegum Rock tunes for The Archies. Dion holds forth with his trademark “Bronx Blues” scat singing, Barry slaps on handclappings at strategic points, and Spector submerges the whole thing in a bottomless echo bath that surely played holy havoc with his recording levels. Bubblegum sensibility and all, the single sounds fantastic, and what a welcome change it is from the dirge-like productions that typify Spector's work from the mid-'70s.

British record buyers, unfortunately, were not interested. Dion’s wonderful new release faded into obscurity, and that’s all they wrote. The Barry/Greenwich/Spector catalog was now complete, and the trio of stellar talents that created it settled into pursuing separate careers. Something unexpected happened, though: The catalog started getting red-hot again.


Books and articles about the Girl Group era sparked new interest in Barry and Greenwich’s music among record collectors. Then Ellie Greenwich’s autobiographical musical Leader Of The Pack took the catalog to Broadway, to London’s West End district, and to community theatres all over America. From the 1970s onward, both new and established artists have mined it for material: Bette Midler, Shaun Cassidy, Dave Edmunds, Jody Miller, Bruce Springsteen, Twisted Sister, Mariah Carey and many others. The songs have taken on an almost mythical quality; they’re like beloved folk melodies now, as likely to show up in political parodies and high school musical revues as on the latest Neil Diamond album or at the next Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. For their authors, the songs have become golden keys to Pop culture immortality, and for Pop music lovers around the world, they have become golden melodies from the soundtrack of their lives.

Here’s to the amazing Jeff Barry, the sensational Ellie Greenwich, and the brilliant Phil Spector! Their musical legacy is truly fabulous. Since they made the scene, many other notable songwriters have come and gone, and some have sold millions more records than they have. However, it’s a bet that most if not all of those writers would give anything in this world to be able to say that they wrote “Be My Baby.”


Special thanks to Laura Pinto and Tom Mourgos, co-producers with Stuffed Animal of the not-for-sale private gift compilation Ultimate Jeff and Ellie: I Can Hear Music. This article is based on liner notes written for that project.