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TV's 'Hitmakers' Spotlights Home of Brilliant Songwriting

by JIM BESSMAN

August 24, 2001

 

It was a place, Mike Stoller recalls, where songwriters rode the elevator up to the 11th floor and then walked back down, "knocking on every door trying to sell their songs. And if they got lucky, they'd sell the same song two or three times on the way down for enough advance money to get them through the weekend."

As evidenced by A&E Network's magnificent two-hour "Biography" documentary, Hitmakers: The Teens That Stole Pop Music, the fabled Brill Building at 49th and Broadway in New York City was also a place where you would never know with whom you were sharing the elevator - and certainly, you would never hum inside it for fear that whoever it was might steal your lick.

Hitmakers, which premieres Aug. 27 on A&E at 8pm (ET), extensively examines the midtown Manhattan development of the teen-oriented American popular music of the late 50's and early 60's that succeeded New York's Tin Pan Alley golden era of songwriting and publishing. The program was written, produced and directed by Morgan Neville and is full of vintage film footage and interviews with such storied songwriters and singers as the late Doc Pomus, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Ellie Greenwich, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Don Kirshner, Gerry Goffin, Hal David, Jeff Barry, Jerry Lieber, Jerry Wexler, Lesley Gore, Little Eva, Ben E. King, Ahmet Ertegun, Mike Stoller, Phil Ramone, Ruth Brown, Shadow Morton, the Shirelles' Shirley Reeves, and the Shangri-Las' Mary Weiss-Stokes.

Also interviewed and credited as music historians are BMI archives director David Sanjek and EMI Music Publishing's Senior VP of catalog promotion Alan Warner.

Narrated by John Turturro (who played the Phil Spector character in Grace of My Heart, the 1996 movie patterned on Carole King's career), Hitmakers heads a Pop Goes the Music week of related one-hour "Biography" specials. The others are Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over, Aug. 28; Bobby Darin: I Want to Be a Legend, Aug. 29; Words and Music by Leiber and Stoller, Aug.30; and Burt Bacharach, Aug. 31. All five were produced by Peter Jones Productions and executive-produced by CarolAnne Dolan, A&E's VP of documentary series.

Hitmakers was first proposed a couple of years ago. "A 'Biography' special on the Brill Building songwriters sounded interesting, but it wasn't what we were looking for at that time," Dolan says. "But when a list of the Brill Building songs was attached to the proposal, it seemed to go on forever and read like a history of pop music. That's what sold me: It really was a unique moment in pop music history that was being explored."

Hitmakers, appropriately, starts off to the tune of the Drifters classic "This Magic Moment," which was written by the Brill Building team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. The in-depth documentary then details one of the most fertile periods of American popular music - and a singles-driven market where super-talented teens could write a song one day, demo it the next, and see it released two weeks later.

It has come to be known as "Brill Building Pop," but it encompasses doo-wop, R&B, and particularly the "girl group" rock'n'roll era so closely associated with legendary indie labels like Scepter and Red Bird - and, of course, the Brill Building songwriters, including renowned producers Phil Spector and Shadow Morton.

As Stoller notes, the Brill Building was "filled with music publishers, copyists, bandleaders, little mini-recording studios for demos, offices, and so on. There were offices [with] pay phones on the wall, because they didn't have enough credit for a phone line - and guys whose offices were the phone booths on the street at 50th and Broadway. But there was a real community."

However, Stoller's songwriting partner, Jerry Lieber, points out that not all of the many songwriters associated with the Brill Building actually worked at the 1619 Broadway location. "Everybody wants to refer to [the music of the period] as 'the Brill Building,' when in fact it was only us and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and six or eight other teams of writers signed to small production units," he says. Mann, Weil, Goffin, and Carole King, he adds, were among the many writers who worked just up the street at an equally significant building known simply by its address, 1650 Broadway. These writers worked there for Aldon Music, the publishing company christened after the first names of its founders, Don Kirshner and Al Nevins.

As Hitmakers recounts, Aldon's sale to Columbia in 1963 - and its subsequent move to corporate offices on 5th Avenue - portended the end of the Brill Building period.

"The music-business community became very spread out and co-opted by the major corporations," Stoller says. Contributing to the decline, too, was the British invasion by such self-contained acts as the Beatles - who were heavily influenced by the Brill Building writers but wrote their own material - and the emerging downtown Greenwich Village singer/songrwriter scene embodied by Bob Dylan, which was more conscious of the social and political pressures and changes that were swirling through the country. Additionally, the mid-'60s saw a major music-industry move from New York to Los Angeles.

The "One Fine Day," as symbolized by the Goffin/King-penned Chiffons hit that closes Hitmakers: The Teens That Stole Pop Music, was over.

"Who knew?" Ellie Greenwich reflects at the end of the program, marvelling some four decades later at how wonderful it was to have been part of "something that made people very happy."

A double CD of Brill Building smashes, titled The Songmakers' Collection: Music from the Brill Building, will be released Aug. 28 by Q Records. It will include the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash," and Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." On Sept. 25, a four-tape VHS/two-disc DVD package, The Songmakers' Collection, will be issued by A&E home video, with the DVDs also featuring an archival photo gallery, along with artist biographies and discographies.