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Ellie Greenwich, Songwriter

Matt Schudel

I have to confess that I had never heard of Ellie Greenwich before she died this week at 68. But I've certainly heard of the songs she wrote in the 1960s with her husband, Jeff Barry: "Be My Baby," "Chapel of Love," "River Deep, Mountain High" and, of course, the ultimate good girl-bad boy song, "Leader of the Pack."

Greenwich, it turns out, is one of those little-known cultural figures who make you think, "Wow, I didn't know she did that!"

She and Barry were part of the famous Brill Building school of songwriters in New York in the early 1960s. Others in the group included Neil Sedaka, Doc Pomus and the teams of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

Greenwich and Barry were perpaps the least known of the group, maybe because they were really together as a team for only three years before their divorce in 1965, but they certainly turned out the hits during that short time. For a list of some of their top songs, and links to hear them, check out this page from Rolling Stone.

In 1964 alone, they had three No. 1 hits, including "Chapel of Love" by the Dixie Cups, which begins with the line, "Goin' to the chapel, and we're gonna get married"; "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," by Manfred Mann; and "Leader of the Pack," by the Shangri Las, with its revving motorcycle motor. They had another No. 1 hit in 1966, with "Hanky Panky" by Tommy James and the Shondells.

With producer Phil Spector, they helped create the "girl group" sound of the early 1960s, epitomized best by the Ronettes singing "Be My Baby" in this exuberant clip (Love the girls in go-go boots dancing at the top of the frame!) and by the Crystals singing another Greenwich- Barry hit, "Da Doo Ron Ron."

And, of course, here's a totally campy clip from the Steve Allen Show of the Shangri-Las lip-synching "Leader of the Pack" in 1964.

Ellie Greenwich also discovered Neil Diamond when he was toiling away at the Brill Building as a songwriter and helped launch his career by producing his first records with her husband.

Now, I realize that helping create a genre of bubblegum pop may not rank up there with curing cancer or stopping global warming, but it takes a lot of talent and perserverance to make a form of pop art that makes people feel good about life. In my view, at least Ellie Greenwich was a remarkable behind-the-scenes figure who deserves our recognition. Here's a link to an NPR interview by Terry Gross with Ellie Greenwich in 1986.

One more thing: Every year since 1986, David Letterman has featured Darlene Love singing another classic from the Greenwich-Barry songbook, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." It's brilliantly layered power pop, with Love's huge, dynamic voice knifing through all the strings, horns and backup vocals. There are lots of versions of this on YouTube, but the one below from 2004 may be my favorite. Call me a sap for Christmas songs, or just a sap, but it gets me every time.

(P.S.: I may be wrong, but I think Ellie Greenwich may be one of the backup singers, appearing in the foreground of the screen at 3:52 and 3:53.) UPDATE: Last night (Thursday, Aug. 27), Paul Shaffer and the Late Show band played Ellie Greenwich's music throughout the show's commercial breaks, with a special appearance by Ronnie Spector.

By Matt Schudel  |  August 28, 2009; 6:51 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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