Behind the Scenes: Ellie Greenwich

If you’ve ever sung along with ’60s songs of adolescence such as “Chapel of Love” (the Dixie Cups), “Leader of the Pack” (a #1 hit for the Shangri-Las), or “Maybe I Know” (Lesley Gore), then you’ve already been introduced to one of the top songwriters of that era.

ellie-greenwich-you-dont-know-red-birdBorn on October 23, 1940, accomplished singer, song writer, and producer Eleanor Louise “Ellie” Greenwich, grew up in Levittown, NY, in a home filled with music. Greenwich cited Shirley Alston of the Shirelles as one of her biggest musical influences, but it was an accordion that gave rise to her interest in playing music.

At the age of 14, she auditioned for Archie Bleyer, the head of Cadence Records who had produced the Everly Brothers. Greenwich performed on her accordion a homage (“The Moment I Saw You”) penned for her high school crush. Though Bleyer found her talented, he advised her to continue with school. While still in high school, RCA pressed two of her songs “Cha Cha Charming” and “Silly Isn’t It” under the pseudonym Ellie Gaye. Greenwich taught herself to play piano and enrolled in Queens College. A year later, after her professor declared his dislike of rock and roll by vandalizing her recording, she transferred to Hofstra College (now University) and majored in English. A brief teaching stint solidified her decision to pursue music.

When she first heard her song “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna to Marry” (Darlene Love) played on the radio, she was so excited that she crashed her car into a tollbooth. She married the man who inspired the song, Jeff Barry, in 1962. He became her writing partner, adding another husband and wife team to the Brill Building family.

Her career took off after a chance encounter while waiting to meet song writer John Gluck, Jr., at Trio Music. Jerry Leiber, who operated Trio Music along with Mike Stoller, overheard her playing the piano in one of the cubicles and mistook her for Carole King. Impressed, Leiber gave Greenwich an open invitation to the studio with the caveat that he had the right of first refusal to whatever she produced.1

Greenwich-records

Greenwich collaborated with Phil Spector on a multitude of classics such as “Da Doo Ron Ron” (the Crystals); “Then He Kissed Me” (The Crystals); “Be My Baby” (the Ronettes); the soaring symphonic feat Spector considered his masterpiece “River Deep Mountain High” (Ike & Tina Turner); and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” now performed annually by Darlene Love as part of a holiday tradition on Late Night with David Letterman.

Barry and Greenwich divorced in 1965 but continued to work together for several more years. Greenwich contributed to albums by Cyndi Lauper (She’s So Unusual) and Blondie (Eat to the Beat). She is also credited with discovering musician Neil Diamond. In the 1980s, “Leader of the Pack,” a Broadway show based on her music, became a sensation. It received a Tony Award for Best Musical and a Grammy Award for Best Cast Album. In 2010, Greenwich was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On August 26, 2009, at the age of 68, Greenwich died after suffering a heart attack.

—Kathleen A. Kimlin is the new media marketing specialist at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Notes:

1. Ken Emerson. “Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era”. (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 131.

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