A chance encounter that led Cynthia Weil to write rock and roll music could have easily been a story set to music.
Weil was born in New York City on October 18, 1940. She attended the Walden School in Manhattan, a progressive school that emphasized growth through visual and performing arts; she took piano lessons, practiced ballet, and later graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a major in theater.1 Weil had a fondness for Broadway and wanted to compose scores for the stage. After a meeting with Broadway composer Frank Loesser, she began working at his publishing company. A brief stint at Hill and Range publishing led her to work with Teddy Randazzo, a promising singer/songwriter.
While working with Randazzo, she encountered two writers from Aldon Music who were pitching a song. Smitten, Weil quizzed the receptionist, Judy Tannen, about the “cute guy.” Tannen encouraged Weil to make an appointment with the head of Aldon Music, Don Kirshner, to review her writing—the real motive, though, was to help her cross paths again with Barry Mann. Weil heeded this advice, and would later joke that her career began by “stalking” Mann. They married in 1961. With Weil writing the lyrics, and Mann the melody, they made significant contributions to the Brill Building sound.
Working with Phil Spector, Weil and Mann co-wrote “Walking in the Rain” (the Ronettes) and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” (the Crystals). Their most successful collaboration was “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Inspired by the Motown hit “Baby I Need Your Loving” (the Four Tops), the pair worked together to create a sample which they played over the phone to Spector. Spector confided that the words “something beautiful’s dying” brought tears to his eyes. Weil recalled on the PBS documentary Women Who Rock, “We wanted to write something that had intense longing and that’s what inspired Lovin’ Feelin’ … It affected so many people so deeply.” The song was a number-one hit in 1965. It earned BMI’s Top Song of the Century in 1999 and is the most played song on American radio and television.
As Bob Dylan would croon, “the Times They Are a-Changin’,” and so was the music industry. The Brill Building sound gave way to the British Invasion and socially conscious folk music. Weil’s lyrics addressed serious social topics, which enabled them to bridge genres. Songs like “Uptown” (the Crystals), “On Broadway” (the Drifters), and “Only in America” (Jay and the Americans) tackled economic divides, segregation, and racism. Other examples include “We Gotta Get out of This Place” (the Animals), which became an anthem for veterans of the Vietnam War, and “Kicks” (Paul Revere and the Raiders), an anti-drug song. Several sheets of music from these songs are currently on view at NMWA in Women Who Rock.
Weil’s career has spanned several decades. In that time she has received 56 pop, country, and R&B awards from BMI; Two Grammy Awards; and Song of the Year in 1987, for “Somewhere Out There” (Linda Ronstadt & James Ingram), the theme song from the animated film An American Tail. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
—Kathleen A. Kimlin is the new media marketing specialist at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
1. Ken Emerson. “Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era”. (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 91.