In 1965, in New York, in an office of Red Bird Records, Ellie Greenwich, her husband Jeff Barry & her friend from Long Island George “Shadow” Morton were working on songs for the label’s star turn, the Shangri-Las. Their usual way of working was to write a song (hopefully a hit), make a demo then Ellie would work on vocal arrangements with the group before Shadow, along with tyro arranger/engineer Artie Butler, would do his atmospheric, sound effect-laden thing in the studio. This time “You Don’t Know” never made it to the Shangs, perhaps it was regarded as too mature for the still teenaged girls. Instead the demo was polished & released under Ellie’s name, a name that had appeared on the labels of many hit records, this was the first time that it was smack dab in the middle.
What a perfect record “You Don’t Know” is. Ms Greenwich’s performance is enchanting while Morton’s production adds depth & drama. The early-60s success of the girl groups was on the wane as the British Invasion became the current thing. Here is an update on a classic sound, more mature musically & lyrically. The single was set to be the pick of the week on a New York radio station but pulled & replaced by Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love”. So “You Don’t Know” was a hit that got away. You’re just a click away from one of the best 45s of 1965, a very good year.
Ellie was raised in Levittown, a post-war suburb of New York. As a 16 year old she recorded a couple of tracks as Ellie Gaye before obtaining a teaching degree. After less than a month back in high school she quit to sell her songs to the publishers based around the Brill Building in New York. Being young, blonde & female maybe helped, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, songwriters whose blend of R&B with smart, sharp lyrics had influenced the direction taken by Rock & Roll since Elvis Presley recorded their “Hound Dog” in 1956, took an interest & matched her with Tony Powers. When Phil Spector came looking for material he took a couple of Powers/Greenwich songs for Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans & for Darlene Love.
Leiber & Stoller were concentrating on the business of music, publishing & production. Their group, the very aptly named Exciters, had a Top 10 Pop hit in 1962 with “Tell Him”. Ellie, still living at home, was driven by her father to a studio session & it was the early hours of the morning when she woke her sleeping Dad with the news that her song “He’s Got the Power” had been chosen as the follow up single. The producer’s company, Trio, signed Ellie to a $100 a week contract. That’s $870 in today’s money, not bad for an about-to-be married 22 year old but she had to keep the hits coming.
The Exciters with Brenda Reid, a dynamic vocalist, backed by her husband Herb, Carol & Lillian, were high energy all-round. “He’s Got the Power” is another blast & they may be lip-synching on this great colour Scopitone (an early video jukebox) film but it’s a treasure. There’s a live version of the song on the Y-tube, recorded on the same trip to France, that knocks the audience’s chaussettes off. They never had the same success after “Tell Him” but the two albums they made at this time mark a new assertiveness in the girl group sound. The following year Ellie Greenwich, now writing with her new husband Jeff Barry, provided the Exciters with “Do-Wah-Diddy”, another small hit. In 1964 a tame cover by Manfred Mann was #1 all over the world.
When Phil Spector came East again he headed for the Greenwich/Barry office hoping for a follow up to the Crystals #1 record “He’s A Rebel”. The result was “Da Do Ron Ron”, you know it, everyone does, the first of nine hits released on Spector’s Philles label in 16 months that included “Then He Kissed Me” for the Crystals again, “Be My Baby” & “Baby I Love You” for the Ronettes. The trio were established as significant figures in Pop music. Along with two other husband & wife teams, Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, all young with the talent to articulate not-too-distant teenage feelings, Greenwich & Barry maintained New York & the Brill Building as the music business’ fulcrum. The pair were so busy that, unwilling to interrupt their productivity, when a demo of “What A Guy” was smartened up & released as the Raindrops they hired a replacement group for public appearances. A sizeable $28,000 royalty cheque diverted Ellie from the fact that Leiber & Stoller were taking a bigger cut from the couple’s hits.
In 1964 Leiber & Stoller started their own operation, Red Bird Records, giving Barry & Greenwich free rein to write the songs, find the talent & produce the records. The new label’s first release was a re-recording of a song that Spector was unwilling to release. The Meltones, a female trio from New Orleans, passed on Little Miss & the Muffets in favour of the Dixie Cups & in June “Chapel of Love”, yet another classic, displaced the Beatles for three weeks at the top of the US chart. The subsequent LP is packed with Greenwich/Barry gems, “People Say”, “You Should Have Seen The Way He Looked At Me”. The Cups moved back to New Orleans for their next recordings but Red Bird was on fire & they had another girl group ready for prime time.
When Shadow Morton said that he wrote hit songs he was being economical with the truth as he had never written a song. To back up his boast he came up with “Remember (Walking In The Sand)”, hired a teenage group from Queens, New York & the Shangri-Las found themselves in the Top 10, breaking new girl group ground with song construction, subject matter & production. Greenwich & Barry were involved with from the start, Ellie would guide the raw young proteges, singer Mary Weiss, her sister Betty, identical twins Marge & Mary Ann Ganser, through the vocal arrangements. To reinforce their tough girl image & to encourage Morton’s studio innovation the pair wrote “Leader of the Pack”. Get the picture? (yes we see), From a candy store meet to “now he’s gone” it’s yet another in a string of hits that we all know & are part of Pop’s DNA. “Out In The Streets” was not a super smash but this clip from “Shindig” shows the Shangri-Las, minus Betty, in their leather pomp, a great look, a great song. The Myrmidons of Melodrama indeed.
Ellie & Jeff divorced at the end of 1965 but continued to work together for some time. When Spector visited he left with “River Deep Mountain High” & “I Can Hear Music”. Leiber & Stoller, on finding their partner’s debts meant that mobsters became involved, sold their two-thirds share of Red Bird for $1. At a demo session Ellie met Neil Diamond, she & Barry put him on salary, passed on their expertise & got him signed to their friend Bert Berns’ label Bang. When “I’m A Believer” caught the attention of bigger industry figures Diamond split leaving the trio thinking “what just happened?”. This was a tough time for Ellie, music had been her life, she had lost her husband & songwriting partner just as the times were changing. That Marshall McLuhan “hi-fi/stereo changeover”, audiences & artists were growing up together, the three minute 45, however perfectly constructed & gratifying was replaced by the album as the new frontier.
In 1968 she released the charming “Composes, Produces & Sings” album. The success of her contemporary Carole King brought new offers & in 1973 “Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung”, her re-recording of the Greenwich songbook appeared. The rather flat production is a failure of imagination on someone’s part. For all the studio magic of Spector & Morton the foundation is the song & stripped-back versions by the originator would surely have worked. Ellie Greenwich’s legend was already ensured. everyone of a certain age knows & was affected by the landmark girl group hits that she created, everyone who knew her has nothing but good things to say about her. In 1984 “Leader of the Pack”, a jukebox musical based on her life & work moved to Broadway & Ellie appeared there as herself. Unfortunately she passed away in 2009 aged 68 but Ellie Greenwich doesn’t need a revival. Her instantly recognisable songs have been with us for what seems like forever & I think they’ll be around for some time.