1960 Popular Music: The Brill Building

This final article in the series dedicated to popular music recorded and released in 1960 is about pop perfection. We take a close look at a group of songwriters who collectively, along with artists and music business personas, were known as The Brill Building. It is odd to name a slice of music history after a building, but that structure housed one of the most gifted collection of music makers ever assembled under one roof. We feature three duos of songwriters and the classic hits they wrote for artists including The Drifters, Ben E King and the Shirelles. The first songwriter was described by his partner as “a white negro before it became fashionable. He sang in clubs that even some of his black friends were afraid to enter.”

In 1957 Doc Pomus decided to give up his performing career and concentrate on songwriting. It was the combined success of a hit he wrote (‘Lonely Avenue’, performed by Ray Charles in 1956), and the failure of his own recorded singles that led to the logical conclusion. Pomus felt that his songs were geared towards adults, while the market of popular music has shifted towards teenagers and young rock n’ roll fans. He recalled: “I had no instinct for rock ’n’ roll because my antecedents were different. I always considered myself a songwriter, period, not necessarily a songwriter for kids. Because when you write for black audiences, like I did write for Joe Turner and Ray Charles, your audience was people of all ages.” Looking for a collaborator who can refocus his songwriting skills, he found him in a teenager who was dating his cousin. Like any other good Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn, Mort Shuman had a solid musical training from a young age, playing classical pieces for piano. But unlike many of his peers his heart was in R&B and rock n’ roll. He was rebellious and described himself as “what Norman Mailer wrote about in one of his essays: a white negro.” For Doc Pomus he was a godsend: “Mort was very much a part of young music, so I was able, in my own wonderfully schizophrenic way, to transcend myself into teenage stuff with the help of Mort Shuman.” Pomus immediately took the young lad under his wing and thought him the tools of the trade: “I had him sit in the room with me while I wrote songs for a year, so he saw everything I did. He had a great ear for what was going on with young kids.”

Doc Pomus (right) with Mort Shuman

The new partnership started generating songs in earnest in 1959 and after a few minor hits it found success with ‘Turn Me Loose’ sang by teen idol Fabian. It was followed by a bona fide smash with ‘A Teenager in Love’ by  Dion and the Belmonts. But their true success was still ahead as 1960 rolled in and they started working with The Drifters. The band got a major boost in 1959 with new recruit lead tenor Ben E King and new producers – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, fresh from their success producing the Coasters. The combination of Pomus and Shuman’s songs with the drifters and their new singer plus the crafty production of Leiber and Stoller created magic in 1960. Charlie Thomas, tenor vocalist from the Drifters, has fond memories of hanging out with Doc Pomus: “Doc used to write songs, and I just sat there, listening and singing for him. Then we’d go out to lunch or go out to shoot pool or something like that. Doc was a sweetheart. I always told him, ‘Your heart is bigger than your wheelchair, Doc.’”

The first hit was ‘This Magic Moment’, released in January 1960. Continuing the Latin-flavored lush music that Leiber and Stoller adopted for The Drifters, the song features the signature baion rhythm and adds a Spanish guitar. Pomus, stricken by polio as a child and bound to wheelchair and crutches for the rest of his life, talked about the song’s lyrics: “I used to believe in magic and flying and that one morning I would wake up and all the bad things were bad dreams. And I would get out of the wheelchair and walk and not with braces and crutches.”

Doc Pomus’ physical handicap was an inspiration for the next song, and what a song that is. It climbed all the way to the top of Billboard’s Top 100 chart, where it stayed for three consecutive weeks. It was The Drifter’s first and only pop chart topper, and the story behind it is worth telling.

The lyrics for ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ were written during Pomus’ honeymoon after marrying Broadway actress and dancer Willi Burke in 1957.He said it took only half an hour to compose the account of a man who allows his lover to dance with other men because he knows it is he who will be taking her home:

You can dance

Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye

Let him hold you tight

But don’t forget who’s takin’ you home

And in whose arms you’re gonna be

So darlin’ save the last dance for me

Doc Pomus remembers the moment he and Mort Shuman they first played the song for the two able producers: “Mort played the song on piano or guitar for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They had sharp ears and they knew what could be done with it. They got a magnificent rhythmical sound on ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’. I always thought they were geniuses. I never knew anybody who could do what they did on a record.”

During the recording session, Atlantic label head Ahmet Ertegun told the Drifters’ lead vocalist Ben E. King that Pomus wrote the song after watching his wife dancing with others on their wedding night. Moments later the almost tearing singer delivered a career-defining vocal.

The song has another twisted story when it comes to the business side of the music industry. Pomus: “‘Save The Last Dance’ was written especially for the Drifters but the record company wasn’t that enthusiastic about the song and so I started doing it with Jimmy Clanton. It was going to be his next record, and then we got a call from Jerry Wexler to say that it was going to be the Drifters’ next record, so I had to tell Clanton that there was a mix-up and he couldn’t record the song. We gave him ‘Go Jimmy Go’ which was originally ‘Go Bobby Go’ for Bobby Rydell, so Jimmy ended up with a hit anyway.” ‘Go Jimmy Go’ climbed to no. 5 in the pop chart, so not all was lost for Jimmy Clanton.

Billboard Hot 100 November 1960, Save the Last Dance for Me at no. 1

Amazingly ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ was released as a B-side with ‘Nobody But Me’, another Pomus-Shuman song, on the A-side. Pomus: “It was Dick Clark who told Atlantic to turn it over. You see why it’s so hard for me to take this business seriously.”

We continue with Leiber and Stoller, but first introduce a 20 year old genius. In May 1960 Phil Spector arrived in New York City. His mentor Lester Sill was a mover and shaker in the West Coast music business scene. Sill was an owner of a record label and manager of successful artists (The Coasters, Duane Eddy). The two met in 1959 when Phil Spector’s group, The Teddy Bears, were following up on the phenomenal success of their hit ‘To Know Him Is to Love Him’ (written by Spector) with a recording of their first LP ‘The Teddy Bears Sing!’. Spector started shadowing Sill at recording sessions, learning the craft of music production. He quickly realized that the place to be for an aspiring music writer and producer is the Big Apple. Lester Sill did not disappoint and called on two former protégés of his, none others than Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The two scored enormous success in the 1950s with hits such as ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Ruby Baby’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Yakety Yak’, ‘Charlie Brown’, ‘Poison Ivy’, ‘Love Potion No. 9’ and many more. Sill called Jerry Leiber and asked for a favor: “I have a kid here. A kid I believe in. He’s an R&B genius, a guitarist, a writer, an arranger, a producer, and he idolizes you, Jer.” He proceeded to ask Leiber to buy Spector a plane ticket to NYC, “As a favor for me, Jer. You won’t regret it. He already has a hit with the Teddy Bears. ‘To Know Him Is to Love Him.’” Leiber asked, “And you love him, Lester?” Smart question. Spector, a non-disputable musical genius when it comes to studio wizardry, came with a personality that made it quite difficult for others to like.

Phil Spector

Leiber and Stoller threw a variety of minor jobs at Phil Spector, adding him as a fifth guitarist to their usual fare of four guitars per session. But Spector wanted more. He wanted to write songs with them, a difficult proposal for the tight-knitted songwriting duo. One day he showed up at Jerry Leiber’s house with his guitar. Leiber: “I’d been listening to Debussy’s Iberia and Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole and suggested we do something with a Spanish feel. Phil liked the idea and started strumming. Rather than set the story in Europe, I thought it would be interesting to set it in Harlem. The words came quickly to me:

There is a rose in Spanish Harlem

A red rose up in Spanish Harlem”

When Stoller heard the song, he came up with a killer fill between the phrases, and realized it would sound best played on a marimba. It became the song’s signature sound. To finish it off they gave the orchestration task to Stanley Applebaum who added a string arrangement and a soprano sax solo in the instrumental break.

Jerry Leiber (left) with Mike Stoller

By the time ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ was released, Ben E King was no longer with The Drifters. In 1959 he signed a solo contract with Atlantic’s sister label Atco. Early recordings with Atco including a duet with LaVern Baker did not prove successful. It was only natural for Atlantic to assign Leiber and Stoller as his new producers. It was also natural for them to give him the new song. Ben E. King lived in Spanish Harlem for a short period after his family moved to New York from North Carolina. At first he was not sure about ‘Spanish Harlem’, saying: “It’s a great tune, but it’s not a black song. It has nothing to do with R&B. And I said to myself when I finished, ‘That’s it. This won’t make it.’” Artists do not always know what’s best for them, for this song climbed to #10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart:

The Spanish Harlem recording session took place on October 27, 1960. It will go down in the history of recorded music as one of those magic moments when multiple hits are produced in the span of a few hours. ‘Spanish Harlem’ was the first single released from that session, but the last song recorded that day became Ben E King’s best ever single and a true classic. It was a songwriting collaboration between King and Leiber and Stoller. King described the experience: “It was like a schooling for me – a kid from Harlem who knew nothing about anything.” King was a great singer but not a songwriter. He had the beginning of a song in his head, but he needed help to make a proper tune out of it. His inspiration was a gospel hymn written by the minister Charles Albert Tindley in 1905. It was called ‘Stand By Me’ and was performed regularly in churches throughout the American South.

Having only a few lines and a beginning of a melody, King sang it a cappella to the songwriting duo. Mike Stoller remembers: “I walked over to my piano, sussed out the chords, and came up with a bass pattern. When Jerry heard it, he shouted: ‘That’s it – that’s a hit!’” Jerry Leiber was not wrong. That bass line was one for the ages. It must be one of the most recognizable openings of any tune ever.

But the crafting of the song did not end there. Stoller: “Jerry and I liked to experiment with percussion. On ‘There Goes My Baby’ there’s a timpani, and on many of our productions we used multiple drums, playing a Brazilian baión rhythm. On ‘Stand By Me’, we had a triangle alternating with the scratching of a gourd, for a kind of sparkling effect.” Arranger Stanley Applebaum wrote another fantastic string accompaniment and the whole thing – orchestra, Ben E King and background voices – was recorded together, simultaneously.

The musicians on that session included: Romeo Penque, reeds; Charles McCracken, cello; Ernie Hayes, piano; Al Caiola, guitar; Lloyd Trotman, bass; Gary Chester, drums; Phil Kraus, percussion; Elise Bretton, Lillian Clark, Myriam Workman, background vocals.

Years later King recalled: “I wasn’t trying to make a hit with ‘Stand By Me’. I was just thrilled that one of my songs was being recorded at a time when there were so many great songwriters around, people like Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King.” Not bad for a song that according to BMI is the fourth most-played track of the 20th Century on American radio and TV. Over the years this song entered the Top 100 chart no less than nine times, two of them with the original version by Ben E King. The second time happened 25 years after the original recording when the film of the same name by director Rob Reiner featured it as the theme song.

Speaking of Goffin and King (a different King), we end the article with a chart topper created by the next generation of Brill Building writers.

In 1958 Don Kirshner started the music publishing company Aldon Music with his partner Al Nevins, naturally located at the Brill Building. One day they were approached by a young songwriter who played for them songs she composed to lyrics by her husband. The newlyweds were immediately signed to Aldon and joined a small army of songwriters ensconced inside small cubicles at 1650 Broadway in New York City. After a few years of attempts at success in the music business, this was Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s first big break. King remembers the office setting: “The cubicles were the source of the cacophony I’d heard when I first visited the office. Each was barely big enough to contain an upright piano with a bench, a chair for the lyricist, and a small table with enough room for a legal pad, a pen, an ashtray, and a coffee cup. The proximity of each cubicle to the next added an echo factor.”

Gerry Goffin and Carole King at the RCA recording studio in New York around 1959

One of Kirshner’s standard modes of operations was to follow the hit songs of the day and ask his writers to come up with a quick follow up tune to pitch to the artist. In April 1960 The Shirelles released the single ‘Tonight’s the Night’, written by Luther Dixon and Shirley Owens, the group’s lead singer. The lyrics portrayed a girl’s feelings before losing her virginity, fitting well with the songs King and Goffin were writing. King: “Though now in his twenties, Gerry hadn’t forgotten which three-letter word was foremost in the mind of every teen. It was s-e-x that kids thought about when they listened to lyrics about hearts full of love, hearts breaking, lovers longing, youth yearning.” At 18 Carole King was a wife and mother of a baby. Staying up to the late hours of the night to complete a song was all in a day’s work. The couple delivered the goods after pulling an all-nighter with a song titled ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow‘. Don Kirshner, upon hearing the song, thought it was so good that he aimed higher and pitched it to Mitch Miller at Columbia for their star Johnny Mathis. No dice, said Miller, ‘It’s a girl’s lyric. No teenage boy says that to a teenage girl. A girl says that to a boy.” Fine advice that sent Kirshner and his young songwriter back to the original plan and to Scepter Records’ office, conveniently located in the same building. Carole King played the song to The Shirelle’s label owner and songwriter/producer Luther Dixon, accompanying herself on a piano and trying to sing like Shirley Owens.

The Shirelles

The Shirelles’ lead singer was not sure about the song, thinking it sounded too Country. She was convinced it can be vastly improved with a nice lush strings arrangement. Carole King rose to the occasion, taking inspiration from another stellar Brill Building duo, Leiber and Stoller: “With ‘There Goes My Baby’ as our model, I incorporated my melodic lines into an arrangement meant to complement the voices of the Shirelles. I tried to make my charts look professional by hand-copying the part for each instrument separately on music staff paper with a steel ruler and India ink. I wish I’d known that an arranger had only to scratch out a score in pencil and a team of copyists would work overnight to make the charts look the way they did on the music stands.”

Billboard Top 100 chart, January 1961

The song was released in November 1960 and a few months later climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, selling over a million copies. It was the first ever number one hit sang by a black girl group. A decade later Carole King performed the song on her milestone album Tapestry.

For farther reading I recommend these books:

Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building, by Ken Emerson

Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, by Jerry Leiber

A Natural Woman: A Memoir, by Carole King

He’s a Rebel: Phil Spector–Rock and Roll’s Legendary Producer, by Mark Ribowsky

Categories: A Year in Music

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6 replies »

  1. Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s influential and memorable recordings with Dionne Warwick are also part of the Brill Building/Scepter Records story. With B.B.’s recent passing, you might want to extend this article or do another thread.

    • That is a few years ahead. Will definitely cover these songs when I get to 1962, the year they started working together.

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