NEW YORK — Ellie Greenwich, the pop songwriter best known for such “girl group” hits as “Leader of the Pack,” died Wednesday at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, where she was being treated for pneumonia. The cause of death reportedly was a heart attack. She was 68.
Greenwich’s string of Top 40 hits, along with her life story, formed the basis of the 1985 Broadway revue “Leader of the Pack,” which snagged a Tony Award nomination for best musical and a Grammy nomination for best cast album. She also appeared in the show.
In addition to the title song, the Brooklyn native — she moved to Levittown, N.Y., at age 11 — wrote such hits of the early and mid-‘60s as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Chapel of Love,” “And Then He Kissed Me” and “Be My Baby.” She and her then-husband, Jeff Barry, wrote and recorded “Hanky Panky,” which later became a hit for Tommy James and the Shondells. In 1991, she and Barry were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
“She was the soundtrack I grew up to,” says Richard Arfin, a founding board member of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, which will induct Greenwich in 2010. “It seemed like she knew what I was thinking.”
During her career as songwriter and producer, Greenwich worked with such talents as Phil Spector, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, Lesley Gore, Bobby Darin, Nona Hendryx and Cyndi Lauper. The girl groups who became chart-toppers with Greenwich’s songs included The Ronettes, The Crystals and The Shangri-Las. Her songs were more recently recorded by Tina Turner, Elton John and U2.
As a teen, Greenwich spent much of her time hanging out at a Hicksville, N.Y., record store, where she got her first break: The store owner introduced her to record label scouts. After graduating from Hofstra University, she got her career start in 1962 while freelancing in the Brill Building offices of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote songs for Elvis Presley, among others, and whose career is celebrated in Broadway’s “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”
Besides its world tour, “Leader of the Pack” also played several Long Island theaters in the 1990s, including BroadHollow Theatre, then located in Bethpage.
Greenwich is survived by her sister, Laura Weiner, brother-in-law, a niece and a nephew. In lieu of flowers, her family asked donations be sent to VH1 Save the Music Foundation, vh1savethemusic.com.