The Last Gasp of the Great American Songbook: Reassessing the Brill Building Era

The so-called Brill Building era of American popular music—which can be conveniently traced from Elvis’s entrance into the Army in early 1958 until Beatlemania’s arrival from across the pond in early 1964—has, until recently, been granted precious little serious analysis by music critics and historians alike. Named for an art-deco building at 1619 Broadway in mid-town Manhattan, one of several on the street that housed songwriters, publishers, and aspiring performers of the day, this six-year span in pop music history does not neatly conform to the traditions of Tin Pan Alley before it or the rock and roll in its wake. Many of the most memorable works of the time—Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”, the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment”, Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer”, to name just a few—endure as oldies radio staples. Yet the era—too youthful, brash and energetic for the generation before it, then later, too predictable, crafted, and whitewashed for rock and roll purists—has been slow in earning the respect of history. “Until recently, histories of popular music describing this period tended to trace an arc of declining quality, as authentic virile rock ‘n’ roll was supplanted by mass-produced schlock,” wrote David Brackett in 2005, in his Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader.

Perhaps because the Brill Building era emerged after the popularization of rock by Bill Haley, Elvis, and others, and because it featured propulsive rhythms and youth-oriented lyrics, there is a natural tendency for fans and critics to conceive of the period as just one segment in the early history of rock. The National Academy of Music’s Songwriters Hall of Fame, for instance, in dividing up its exhibits into “Early American Song (1600-1879)”, “Tin Pan Alley (1880-1953)”, and “Rock and Roll (1953-Present),” groups Brill Building songwriters with rock and rollers. Indeed popular music from the late ’50s and early ’60s did share some key characteristics with rock and roll. However, rock criticism did not emerge in earnest until such outlets as Creem and Rolling Stone began publishing in the late ’60s. By then, rock and roll had undergone a seismic shift and a new set of criteria for valuation was coalescing into a new paradigm that would dominate rock music criticism for the rest of the century. The new set of standards privileged two notions scarcely fathomable in the pre-1965 world: (1) the auteur model of the artist—rock and roller as composer, lyricist, instrumentalist and singer and (2) the “album-as-coherent-artistic-statement” model that considered the album as a unit—as opposed to a song or songs—as the true measure of artistry in popular music. 1965 is a useful demarcation because it was the first year that produced albums reliably ranked among the all-time greats by most rock publications; among critics’ favorites from 1965 were Rubber Soul by the Beatles and Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan, arguably the archetypical rock and roll auteur.

To apply these post-1965 yardsticks to the music of the Brill Building era would result in the easy but wrongful dismissal of the wealth of output from those half-dozen years in pop music as fun but frivolous—ultimately carrying little historical or artistic weight. In Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, Ken Emerson notes that, perhaps because of these prejudices, both Paul Simon and Bob Dylan have had less than flattering things to say about the music of the period. The former is said to have observed that “‘[r]ock and roll got very bad in the early ‘60s, very mushy,’” while the latter recently wrote in Chronicles, Volume One that “things were pretty sleepy on the American music scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s…at a standstill and filled with empty pleasantries.”

Not all rock critics have been so dismissive of this music. What is noteworthy, however, is that those who have found value in it have tended to do so by consciously moving beyond post-1965 “rockist” ideals and, ironically, evaluating the music using many of the standards that defined excellence in the Tin Pan Alley tradition.

Writing about girl groups of the era for the 1980 version of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Greil Marcus seemed to recognize that this music could not be appropriately judged on the standards set by Dylan and the latter-day Beatles: “Girl group music was producers’ music; the songs came out of the Brill Building, written by contract songwriters. The ‘artists’ had no ‘creative freedom’.” Marcus praised the music for more Alley-esque virtues: “The music was perhaps the most carefully, beautifully crafted in all of rock and roll—one reason why none of the 20 or so best records in the genre have dated in the years since they were made.” In his essay on Brill Building pop from the same book, Greg Shaw was even more explicit: “What made them [the best of the Brill Building songwriters] different from other rock composers was their professionalism, their respect for the Tin Pan Alley tradition of pop songwriting, established in the Thirties by Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart.”

The Brill Building pop song was a not a mere extension of the Tin Pan Alley ballad. Certainly the youthful energy of this new music—reflected particularly in its propulsive rhythms—and its newfound emphasis on novel production techniques, separated it from the past epoch. In many ways, however, the qualities that made Brill Building music so engaging and worthwhile reflected the Alley tradition. In his preface to the 1990 edition of Alec Wilder’s classic American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950, Gene Lees opined: “Alec restrains himself in this book. He says that the age of the professional songwriter was ended. He once put it more bluntly: ‘After 1955, the amateurs took over’.” If indeed, the quote is properly attributed, Wilder was right in one sense. The rock and roll explosion did eventually give way to a shift in popular music wherein piano and cubicle songwriting factories faded and pop star performers emerged who wrote and arranged their own material. Where Wilder erred was in his chronology. Though Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, and a host of others popularized rock and roll in the mid-50s, the widespread integration of songwriting and performance didn’t occur until Dylan and Lennon and McCartney rendered quaint the notion of rock musicians not writing their own material. In half-a-dozen especially fruitful years between the initial rock explosion and that later paradigm shift, a small group of extraordinarily talented songwriting teams initiated a second-wave of professionalism in pop composition. They created a body of music that proved lasting, durable and fundamentally American for largely the same reasons that the best of Gershwin and Porter came to be considered “standards.”

Emerson has called this music “the last gasp in the grand tradition of the Great American Songbook”. Such a strong thesis, however, cannot be substantiated merely by the broad and subjective claim that the Brill Building era shared Tin Pan Alley’s sense of “craft”. A wholesale comparison of the Brill Building era with Tin Pan Alley is necessary to illuminate the strength of the ties that bind. Herein is an attempt to take up the musical half of that analysis, which is hinted at but not considered in depth in the writing of Emerson, Marcus and Shaw.

The most obvious shared characteristic of the eras of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building—particularly glaring when the two are contrasted with the post-Beatles, post-Dylan norm of the songwriter/performer—is the clear division of labor in the production process. Notable exceptions such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter notwithstanding, Tin Pan Alley composers frequently, if not generally, relied upon collaborators to provide them with lyrics. George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers relied so heavily upon single lyricists that their names are forever linked with their collaborators; we speak often of “the Gershwins” and more often of “Rodgers and Hart” and “Rodgers and Hammerstein” than simply “Richard Rodgers.” During the Brill Building era, songwriting duos dominated and they too often, though not always, divided up words and music: the tunes of Mike Stoller, Carole King, and Burt Bacharach were set to the words of Jerry Leiber, Gerry Goffin, and Hal David, respectively. Moreover, while Johnny Mercer, Neil Sedaka and Carole King all achieved great success as performers, few other songwriters in either era did—or even attempted such a feat. Even clearer than the distinction between lyrics and chords was the separation of songwriters and performers on Tin Pan Alley and at the Brill Building. Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald were singers exclusively, as were members of the girl groups—the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Crystals—that led the top-40 in the early ’60s.

Comparing the organization of the production processes on Tin Pan Alley, at the Brill Building, and in post-1965 rock and roll, however, reveals only that the former two had remarkably similar industry structures. For all its importance, the culture of division of labor shared by the first two eras is less striking—and less important—than the qualities shared by their musical forms.

On the basis of popularity, critical acclaim, and contemporary notoriety—a function not only of the former criteria, but also the frequency with which one’s compositions are re-recorded by new performers—any list of the most significant composers and lyricists of Tin Pan Alley’s Golden Age must include Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and Johnny Mercer. Using similar standards, a parallel list of Brill Building era songwriting teams may be constructed: Leiber and Stoller, Sedaka and Greenfield, Pomus and Shuman, Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, Barry and Greenwich, Bacharach and David. Comparing the two lists reveals two striking surface similarities: both are composed almost entirely of Jewish New Yorkers. Of the above-mentioned writers, only Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Ellie Greenwich did not come from Jewish families (Greenwich was half-Jewish) and all of these writers achieved creative breakthroughs and wrote many of their greatest songs in New York.

This revelation would be conspicuous even if it were merely superficial, but given the cultural characteristics of the music written in both time periods, it most certainly is not. In an article entitled “Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’: Ethnic Affiliations and Musical Transformations”, Jeffrey Magee observes: “The ability of ‘Blue Skies’ to transcend its origins on Jewish Tin Pan Alley proves the assimilative power of American Jewish culture in the first half of the twentieth century.” For reasons that may have included concern for commercial appeal, identification with African-American culture, and political liberalism, in both the age of Tin Pan Alley and that of the Brill Building, predominantly Jewish writers thrived on assimilating or co-opting music from other ethnic traditions—particularly African-American ragtime and blues, but also Latin rhythms. Moreover, in each case the musical melting pot stirred by this continual process was not only the key component that solidified these writers’ compositions as uniquely American, but also a driving force behind their innovations.

Allen Forte’s The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950 begins a chapter on the rhythmic features of the popular ballad by noting that “[a]mong the factors that influenced the rhythmic style of the American popular ballad…[were] the traditional figures of ragtime, especially in the earlier part of the 1924-1950 period, later to be replaced by jazz syncopations.” Later, Forte elaborates: “Rhythmic figures from the ragtime instrumental pieces so in vogue in the early part of the century persisted in popular music and contributed their special character to the ballad literature. Of these, the string of notes of the same value followed by a long value that syncopates against the meter is very typical of the ragtime genre, as is the short-long-short pattern represented by eight-quarter-eight.”

Much of the creative tension in the Tin Pan Alley song came from the juxtaposition of ragged and/or syncopated rhythms with complex harmonic progressions that were, in many cases, heavily influenced by western art music. In Yesterdays: Popular Song In America, Charles Hamm writes: “These men [Kern, Gershwin and Rodgers—all of whom were classical trained] knew the music of classical composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly that of the great Russian and German composers of the second half of the nineteenth century, and of such early ‘moderns’ as Ravel and Debussy; they enriched the harmonic language of popular song in many of the same ways these men expanded the harmonic and tonal vocabulary of classical music.”

In the same chapter, Hamm also notes the influence of the African American tradition on two of those same three composers: “There was something in the music of black Americans that struck a response chord somewhere deep in Gershwin, something about their music that he grasped in an instinctive way […] Arlen gravitated toward black musicians and their music, as had Gershwin. In the early 1930s, he wrote the music for shows at the Cotton Club; many of his songs draw on the expressive content of the blues.”

Syncopated rhythms, which implied social subversion by landing off of—and thus undercutting—the beat, also found a compelling complement in a lyrical tradition that stressed wit, subtlety and artifice. Numbers such as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “You’re the Top,” for example, perfectly combined syncopation, harmonic sophistication and insouciance to create an impression not of elevated folk music or degenerated art music, but of the ethos of urban America, a worldly melting pot. Hamm makes the same point somewhat differently for the case of Gershwin when he writes: “Even during the periods of his [Gershwin’s] greatest success as a writer of popular songs, he insisted that there need not be an irreconcilable gap between popular and serious music, and attempted to write music that would reach listeners of both persuasions.”

Similarly, the composers of the Brill Building era combined the raw energy of rock and roll harmonies and rhythms with the craftsmanship and complexity associated with western art music. This fusion came about in part because—as was the case during the reign of Tin Pan Alley—a number of prominent writers from the time period received conservatory training.

Neil Sedaka was a classically trained pianist and one-time student at Julliard. Burt Bacharach studied musical composition at McGill University among other institutions and learned from, among other composers of import, Henry Cowell, who also taught George Gershwin. In Always Magic In the Air, Emerson’s account of Bacharach’s musical development is eerily reminiscent of Hamm’s take on Gershwin: “Other than as a means to win popularity, music did not inspire Bacharach profoundly until he heard Daphnis et Chloé. Ravel’s airy chromaticism and Rachmaninoff’s melodicism dispelled his conception of classical music as something to listen to somberly on the car radio as darkness fell while the family returned from an outing to Philadelphia or the Jersey Shore. And on Fifty-second Street, Bacharach discovered the quirky, darting rhythms of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonius [sic] Monk, and Miles Davis. ‘Hearing them was like a window opening.’”

Emerson points out that Mike Stoller also harbored duel inclinations toward, on the one hand, classical music (“he was reared on Red Seal records, RCA’s classical line, and Richard Strauss”) and, on the other, blues and jazz (“fascinated [by black teenagers playing boogie-woogie on an upright piano] he took several lessons from James P. Johnson, the great stride pianist who had tutored Fats Waller”). The dedication of Stoller and his partner Jerry Leiber to black music helped them write early hits for Elvis such as “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” and many songs for the Coasters that ably balanced grit and polish.

In addition to standard rhythms of rock and roll and harmonies of blues such as the lowered 7th, a single exotic rhythm—the distinctive Brazilian baion beat—helped catalyze innovative ethnic fusions in compositions of Bacharach, Leiber and Stoller and Barry and Greenwich. Emerson cites the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” written by Leiber and Stoller, as a pioneering, seminal instance of the integration of this three note rhythmic pattern (dotted-quarter/eighth note/quarter) into the context of American popular song: “By the time Leiber and Stoller recorded “There Goes My Baby”, the baion beat was no longer a novelty, but no one had ever been so audacious as to wed the Italian bastardization of a Brazilian samba to an ersatz Russian string orchestration on a rhythm-and-blues record by an African-American quartet.”

In the wake of this novel concoction, the baion beat was put to compelling use in many of the Brill Building’s most memorable hits, from the Ronettes effervescent “Be My Baby” (written by Barry and Greenwich and produced by Phil Spector) to Gene Pitney’s “Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa” (written by Bacharach and David). In each case, the rhythm was juxtaposed against the elaborately textured string arrangements of art music and highly expressive vocals.

As Emerson notes, “There Goes My Baby” was also groundbreaking in its combination of rock and roll with orchestration: “The dramatic urgency of the strings on “There Goes My Baby” prompted what songwriter Jimmy Webb, discussing a subsequent Leiber-Stoller production, called a ‘striking realization: Rock ‘n’ roll and the string ensemble are not antithetical after all. To the contrary, the rough, self-taught textures of rock vocalists are ineffably complemented by the silken tones of the orchestra and vice versa.’ Strings expanded the musical palette of rock ‘n’ roll adding novel colors and imbuing the music with a new sumptuous sweep. They also extended pop’s racial and cultural range, encouraging songwriters and producers who were the sons and granddaughters of Jewish immigrants to draw on their familiarity with classical music, derived from their European heritage and the music lessons that were obligatory in many of their households.”

Perhaps no figure from the Brill Building era played a more instrumental role in pitting the urgency, intensity, and youthfulness of rock and roll music against the expansive power of the orchestra than Phil Spector. Dubbed “The First Tycoon of Teen” by Tom Wolfe in a 1963 essay of the same name, Spector is legendary for constructing what came to be known as “the Wall of Sound”—a thick, heavily layered orchestral backdrop for such hits as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”, the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”. Though Wolfe’s article contains at least one glaring historical inaccuracy (he makes the false generalization that Spector wrote the words and music to the songs he produced, when in reality he relied heavily on the compositions of Barry and Greenwich, some of which he co-authored), Wolfe did aptly describe Spector as “an electronic maestro, tuning various instruments or sounds up down, out, every which way, using things like two pianos, a harpsichord and three guitars on one record.” Underneath it all, however, was the pulse of a new generation. Equal parts rock and roll and jukebox symphony, Spector’s music was to him, not “rock and roll” but a more explicitly combinatory “pop blues.” “I feel it’s very American,” he told Wolfe.

If the Brill Building era occupied a tentative existence in American popular music history for many years—on the fringes of rock yet kept out of the pre-rock canon—oldies radio kept it from disappearing. According to Emerson, the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”—a Mann and Weil composition and a Phil Spector production—was, over the four decades following its release, “broadcast more than ten million times in the United States, more frequently than any other song in the BMI catalog, even those by the Beatles.”

Songs such as this were never forgotten, but now more than ever, writers and archivists are taking the time to remember them. When, in 2005, Ken Emerson published Always Magic in the Air, it instantly became the definitive Brill Building history since it faced no real competition. To top it off, Geoffrey O’Brien’s glowing review of the book for the New York Review of Books made it into Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006. Also in 2005, juggernaut reissue label Rhino Records released the lavish box set One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, which culled together 120 girl group cuts from the notable to the obscure, many of which were penned by Brill Building stalwarts Goffin and King and Barry and Greenwich. More recently, Alex Halberstadt published the well-received Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, in early 2007.

As the music of this era continues to be re-examined, here’s hoping that it will be properly contextualized. Only when the extent of the shared tradition between Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building is brought to light will uniquely American musical triumphs such as “Be My Baby” and “There Goes My Baby” sit logically in their rightful place—right next to “Begin the Beguine” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”—in the Great American Songbook.

Ben Ewing is a student at Yale Law School who writes about music for Dusted Magazine and film for Not Coming to a Theater Near You.