'tutti frutti, good booty' -- 2/15/16

Today's selection -- from The Song Machine by John Seabrook. During the long history of pop music, "hit factories" have occasionally emerged -- places where a very small group of songwriters collaborated to produce a string of hits, and the actual performers were a subordinate part of the process. Among these were Motown and "the Brill Building:"

"The very first hit factory was T.B. Harms, a Tin Pan Alley publish­ing company overseen by Max Dreyfus. With staff writers like Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers, T.B. Harms was the dominant publisher of popular music in the early twentieth century. Dreyfus called his writers 'the boys' and installed pianos for them to compose on around the office on West Twenty-­Eighth, the street that gave Tin Pan Alley its name, allegedly for the tinny-sounding pianos passersby heard from the upper-story windows of the row houses. ...

"To find the first hit factory of the record era, you'd have to head up-century thirty years and uptown thirty blocks, to the section of Broadway that stretched from the Brill Building, at Forty-Ninth Street, where Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had an office, to 1650 Broadway, at Fifty-First, where Don Kirshner's Aldon Music was located. ...

"Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were the first hit makers of rock 'n' roll, penning R&B hits for black artists such as Big Mama Thornton ('Hound Dog') and the Coasters ('Yakety-Yak'), among others. When a white kid named Elvis Presley wanted to record 'Hound Dog,' the songwriters were at first dismayed -- they thought they were writing for cool black people, not white hillbillies -- but the first royalty check changed their perspective, and they went on to write 'Jailhouse Rock' and other hits for the King. ...

From left, Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Leiber at MGM Studios in 1957

"Aldon Music, headed by Don Kirshner, was an early '60s Broad­way hit factory. His 'Magnificent 7,' the songwriters, worked on the sixth floor of 1650 Broadway. Writing in little cubicles with upright pianos in them were Neil Sedaka, Howie Greenfield, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Jack Keller. ...

"These songs were written for the new teen market, which had been created by the long postwar boom, both reproductive and economic. The lyrics embodied teen themes -- young love, fun, fast cars, dancing -- and they were generally less sophisticated than, say, the songs T.B. Harms published. ...

Tutti frutti, au-rutti
Bop bopa-a-lu bop a whop bam boo

"Phil Spector learned production from Leiber and Stoller, and had early hits within the Brill Building system in New York. But after several years he moved his operation to L.A., where he had grown up. Spector established his own label, ... [with artists such as the] Crystals, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers; he even put together his own group, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, which featured Darlene Love. ...

"Spector not only changed pop music; he also established an arche­type: the driven, obsessive, autocratic producer, who will stop at nothing to get the sound he hears in his head onto a record, even if it means screwing over his collaborators. ... He married Veronica Bennett, who supplied the timeless vocal on 'Be My Baby,' and turned her into Ronnie Spector, making her a vir­tual prisoner in his mansion, which he filled with guns after the murder of Sharon Tate in the summer of 1969. He kept a gold coffin in the cellar for Ronnie, saying that was the only way he would ever let her leave him -- in a box. Today, the maestro is behind bars for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, serving a nineteen-years-to-life sentence in Corcoran State Prison, where his fellow inmate (and songwriter) is Charlie Manson.

"Motown was the ultimate hit factory. It combined a stable of writers like Kirshner's Magnificent 7 with Spector's control over the artists and the production. At Hitsville USA, as its Detroit headquarters was called, the artists, producers, writers, musicians, booking agents, managers, publishers, and recording studios were all under one roof and one man, Berry Gordy. ... Writers such as Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye would bring their demos to Friday produc­tion meetings, and Gordy would decide which songs to produce and which artists would sing them. ...

"Philadelphia International Records, the hit factory run out of 309 South Broad Street in Philly by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, made crossover R&B hits that featured strings, pianos, and vibraphones, to which they added some sweet Philly soul while keeping the bass qui­etly ascendant. ... Starting with 'Back Stabbers' and 'Love Train' for the O'Jays, and 'Me and Mrs. Jones' for Billy Paul -- all from 1972-and followed by 'You Make Me Feel Brand New' (1973) for the Stylistics and 'The Love I Lost' (1973) for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, there was no stopping Gamble and Huff until 'Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now' (1979)."


John Seabrook


The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2015 by John Seabrook


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