Extra: New York Icons: The Brill Building

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: I’m Curt Anderson and this is the Studio 360 podcast.

S3: The pop music industry really got going in the early nineteen hundreds in New York City and a few blocks known as Tin Pan Alley. Irving Berlin and George and IRA Gershwin and dozens of other composers and lyricists churned out tunes that became the Great American Songbook Come On and Hit and Ragtime.

S4: Tin Pan Alley was originally on West Twenty Eighth Street in Manhattan. But as rents increased, it crept up town.

S3: And by the late 1950s, the New York pop music epicenter was 16 19 Broadway. This 11 story Art Deco Tower, the Brill Building. It’s the latest in our series on New York Icons. Studio 360’s Tommy Kazarian has the story.

S5: Famous Brill Building, Broadway and forty nine street headquarters for songwriters, pluggers, singers, bandleaders and music publishers, all hopefully buying and selling next season’s hit tunes.

S6: This man was the Brill Building was built in 1931, the same year as the Empire State Building. In the midst of the Depression, the building’s owners leased cheap offices to whoever they could find, which happened to be music publishers, agents and musicians.

S5: Seventy eight music publishers offices. Yes, some owners of fast music catalog as many as just a deskins someone else’s way by the 50s.

S6: The Brill Building was packed with music industry professionals, many of them veterans of Tin Pan Alley.

S7: There were literally in the Brill Building, dozens of publishers.

S8: Mary Rolfing is a professor of communications at Boise State University.

S7: There were musicians hanging around and there were.

S9: And are people you had people who represented record companies. You had booking agents.

S8: Ken Emmerson is the author of Always Magic in the Air. The Pomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era.

S9: You had small cheesy record studios where you could make a demo, which you could then shop.

S10: Almost every facet of the hit making process was located at the Brill Building, and they all work together like an assembly line, a factory for churning out songs.

S11: These unknown writers oftentimes would come through the doors at the Brill Building, take the elevator at the top and start hitting the offices of publishers. Would you like to hear my song kind of has held this song to you. People would start on the 10th floor of the Brill Building and go down four by four and they would sell the same song 10 times. That publisher might then take it to managers of artists who should record the song. You could get your publisher. You can get your record company. You can get the cheap recording to sell.

S12: And somebody was there to distribute it. And sometimes that could happen in a matter of days.

S13: The Brill Building was all music people.

S8: That’s the late Ellie Greenwich. She’s speaking with the record executive Joe Smith. In 1986, Greenwich worked with her husband, the lyricist Jeff Berry, and the Brill Building from about 1962 to 1964.

S14: There was such an excitement going on all the time that you walked in. I mean, you were riding in the elevators, you’re riding a Jack Dempsey’s next door. It didn’t matter. The atmosphere was just so conducive to writing songs.

S15: The energy was incredible.

S16: All Very Man was part of another married songwriting team with his wife, the lyricist Cynthia Lyle. He’s also speaking with Joe Smith.

S15: In 1986, we could write the song, cut a demo. The next day. Get it over to the up to the army. Awe the artists. The damn thing had to be at ex-LAPD.

S17: I mean, shit. I mean, I must’ve written about 50 songs that year. The first year of maybe forty songs.

S8: Just because we loved writing the Brill Building was already packed with industry people. By the late 50s. So as more and more aspiring publishers moved in, a few satellite buildings popped up in the surrounding neighborhood. The most notable of these by far was located a block and a half north. At 16 fifty Broadway historian Ken Emmerson.

S9: Sixteen fifty Broadway was a more nondescript, almost anonymous building, and consequently the rents were a lot cheaper and it was sort of the younger, hipper building.

S8: People talk about the Brill Building as a genre as much as a single place, and the tenants of sixteen fifty Broadway were a huge part of that. The building was home to a publishing company called Aldin Music. It was founded in 1958 by industry veteran Al Nevins and a young publisher named Don Kershner.

S9: Al Nevins was a very experienced musician. Don was just an aspiring entrepreneur who had a real feel for what could sell.

S8: In 1958, Kershner saw an opening in the music industry.

S7: A lot of the titans of 1950s rock and roll were really silenced.

S18: Presley no longer had that rock n roll beat.

S9: The tempo is too hard for Private Presley. Elvis Presley was in the army. Truly, Lewis was banned from the airwaves for marrying his 13 year old cousin before he was formally divorced from his previous wife. The initial blast of rock and roll had passed, and Dawn understood, I think, how to slightly tame rock n roll. How did domesticated to make it safe for this suddenly massive record audience of baby boom teenagers?

S7: Kerschner was aggressive in going out and looking for writers. And he wanted young writers, people who could speak to a younger audience.

S8: How the music was an inspiration for Berry Gordy. When a few years after this, he created his own wildly successful hit factory, Motown. Instead of waiting for songwriters to knock on their door, these companies did as much as they could in-house with a stable of talented songwriters on staff. The first writers to be signed to all the music were a 19 year old Neil Sedaka and his writing partner, Howard Greenfield.

S19: Stupid Cupid. You’re a real mean guy.

S10: They wrote out. And music’s first single, stupid cupid for the singer Connie Francis did well at a number 14 on the Billboard charts in 1958.

S20: Stupid, you stop it. You know me.

S21: Neil Sedaka introduced Kershner to another songwriter from a rival Brooklyn High School whom he had briefly dated, Carole King.

S8: She was only 17, but she’d already been knocking on doors at the Brill Building for a few years.

S7: Carole King started out as a 14, 15 year old just going from Brooklyn into the city and harassing song publishers. And then right away met people like Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records who saw this talent in her.

S8: Kershner was blown away by Carole King. He signed her and her songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin to Alden Music in 1960. It was good timing. Goffin and King had just gotten married, and we’re expecting a child. Soon after, Barry Mann and Cynthia Wild joined the team. They’d both been bouncing around the Brill Building scene, but found a home with Don Kershner and Alden Music.

S17: Donny was like the father, mother figure or a song, and Danny was only basically three years older than me. And all he wanted to was Please, not even Danny loved the songs that made my day and made our life.

S8: Kershner was a master at motivating his staff of young writers and artists would come up and Kershner would call us up as a kid.

S17: The Everly Brothers are up. You know, we call Carol. Jerry, tell us. We want to write for the Everly Brothers.

S7: Literally, they kind of run back to their cubicles and try to knock it out quickly and get back to Donny Kerschner as fast as they could.

S8: If you talk to anyone about the Brill Building era, you’ll hear about the cubicles at Aldin Music. The songwriting teams often worked in one giant office space, each in their own cubicle containing a piano, a chair and an ashtray.

S22: They could hear each other, I mean, all the sudden you’d hear Carole King next door playing the piano or Ellie Greenwich down the hall.

S23: You are continually hearing each other’s pianos and music, so everybody knew what everybody else was doing and everybody borrow for what the others were doing.

S17: Yeah, you hear him coming up again.

S8: You know, you didn’t listen or you would listen better to my competition to Aladin, music was intense, especially between the married. songwriting teams were basically like sibling rivalry.

S17: We loved it.

S24: We haven’t this love-hate relationship with with Carolyn, Jerry and anybody that we would be waiting SFI for Carolyn, Jerry and EMBARRASSEDLY City to come out of the studio as we were going in. And there was this of course competition like, oh, we’re going for the same record with the same group.

S17: But outside of the office there was no competition. We didn’t think about Lieber and Stoller or Otis Blackwell. You know, we just thought the competition was in the office. And if we could get the record over somebody else in the office that says find us in the fall of 1960.

S8: Kershner asked his writers for a song for the Shirelles. Goffin and King won the job.

S21: Will you love me tomorrow? Went straight to number one and was the first number one single by a girl group when it sold a million copies. King and Goffin quit their day jobs to write full time.

S8: With that, the music was off to the races.

S25: Take good care of my baby.

S21: From 1961 to 1963, they had hit after hit break the top 100.

S26: I know you.

S8: The Aldin writers were all hitting their strides in 1961. Howard Greenfield was one of the oldest among them at age 25. Carole King was 19. But youth wasn’t all that they had in common.

S27: I went to Madison High Schools in Brooklyn, Flatbush. Carole King with the Madison High School. Our rival high school was Lincoln High School. Mrdak went to Lincoln High School. Hank made dress of the tokens, went to Lincoln High School. A Neil Diamond went there. And then I think he switched over to rascist with Barbra Streisand and went there, too. For some reason that that area is so much to do a book on that just about the music industry and all the talent that came in that area. And I don’t know why. I think maybe it’s. I mean, where what are we, third generation Jews or something?

S9: Ken Emmerson thinks maybe Jewish kids were taught to play the piano and took musical lessons at higher rates. By nature of their heritage and their upbringing, they were more knowledgeable about mainstream classical music than many other white Americans.

S8: That classical background can be heard all over the Brill Buildings. Take on rock and roll, like in the simple fact that the writers wrote on piano instead of guitar or in the strings that Brill writers began to incorporate into their arrangements. As kids in the 50s, they were also shaped by some major news stories happening close to home.

S9: If you were of that age, you were deeply affected by two important events that touched Brooklyn.

S28: This is truly an historic day here in Jersey City. A 27 year old Negro named Jackie Robinson is playing his first game for the Dodger Farm Club.

S9: First of all, was the integration of baseball by Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That was an important landmark in racial consciousness in America. And they were at the epicenter of that. Secondly was the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

S29: Julius Rosenberg and Martin Sobel, convicted of revealing atomic secrets to the Russians, enter the federal building in New York to hear their doom.

S8: The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. Their defenders thought that they were victims of anti-Semitism and Cold War hysteria.

S9: Those events expanded their their racial consciousness and awareness and also their political awareness. Gonzo’s. They were also picking up on musical and cultural cues from the city around them. This was the height, the absolute peak of Puerto Rican migration to the United States.

S8: Emmerson says that these young Jewish New Yorkers would have been hearing Latin music everywhere.

S10: The second album that the great T-20 made was Tito Puente a Lie The Grossinger’s, the famous Jewish Resort in the Catskills.

S11: Their parents danced to this. All the clubs and the beach clubs were full of this.

S9: It was ubiquitous.

S13: Latin jazz was everywhere in New York.

S8: Jason King is a professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU.

S13: A lot of the Brill Building writers and producers brought those rhythms into the music that they made. And it has to do with the fact that New York was this fusion epicenter is a place where all of these cultures were coming together.

S8: The rhythms and sounds of Latin music are all over Brill Building songs.

S30: Sometimes overtly like with the man and while song blame it on the bossa nova written for E.T. Gormann.

S8: But other times, more subtly, the Brazilian by on beat is a hallmark of Brill Building arrangements.

S31: And it can be heard on countless recordings. This is the most famous Latin dance hall, the Palladium Ballroom, which is a few blocks away from the Brill Building at Fifty Third and Broadway every night.

S8: Artists like Tito Puente de and Machito would draw huge audiences of all sorts.

S32: It’s almost as if that music could unite white and black audiences in an appreciation of a music, which itself is a melding of white and black music.

S8: In the spring of 1962, Barry Mann and Cynthia Wild landed a big hit of their own, Cynthia Wild got the idea for the song while walking around Midtown.

S33: The story goes that she was walking through the garment district and she took a look at this, you know, good looking African-American man pushing this hand cart full of clothing.

S11: And it was a hot day.

S17: You know, I was working hard to say I think this of this guys like it comes down here, you know, comes down him and it’s like nothing. She goes uptown.

S7: He must feel like something, you know, it starts off with this flamenco guitar and it’s kind of menacing.

S34: He gets up each morning and he goes downtown where everyone’s his boat.

S22: And then it sort of opens up to major chords when he comes home and. Different.

S35: But then he comes.

S36: Uptown was performed by the Crystals and produced by Phil Spector. This pop song about class issues hit number 13 on the Billboard charts. I think it’s a powerful tune, especially in 1962, because it really addressed these two worlds that had to be navigated by African-Americans, Latinos, women even.

S37: You could certainly argue that the way that it romanticizes uptown life, it’s not deep, it’s not rocket science. And yet by flipping uptown and downtown and the value ascribed to those particular locations and urban life, I think that’s actually kind of interesting. This is a story about New Yorker vanity.

S21: Like a lot of Brill Building, music, Uptown lended different styles and perspectives and it was able to unite listeners from different races and backgrounds.

S13: Jason King says that earlier in the 20th century you wouldn’t have seen that people in the United States were segregated legally, but also music was segregated.

S38: Black music was considered to be race music. It was music that was made by black people for black people. That was the way that black music was conceived in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and even in the 1950s and beyond.

S13: The Brill Building represents this moment where whites and blacks are listening to very much the same music for a very short amount of time. It doesn’t last that long, but it’s a it’s a kind of golden moment in the early 1960s of a bi-racial pop culture.

S7: It had not happened before. It just hadn’t. You know, you say you are a couple people here and there, but not in the way it happened in that period of time.

S8: Like the audience. The production process at the Brill Building involved both white and black musicians, but it still had issues.

S13: There is this tension there between the kind of ingenious fusion music that the Brill Building produced and then also the kind of asymmetrical power relationships that you see between white and black and men and woman.

S8: There were some black songwriters in the Brill Building scene like Rose Marie McCoy, a songwriter whose career began a little earlier in the 1950s.

S39: Do it. You know about it. But for the most part, the writers and producers behind these hits were white and the artists were black.

S13: There was a real division of labor at the Brill Building, and artists often didn’t get paid in the same way that those songwriters and producers did, partly because the nature of how the music industry works that songwriters and producers often get paid more than artists, but also because there was a racial component to that too.

S8: Central to those complicated Brill Building dynamics was Phil Spector. Spector is, of course, the musical genius credited with creating the wall of sound production style, but also monstrous in his personal life and currently in prison for second degree murder. There was something polarizing about him, even back in those pro building days.

S13: I think Phil Spector’s production of so many black girl groups like The Crystals, the Ronettes and others really does represent that kind of uncomfortable moment where you have a white producer defining the sound and style and sentiment of black woman in the 1960s, where those women don’t have a voice for themselves except through their interpretation of lyrics written by men or white people, whether they’re man or woman.

S8: The most controversial song to come out of the Brill Building era might be The Crystals. He hit me and it felt like a kiss.

S21: Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote the song after their baby sitter, the singer Iva Boyd, known as Little Eeva, told them about an abusive boyfriend.

S40: They intended the song to convey outrage. But Spector’s arrangement made the abuse seem almost romantic.

S8: But those black performers didn’t necessarily think the Brill Building’s dynamics were inequitable in the 1990s. Mary Rolfing had the chance to interview Eeva Boyd about her experiences in the Brill Building system.

S7: She said it wasn’t feeling exploited by that environment. I was a singer. I was not a songwriter. The writers gave her material and she gave voice to that material. So without each other, you know, none of this could have happened. She really wanted me to to understand that and remember saying, write it down.

S41: One of my favorite images of the Brill Building time is little Eve if you go to YouTube and put in Loco-Motion or even your dropping by. We see he standing on a slight pedestal.

S40: Behind her are these white guys. They’re just dancing behind her. They’re like the Cogo dancers.

S42: I know you. How do you think it must have been to be? Fifteen, sixteen year old black girl nineteen sixty two and turn on the TV set after school and see the Shirelles or a little Eeva.

S43: He’s too to me, so give it a shot.

S21: From 1961 to 1963, the charts were dominated by Brill Building writers and artists.

S8: It seemed like they had found the perfect recipe for efficient pop success. But then.

S44: It’s been a.

S14: When the British invasion came in, for most of us, we were all sort of all wee independent, so to speak, someone was panicked. But, you know, here comes the self contained groups. And here comes the error of the singer songwriter. And we sat there as well. What are we going to do?

S13: The entire industry changes and the focus is no longer the kind of urbane, polished R&B music coming out of New York. But suddenly all of the music that’s coming out of Britain.

S8: The Beatles were actually pretty big fans of the Brill Building.

S21: Please, please. Me included a cover of a Goffin King song Chains.

S45: My name is Paul McCartney has said.

S15: You know, John Lennon. Their model was Gerry Goffin, Carole King. That’s who they wanted to be. They wanted to write songs that good.

S46: Another 1960s phenom wasn’t so enamored with the Brill Building sound, unlike most of the songs nowadays are being written Uptown and Tin Pan Alley, as most of the folk songs come from nowadays. This is a song that was written up there as a rent somewhere down in the United States.

S11: Gerry Goffin thought everything he had written after he heard Dylan was total crap. They were devastated in many ways.

S32: Carole King and Gerry Goffin felt that Dylan had just shown them up at one point that even gathered together some of their demos that they had made and smash them into space and love.

S47: I love to go with Norma right now.

S11: It wasn’t just that the Beatles and Dylan were good.

S8: It was that the way they made music challenged the entire Brill Building model.

S48: The Beatles showed how much more money a performer could make by writing their own music, and the whole economic model for rock and roll songwriting and production began to change.

S13: Artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and others represented a new kind of pop music auteur whose self-contained. And the Brill Building model wasn’t the hot model anymore.

S7: It has to have been terrifying in a way. The market shifted to where it’s almost all written and performed by the same people as the economics of rock music changed, so did the types of people making and listening to it. When the Beatles came, it really resegregated rock and roll. It became weird to talk about African-Americans as even performing rock n roll. It became this real white form.

S13: The priorities of the music industry changed completely and it becomes kind of refocus away from this bi-racial pop moment to a much more segregated wave listening to music.

S49: It’s a great moment, but it doesn’t last long.

S50: Don Kershner sold in music to Columbia Pictures in 1963. In many ways, at the peak of its success, some real writers were able to transition well into the new era.

S21: Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry enjoyed the greatest success in the mid-sixties with No One hits like Leader of the Pack and chapela.

S8: Some, like Carole King, were able to catch the singer songwriter Wave.

S21: King’s 1971 album, Tapestry, won four Grammys. There’s one of the best selling albums of all time.

S8: But others had a harder time finding their feet without the structure, community and camaraderie of the Brill Building.

S48: I think in some ways the Brill Building songwriters didn’t always realize how great their music was. And maybe that’s something that Don Kerschner almost made them feel in a way.

S51: After all, it was in Kirchners financial interest to make his writers feel dependent upon him.

S52: We never thought the songs he wrote were going to be standards or they’re going to be talked about 20 years later, you know.

S50: The songs will be here in a hundred years. That’s Diane Warren. She’s one of the most prolific songwriters alive today and has written number one hits for artists like Celine Dion, Aerosmith and Brandy.

S53: In my world, that’s the epitome of great pop songwriting.

S1: Those were just the best, the best songs and songwriters of all time.

S8: Warren grew up listening to Brill Building music as a kid in the 1960s, and it helped set her on the path to becoming a songwriter.

S1: I feel like even now, I almost carry on that tradition. I have a little cubicle I go to every day. I just don’t have Don Kershner outside my door saying, write me a hit. You know, I do that to myself.

S54: Today, half of the Brill Building is leased by the startup we work. It’s a workspace for gig economy freelancers who don’t have a company office. They can go to. That’s kind of how pop songwriters operate these days to.

S50: Instead of a centralized building there in home studios collaborating online, you don’t have to worry about someone banging on the piano in the cubicle next door, but something else might be lost.

S55: There was a camaraderie that I think made you write so prolifically back then because I mean, you felt good even when things were going on. It still felt good. You know, it was a feeling. There’s a general feeling that was terrific to me.

S56: I almost didn’t think of it as a publishing company. When I look back at. And that was like a school. It was a great school for songwriters.

S30: Tommy Kazarian produced that story. The Brill Building is still home to some big entertainment industry businesses. Paul Simon’s publishing company has offices there. So does Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, production company, Broadway Video. The recordings you heard of Ellie Greenwich and Barry Mann are courtesy of the Joe Smith Collection at the Library of Congress. Additional archival tape was provided by WNYC Archive Collections. New York icons are made possible by a grant from the Buth Paris Foundation.

S4: Thanks for listening. And you can subscribe to Studio 360 wherever you get podcasts.