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Appreciation: Ellie Greenwich: mover and shaper of American pop

August 26, 2009 |  4:37 pm

GREENWICH_3_ The songwriter was a natural collaborator and captured moments of uncertainty in her 'little soap operas.'

Ellie Greenwich spent her Long Island adolescence on the corner of Starlight and Springtime lanes. "My birthday is October 23rd, on the cusp of Libra and Scorpio," she said in a 1990 interview with writer and musician Charlotte Greig. "My father was Catholic and my mother was Jewish. I was destined for something -- half and half, and on the cusp of everything."

Greenwich emerged as a songwriter when America itself was on the cusp of everything, a whole set of conventions unspooling under the power of rock 'n' roll, the civil rights movement and the incipient counterculture. Her American polyglot upbringing prepared Greenwich, who died today at age 68 of a heart attack, for what she became: one of the great sound alchemists who turned the ambiguities of youth into the essence of American pop.

Able to sing, arrange and produce as well as pen indelible hits, Greenwich found her artistic home within New York's Brill Building, where she, her husband and songwriting partner, Jeff Barry, and their peers transformed an art form without making a big deal of it. She was a natural collaborator who could match wits with control freaks like Phil Spector and totally relate to the kids in the groups who recorded her songs.

She could write silly and she could write serious. But Greenwich's key works -- such classics as "Leader of the Pack," "Chapel of Love" and "River Deep, Mountain High" as well as more obscure ones like "Out in the Streets" and "Girls Can Tell" -- have a particular resonance that goes beyond catchiness or nostalgia.

Their quality has to do with Greenwich's gift for capturing the frisson of a decision almost made, a change that hasn't quite come, and which could still go either way. The voices for which she wrote, young and nearly always female, had a natural waver. They belonged to the kids who would change everything: multicultural girls such as Barbara Alston and Dolores "La La" Brooks of the Crystals, Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes and Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, girls who aspired to certain feminine ideals but also wished for a certain freedom promised by the changing attitudes of their time.

Even a song like the Crystals' "And Then He Kissed Me," a romance novelette whose impact is as light as a cotton ball, is pulled forward by an undercurrent of uncertainty. "I felt so happy I almost cried," sings Brooks (who was 15 when the song was recorded and, legend has it, had never been kissed), of a love affair that progresses from the dance floor to the altar in 2 minutes and 34 seconds. That ambivalence gently counteracts the song's dreaminess. There's a sense that everything is moving just a little too fast.

That mood of irresistible acceleration was more pronounced in the "little soap operas" she created with Barry and producer Shadow Morton for the Shangri-Las. Who hasn't relished the spin-out at the climax of "Leader of the Pack"? What's fascinating about that song, and its lesser-known but equally great companion "Out in the Streets," is the conflict subtly presented between the feminine and masculine realms, as damaged heroes struggle to choose between the safe cage of domesticity or the peril of the open road. Though the boys make bad choices, the girls feel responsible. It seems right to credit Greenwich for the message, embedded in the lushly romantic music as well as in the lyrics, that the balancing act girls faced at that moment was nearly impossible.

Greenwich herself was walking on a wire during those years. As part of the triumvirate of married couples so central to the Brill Building sound (along with Carole King/Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil), she found an entryway into the primarily male world of the music business; but she also had to prove her own authority. Perhaps that's why her songs so often had that blend of toughness and questioning -- chin forward, eyes prettily downcast.

She and Jeff Barrywrote "River Deep, Mountain High" for Tina Turner after they'd already divorced. ("Divorce was not overly accepted," she told Greig of the split. "It was a major catastrophe.") That song, which Phil Spector considers a masterpiece, is such a glorious starburst that it would seem to have no softer or darker side. And yet, there's the beginning, in which Tina Turner remembers, "the only doll I've ever owned," bringing her voice down just a little in remembrance of a poor childhood's solitary toy. It's another drop of sadness in the midst of heart-filling joy, an acknowledgment that giving of yourself, whether as an artist or a lover, always involves pain. Ellie Greenwich was a purveyor of happiness, but she was no fool. What she wrote always ran both deep and high.

--Ann Powers

Photo: Greenwich in 1991. Credit: Associated Press

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