Thoughts on Ellie Greenwich from Brian Wilson, Diane Warren
In writing the article about the death of Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich this week, I immediately flashed back to an interview I’d done last year with Brian Wilson.
The first thing he did after slipping behind the wheel of his Mercedes coupe was to punch up KRTH-FM (101.1) on the radio as we headed out for a cruise through the winding hills of Benedict Canyon.
“I always check to see if they might play ‘Be My Baby,’” he told me, “but they don’t play it very much.”
“Be My Baby” was one of the dozens of sterling songs Greenwich wrote in the early ‘60s, most of them with her husband Jeff Barry and many in collaboration with Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector, whose recordings were a powerful influence on what Wilson created in the studio with the Beach Boys.
Jeffrey Foskett, the leader of the band that has backed Wilson on tour and in the recording studio for the last decade, said that when they played a show in New York a few years ago, Greenwich was in the audience, so Wilson dedicated their version of “Be My Baby” to her. “She invited us back to her house for chicken soup,” Foskett said. “I’m sorry that we didn’t go.”
Wilson took another of Greenwich and Barry’s songs, “I Can Hear Music,” which had made it only as high as No. 100 when the Ronettes put it out in 1966 but became a Top 30 hit three years later with the Beach Boys. He said he rarely puts on music in his house because there’s always music playing in his head, which made me realize, beyond just its melodic beauty, what appealed to him about “I Can Hear Music,” with its lyric in the bridge, “I hear the music all the time.”
Wilson made no bones about naming the Ronettes' hit version of “Be My Baby” as his favorite record of all time, and when I reached out to him this week for a comment about his thoughts on Greenwich’s contributions to music, he also confirmed a story that had assumed the level of urban myth.
Beach Boy Mike Love liked to tell people that Wilson once had a jukebox in his house, and that no matter which of 100 selections you pushed, “Be My Baby” was the only song that came out. It sounded unlikely, but when I put the question to Wilson, he said it was absolutely true.
That’s the kind of passionate reaction Greenwich’s songs often registered in music lovers.
Contemporary songwriter Diane Warren said she felt strongly drawn to Greenwich’s music when she was a girl growing up in Van Nuys.
“I was 7 or 8 years old, looking through my older sister’s record collection, and I’d see the names Barry and Greenwich on them. I think ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ was my favorite.
“The whole Brill Building thing was my inspiration,” added Warren, who has written dozens of songs that have been recorded by Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand and many others.
“I never thought, ‘This is a woman writing these songs.’ I never looked at gender. Songs are great or they are not great. I think it’s great in that Ellie and [and Brill Building peers] Cynthia Weil and Carole King were pretty powerful women. But I never said ‘I want to be that woman.' I just wanted to write great songs, which is what they did.
“I don’t think there’s a female perspective; there’s a human perspective, and that’s why those songs are so popular," Warren said. "They were about human emotions. A lot of women sang them, but a lot of what they sang is universal.”