The songsmiths of Broadway’s great hit factories get their due.
Stephen Foster’s biographer (Doo-Dah!, 1997) takes a welcome look at Foster’s 20th-century successors: the songwriters who toiled in humble cubicles at the Brill Building (1619 Broadway) and nearby 1650 Broadway, the hubs of New York’s music-publishing business during the heyday of ’50s and ’60s R&B, rock ’n’ roll and pop. He focuses on seven intertwined writing teams who often collaborated and competed with one another for cuts: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield and Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Emerson deftly shows how these prolific composers became ubiquitous figures in the music business of the day, and reveals the untold stories behind the composition of indelible tunes like “Be My Baby,” “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Cryin’ in the Rain,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” and “Walk On By.” He doesn’t shrink from telling the writers’ personal stories, like the impact Pomus’s crippling polio had on his work or how marital tumult sundered the Goffin/King and Barry/Greenwich partnerships. He also spins interesting tales of such crucial players as publisher Don Kirshner and now-notorious producer-writer Phil Spector. These talents, Emerson notes, detonated rock’s first explosion through their versatility, their taste in sounds, ranging from classical music to R&B and Latin music, and sheer hard work. He charts their fortunes, cresting in the early ‘60s, and their swift fall, as the rise of performer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and the Beatles and the migration of the business to the West Coast spelled an end to New York’s reign as music’s capital. The story of these writers is long-overdue in the telling, and Emerson tells it splendidly.
Under the boardwalk or up on the roof, this is a marvelous read.