The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced that local songwriter Jeff Barry was selected as the co-recipient of an Ahmet Ertegun Award.
The award, for nonperformers who contributed to rock ‘n’ roll, was shared with his songwriting partner, Ellie Greenwich, who was married to Barry during most of their collaboration. Greenwich died in August.
Barry and Greenwich co-wrote such early rock-‘n’-roll classics as “Be My Baby,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Chapel of Love,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Hanky Panky,” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “River Deep, Mountain High.” Later, Barry co-wrote the bubblegum smash “Sugar, Sugar” with Andy Kim, and also the theme songs for television shows such as The Jeffersons and Family Ties.
Barry also was the producer for many well-known songs, including “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees, and Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” and “Kentucky Woman.”
Last year, I had the pleasure of joining Barry for breakfast at the Canary Hotel in Santa Barbara. In celebration of his recent honor, here is part of our conversation.
Jeff Moehlis: In the early 1960s at the Brill Building (the legendary building at 1619 Broadway in New York City, where literally hundreds of early rock-‘n’-roll hits were composed), you worked with your then-wife Ellie Greenwich. What did each of you bring to the songwriting partnership?
Jeff Barry: When I come to the songwriting table, my first responsibility is lyrics, ideas, titles. Secondly, melody, and lastly, chords. When I write myself, they’re usually four, five chord songs — tops. But Ellie was a music major, so she brought more sophisticated chord progressions and options, harmonic options and so on, which is what I seek out in anybody I write with. I really like to write the part the singer sings: words and melodies.
JM: In the ‘60s, you also co-wrote songs with (Wall of Sound record producer and songwriter) Phil Spector. What did he bring to the songs?
JB: He would invariably be at the piano, so once again it would be the chords. With Phil it wasn’t to just write a song, it was for him to record for an artist on his label.
I’ve always said, if someone said to me, “You have three hours to write a hit, and you can choose one person to write it with,” it would probably be Phil. Within the first hour we would have something that sounded like it could be on the radio. It was definitely a productive — and, most of the time, fun — collaboration.
(Spector is currently in prison for the murder of Lana Clarkson.)
JM: Describe a typical day at the Brill Building.
JB: I can’t say it was routine. We had an office, and we’d go in and write. It was as simple as that, really, unless we were making demos or in the studio recording. It was writing, demoing, producing, lunch (laughs).
JM: Did it feel like a job?
JB: Oh, no, no, no, no. In fact, there is a saying in the music industry that goes, “It beats working.” It never feels like a job. It never did. Not for a minute. I think people who generally create don’t create for the money, anyway. You create to do it, and if you do it successfully, the financial rewards come. But work? No. Absolute fun. Especially in those days, because it was the beginnings of pop music.
JM: Your song “Sugar Sugar,” as with all of bubblegum pop at the time, wasn’t highly regarded by the critics. Did this bother you?
JB: I think basically it was the press not being aware of the very simple fact that these songs were not meant to entertain them, or any other adult. It would be like if movie reviewers were to review a cartoon as if it was intended to entertain adults, and say, “Oh, this Porky Pig character, first of all he’s not wearing any underwear, and he only has four fingers. How ridiculous is that? And the plot, oh, my God, it’s so simple and stupid, and it’s so short. I mean, my goodness.”
“Sugar Sugar” was created for preschoolers. The Archies cartoon show was on Saturday morning TV for preschoolers, not even kindergartners. Preschoolers. That was my audience. And to judge it, even for teenagers?
It was Record of the Year, sold 11 million copies, so obviously it had an appeal to more than preschoolers. Because somebody went to the store to buy it, not the preschoolers. So the whole idea of judging out of its intended market is erroneous on the part of the critic. It’s that simple.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.