The songwriter talks about penning his many hits and working with Brill Building collaborators like Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector
or this episode, Sodajerker spoke to one of 1619 Broadway’s (aka The Brill Building) most illustrious former occupants, Jeff Barry – a songwriter and producer with a list of chart hits as long as your arm. An inductee of both Songwriters and Rock ’n’ Roll Halls Of Fame, he’s widely and justly credited as one of the architects of the girl group sound that dominated 60s US pop music.
With his wife and principle collaborator, the late Ellie Greenwich, Barry managed to tap into the collective psyche of young America with astonishing accuracy and consistency, producing a catalogue of songs that quite simply represent the gold standard of pop music.
Often with the participation of one Phil Spector, Barry and Greenwich seemed to generate deathless classics at a rate of knots, including Be My Baby, Then He Kissed Me, Iko Iko, Chapel Of Love, Da Doo Ron Ron, Leader Of The Pack and Do Wah Diddy. In 1964 alone, Barry had 17 hits on the Billboard charts and five of them went to No.1.
Although they were no longer a couple, Barry and Greenwich, along with Spector, still managed to weave their songwriting spell a few more times together before the decade was over, penning the likes of River Deep Mountain High for Ike & Tina Turner and I Can Hear Music, a 1969 hit for The Beach Boys. Jeff forged a new songwriting partnership with the singer Andy Kim in 1968, and the pair and one of the many resulting compositions, the irresistible Sugar Sugar became the biggest selling single of 1969.
The Brill Building era is a chapter of music history that’s of endless fascination to us here at Songwriting and Sodajerker, who have been lucky enough to talk to several of its major players on previous episodes, including Mike Stoller of Leiber & Stoller, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil and Neil Sedaka. Sodajerker were immensely proud to welcome the colossus that is Jeff Barry to the show…
You clearly have an incredible affinity for music, for sound and for communicating. Were those skills you demonstrated early in life?
“I suppose I did. I’d always liked making stuff up. I remember my mum telling me about a song I wrote when I was eight, so I guess making up stuff that rhymes started early on.”
By the time you got to college, were you quite well practiced as a songwriter?
“Not at all really. In college I studied industrial design. Through circumstance I got offered a job as a songwriter, but I really wasn’t musically trained at all – I took one piano lesson and I learned how to play the upright bass in one key only.”
[cc_blockquote_right] MY FIRST RESPONSIBILITY WHEN I CO-WRITE IS LYRICS, MELODY IS SECOND AND CHORDS ARE A DISTANT THIRD… TO THIS DAY [/cc_blockquote_right] Then you signed your first publishing deal and went on to record for RCA. Is that right?
“Yeah, I did. Hugo and Luigi were producers at RCA and the first publisher to want to sign me was Arnold Shaw, who had me audition for them. It was really quite terrible but they also produced my first hit, which was Tell Laura I Love Her by Ray Peterson, so it was a fortuitous meeting, for sure.”
You co-wrote that Ben Raleigh. Do remember who did what on that song?
“A friend of a friend of the family got me in front of Arnold Shaw. Even though he was a music publisher, he said he’d do them a favour and listen to me. If he thought I could sing, he’d introduce me to some record types, but as a publisher he was more interested in the songs I’d written. I knew two or maybe three chords, so he said he’d introduce me to some people who knew chords, and Ben Raleigh was one of those. My first responsibility when I co-write is lyrics, melody is second and chords are a distant third, to this day.”
Ellie Greenwich wrote some hits in her own right, but together you two were pretty much unstoppable weren’t you?
“Well we were definitely one of the three couples in New York; Ellie and myself, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil and Carole King & Jerry Goffin – we socialised and we all came up together.
We’ve heard it said you came up with melodies and lyrics, and Ellie came up with chord sequences. Is that how it worked?
“It was pretty much a blur, the 60s, those 10 years were absolutely crazy. Let’s just say that lyrics were my responsibility, chords were her responsibility and we’d both contribute to melody. I think that’s fair.”
How was the work divided up once you’d introduced Phil Spector into the mix?
“I certainly was still in charge of the lyrics and nothing much changed as far as what I did. We were writing for his acts, so he would very often be at the piano – as a producer, I know how that is, when you’re writing a song you’re mentally making the record at the same time. You can’t help but do that. It was just absolute crazy fun. I’d pace around the room when I got excited and sing. That’s where the melody comes in – I don’t say words, I just sing them. They’d just come out in melody form, as opposed to a poem or the spoken word. You knew when you had a cool line or a hook seemed hooky.”
Your records are so distinctive, and we know them so well, it’s amazing to us, the idea that you were walking around singing that melody or singing those words for the first time.
“Haha, yeah I think a lot of young people think the artist writes the song – they don’t picture it being crafted and created, and dreamed-up and worked on. It’s audio finger-painting I suppose. It still is. I’m writing today almost as much as ever.”
In addition to Da Doo Ron Ron, there was Doo Wah Diddy, which was another interesting phrase. You kind of built your own language with some of those titles.
“People ask me how that came about and honestly I really don’t know. Somebody said, ‘did you fill them in with gibberish until you’d figured out the lines?’ That doesn’t sound like me. Those were the days just a little past doo-wop that I grew up with, so those syllables were definitely in me. People like to think that things mean something. If it doesn’t mean anything to you, then it probably doesn’t mean anything really – it just sounds good.”
We notice that you describe meetings or encounters in the opening lines of a lot of your songs. Is that where a song starts for you?
“Well, it’s a story so I start at the beginning and I still do that. I think the first meeting is momentous. I think the word ‘walk’ is in the first line of several of my songs – not that I’m proud of it!”
Is songwriting all about love for you in some way?
“I think most songs on the charts are about that, or at least human relationships, for sure. I probably only wrote one remotely political song in my life.”[cc_blockquote_right] IF WE FINISHED IT, WE THOUGHT IT WAS GOOD, OTHERWISE IT WOULDN’T HAVE GOTTEN FINISHED [/cc_blockquote_right]It must be hard to find new ways to say those things.
“For me, coming up with an angle upon love that’s never been written about, but everyone knows, it’s very satisfying to do that.”
Are there examples of songs that came to you really quickly?
“There’s only two songs that I know how long it took and that was I Honestly Love You which I wrote with Peter Allen in two afternoons, and Hanky Panky which probably took no more than 20 minutes.”
Did you feel like you were on a roll, or did it still feel like pretty hard work?
“It never seemed like work at all. It was terrific fun. In the 60s, we were at the beginnings of modern pop and rock, so there was nothing much to judge it against. We were the young people that were creating music for young people – we were ‘it’ in New York, you know. It was absolute playground time.”
Was there a way to tell if a song had hit potential?
“Without sounding like a total… If we finished it, we thought it was good, otherwise it wouldn’t have gotten finished. If you finish a song, you have to believe it has something or you wouldn’t have gone through the time and effort to finish it. And you also trust your own instincts after a while.”
You mentioned that you’re doing quite a bit of writing at the moment. Is there anything you’re working on that you want to mention?
“There’s a record out by an artist, a girl named Julie Moon. She’s on Warner Bros Records. I will have one of the first releases and I think it’s going to be an internet release (they think it’s going to go pretty viral) called Just A Cup Of Coffee. I’m also working with an artist named Sasha Sloan – she’s one of the most talented singer-songwriters I’ve ever worked with.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker, who now have over 60 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 50-minute interview with Jeff Barry – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.