Songwriter, 'Pack' Leader Ellie Greenwich Ellie Greenwich, who co-wrote some of the most popular songs of the early 1960s for the girl groups produced by Phil Spector, died Aug. 26 from a heart attack. In this interview, rebroadcast from 1986, Greenwich discusses the highlights of her career.
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Songwriter, 'Pack' Leader Ellie Greenwich

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Songwriter, 'Pack' Leader Ellie Greenwich

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Songwriter Ellie Greenwich died Wednesday in New York at the age of 68. Greenwich co-wrote many of the girl-group hits of the 1960s, including these:

(Soundbite of song, "Be My Baby")

Ronnie Spector (Lead singer, The Ronettes): (Singing) The night we met, I knew I needed you so, and if I had the chance, I'd never let you go. So won't you say you love me. I'll make you so proud of me. We'll make them turn their heads every place we go. So won't you please be my little baby, baby my darling, be my baby now...

(Soundbite of song, "Da Do Ron Ron")

THE CRYSTALS (Musical Group): (Singing) I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still, da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron. Somebody told me that his name was Bill, da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron.

(Soundbite of song, "And Then He Kissed Me")

THE CRYSTALS: (Singing) Well, he walked up to me, and he asked me if I wanted to dance. He looked kind of nice, and so I said I might take a chance. When he danced, he held me tight, and when he walked me home that night all the stars were shining bright, and then he kissed me.

(Soundbite of song, "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry")

THE CRYSTALS: (Singing) Today I met the boy I'm gonna marry. He's all I wanted all my life and even more. He smiled at me and gee, the music started playing here comes the bride when he walked through the door.

(Soundbite of song, "Not Too Young to Get Married")

Darlene Love with Bob B. Soxx And The Blue Jeans (Musical group): (Singing) Oh no, we're not too young, young to get married, not too young, young to get married. What kind of a difference can a few years make? I've got to have you now, or my heart will break. Not too young, young to get married, not too young, young to get married. I couldn't love you more than I do today.

(Soundbite of song, "Chapel of Love")

THE DIXIE CUPS (Musical Group): (Singing) Because they're going to the chapel, and they're gonna get married, going to the chapel, and they're gonna get married. Gee, I really love you, and we're gonna get married, going to the chapel of love, going to the chapel of love.

DAVIES: All the songs we've just heard were co-written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, who were briefly married. With the exception of "Chapel of Love," which Greenwich and Barry co-produced, all the records we heard were produced by Phil Spector, the first real genius of pop production.

Ellie Greenwich didn't write exclusively for the girl groups. Her songs include "Leader of the Pack," recorded by the Shangri-Las; "I Wanna Love Him So Bad," by The Jelly Beans; "River Deep - Mountain High," done by Ike and Tina Turner; "Maybe I Know" by Lesley Gore; "I Can Hear Music," recorded by the Beach Boys; and "Doo Wa Diddy," performed by Manfred Mann.

Greenwich was one of the few women to break into pop songwriting in the early '60s. She grew up in Levittown on Long Island, and she got her start when she was hired as a staff writer by the songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller.

She worked out of the Brill Building in Manhattan, the headquarters of many of the Top 40 songwriters and producers in the '60s. When the British Invasion took over the charts and groups started performing their own, original material, a lot of songwriters ended up out of work. Greenwich went on to write jingles, and also co-produced many of Neil Diamond's early hits.

Terry interviewed Ellie Greenwich in 1986, at a time her career was enjoying a brief resurgence with a Broadway review of her songs, which introduced her to listeners who never stopped loving her songs but never knew who wrote them. Terry asked about the song "Chapel of Love," one of the first hits that Greenwich co-wrote and co-produced.

Ms. ELLIE GREENWICH (Music Producer; Songwriter): That song had originally been cut by the Ronnettes. Phil Spector had cut it with the Ronnettes but never put it out. Why? Do not ask me. And we always believed in that song. We knew it had to be a spring release or a summer release because of the nature of, you know, chapel, getting married, June weddings, the whole thing. And what happened was when they did not put that - when Phil Spector didn't put that record out, Jeff and I said, we have to do something with it. And just at that time, a gentleman named Joe Jones came up from New Orleans with a whole slew of people.

Amongst them was three girls, which we eventually named the Dixie Cups, and here are all these singers just hanging out at the office - you know, Leiber and Stoller's office, and we said hmm, girls, come here a minute. And we went to the piano, and we played it for them, and they sang. It's very - I mean, anybody could sing "Chapel of Love," you know? And we said, we have to go in and make this record, and it's funny. In my whole career of being in the studio producing, there were only two songs that I literally walked out of the studio and said, either these records are going to be zippity-do-nothing, go nowhere, or number one records. That was "Chapel of Love" and "Leader of the Pack."

TERRY GROSS, host:

Did you have a special rapport with the singers in the girl groups, being a woman yourself?

Ms. GREENWICH: I think initially - it's funny. Back then, because I was so involved in the productions and working with the - working on the background vocals and what have you, I was not just, well, here's my song, see 'ya; I got involved in everything. And it wasn't that accepted back then, a female being in that end of the business. A songwriter, a lyricist - automatic acceptance. A background singer - automatic acceptance. A writer - because Carole King and I were really the only female writers then that I know of that actually sat down at the piano and sang a song and really got involved, and that wasn't - because there were so few of us that, you know, it was sort of, like, looked on and walked away from a little bit.

But what happened was eventually, the girls said gee, we have someone we can really relate to, somebody we can talk to. We have headaches today. We want to tell somebody. Who's going to understand better than Ellie?

So eventually - at first it was like, well, who does she think she is, giving us orders here or telling us what to do? But on the other end, if you just were very open with them, they saw they could be your friend, and then it became an asset to be a woman dealing with the girl groups.

GROSS: How much did you, when you were starting, and did the groups that you wrote for, really know about love and sex?

Ms. GREENWICH: We really knew - we knew very little. We really were, as we said, the good girls. And we just knew what we read, and we knew what we fantasized about, and our experiences really were very limited. But if you don't write about what you've experienced, you certainly can write about fantasy. So it comes out the same way.

GROSS: What were some of the problems that you had breaking in and getting accepted, being a woman - because you just pointed out, there really weren't many women songwriters in the early '60s.

Ms. GREENWICH: Well, I think I was very fortunate in that most of the early things I got involved in became hits. So what choice did so many of these people have when I said, well hey, you know, I have a little track record here. This was a hit, and this is doing well in the charts, and I'm doing, you know - and it was almost like, well, we don't love - you know, like, the musicians would say, we don't love a woman telling us to go like this on your guitar. But I said, look at me as a thing. Forget, you know - and I think because of my success, it made it a little easier. Plus, I did a lot of co-producing with Jeff. So I had a little male protector on one side, you know. So I think the combination of the success and having Jeff there, they really didn't have much of a choice, did they?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was your technique for writing songs together?

Ms. GREENWICH: Very often, we would get ideas separately and then come to one another with our ideas. We would generally have a title first and write what we call our hook line, or our chorus. Sometimes I played piano; sometimes Jeff would play the piano - once again, both of us doing both. Sometimes we would actually both sit down at the piano and, like, almost kill each other because I'm playing one thing, and he's playing another. But we did complement each other, and we found a way, for some reason, that the songs just happened with us. It was the most natural - with whomever I've written with since, Jeff and I still had the most natural writing partnership that I've ever experienced.

GROSS: You got married to each other, you know, after all - you'd written songs like "Chapel of Love," you're writing all these - "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry," all these great love and wedding songs, "Not Too Young to Get Married." Did you think that you were going to have a marriage that was everything that the songs said marriage was going to be?

Ms. GREENWICH: Well, I have to like, fill you in on something. I was - I grew up in Levittown, Long Island, on the corner of Starlight and Springtime Lane. You tell me if I thought my marriage was - yes, I did. I really believed in that little house with the white picket fence and together forevermore and absolutely believed that. I was really a dreamer, and I think that still can happen. Unfortunately, it didn't happen for us, and I think that was partly the business's fault but yes, I was very much a hopeful romantic.

DAVIES: Songwriter Ellie Greenwich, speaking with Terry Gross. Here's another hit she co-wrote.

(Soundbite of song, "Baby I Love You")

THE RONETTES: (Singing) Have I ever told you how good it feels to hold you? It isn't easy to explain, and though I really keep trying, I think I may start crying. My heart can't wait another day. When you kiss, I just got to say: Baby, I love you. Baby, I love you. Baby, I love only you. I can't live without you.

DAVIES: That's the Ronnettes. More with Ellie Greenwich after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview, recorded in 1986, with songwriter Ellie Greenwich, who died on Wednesday.

GROSS: One of the big hit songs that you wrote was "Leader of the Pack," which you co-wrote. And it was performed by the Shangri-Las, who I always think of as being the tramps of the girl groups because they had such a tough…

Ms. GREENWICH: You think they were trampier than the Ronnettes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENWICH: I mean, Terry, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How did you get to work with those Shangri-Las?

Ms. GREENWICH: Well, there was a guy that I knew named George Morton whom we could see was also one that was a little eccentric and like, would never show up on time, so we ended up calling him Shadow Morton. So Sha - George calls me. He has this tape and a bunch of girls he wants me to hear.

Brought the tape over to the office, and this thing went on. He did this male narration. It was seven minutes long. I said no, we can't do that. But there was something very interesting in this song - different. I said, who was this singing? You know, wow, it's a very different sound. I saw a picture of them and said hmm, see, there's - what an added thing, what an interesting-looking little group here - and met with them, and the record came out. Big hit. It's now time for a follow-up.

So Shadow says, we've got to write something together. And at that time, when you made money, you bought yourself boots or motorcycles. I mean, that was really what it was all about. So everybody, every male, Jeff, Shadow, the engineer, the writer, they all had motorcycles, and they were always riding motorcycles.

I said, why don't we do something with motorcycles? Okay, we can call it, there's always the leader, the head of the group. I said no, it doesn't sound good, and we just threw titles around. Leader of the pack sounded important, and Shadow Morton also had a habit of writing little soap operas. His songs all became these little mini soap operas, right?

So with his influence, we melodically did certain things, whatever. It had to be a sick song, let's get - and Jeff had written "Tell Laura I Love Her," so he was used to being involved with the sick element. This was new for me. I said hey, as long as it's not too disgusting, and I can deal with it...

So I think we had everything, from the sound effects, to motorcycles, to boy-loving - you know, the girl loving the boy that's forbidden. We had all these - death, my God. I mean, it was like everything was in there, and once again, like I said, and there's the way she, Mary, sounded, the way the whole group looked. I thought the picture was a perfect picture, and the record was just a perfect kind of a thing to be a top record.

GROSS: Why don't we hear it, OK?

Ms. GREENWICH: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: This is "Leader of the Pack," co-written by my guest, Ellie Greenwich, and performed by the Shangri-las.

(Soundbite of song, "Leader of the Pack")

THE SHANGRI-LAS (Music Group): Is she really going out with him? Well, there she is. Let's ask her. Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing? Mm-hmm. Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking you up after school today? Uh-uh. By the way, where'd you meet him?

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) I met him at the candy store. He turned around and smiled at me. You get the picture? Yes, we see. That's when I fell for the leader of the pack.

(Soundbite of motorcycle)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) My folks were always putting him down, down, down. They said he came from the wrong side of town. Whatcha mean when ya say that he came from the wrong side of town? They told me he was bad, but I knew he was sad. That's why I fell for the leader of the pack.

(Soundbite of motorcycle)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) One day my dad said, find someone new. I had to tell my Jimmy we're through. Whatcha mean when 'ya say that 'ya better go find somebody new? He stood there and asked me why, but all I could do was cry. I'm sorry I hurt you, the leader of the pack.

(Soundbite of motorcycle)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye. The tears were beginning to show as he drove away on that rainy night. I begged him to go slow. Whether he heard, I'll never know.

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) Look out, look out, look out, look out.

I felt so helpless, what could I do? Remembering all the things we'd been through. In school, they all stop and stare. I can't hide the tears, but I don't care. I'll never forget him, the leader of the pack.

(Soundbite of motorcycle)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) The leader of the pack, now he's gone.

(Soundbite of squealing tires)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) The leader of the pack, now he's gone.

GROSS: That really still sounds great.

Ms. GREENWICH: It's fun, isn't it?

GROSS: It really is. How did you decide to get in the screeching wheels and the motorcycle revving up, all the sound effects? Why did you decide to put it in?

Ms. GREENWICH: Well, we had to. I mean, how could you have a song of a motorcycle without a motorcycle sound in it? I mean, that was half the record -the gimmick, the gimmick. That was the gimmick part of the record.

GROSS: Rock music was the music of rebellion, and it really separated children from their parents. Parents were listening to Steve And Eydie Gorme, and the kids were listening to your records, but you were from the suburbs. You were from Levittown. Did you feel like you had to act a little tougher than you really were in order to fit in or anything like that?

Ms. GREENWICH: No, I was not a rebel, and I'll never, never be… No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENWICH: I didn't feel I had to prove anything or be that different or whatever. I just - first of all, once again, most of the songs that I had the hits with were very romantic, nice songs. I mean, you know, my most off-color song was "Hanky Panky," you know, and when people say - and yet, my baby does the hanky panky. She dances, she this, she kisses me, whatever you want it to mean. I left the door wide open. I never said it, you know?

GROSS: Did your parents like your songs?

Ms. GREENWICH: Funny. My parents, may they rest in peace, were very supportive of what I wanted to do -didn't quite understand what it was. When my mom used to tell her friends, like, well, you know, my daughter's a songwriter, they would say well, gee, we're really sorry. So she changed the term to well, my daughter's in musical productions. Well, that's just wonderful.

Then it made more sense to them, you know. And what happened was because I started having success so earlier, they were very, of course, fearful, like, what was she going to get into in this - they've heard such stories about the music business, the industry's so crazy. But I mean, I am level-headed, you know, and they did see that, and they were very happy for my success because I was very happy with it. I mean, I was doing my first love. I was earning a living at it, you know, I was married. I mean, I had all bases covered at that time in my career. So they were very happy for me, really very proud.

DAVIES: Songwriter Ellie Greenwich, speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. Greenwich died Wednesday in New York. She was 68. We'll close with Ellie Greenwich singing one of her hit songs. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry")

Ms. GREENWICH: (Singing) Today I met the boy I'm gonna marry. He's all I wanted all my life and even more. He smiled at me and gee, the music started playing here comes the bride when he walked through the door.

Today I met the boy I'm gonna marry, the boy whose life and dreams and love I want to share, for on my hand, a band of gold appeared before me, the band of gold I always dreamed I'd wear.

When we kissed, I felt a sweet sensation. This time it wasn't just my imagination.

Today I met the boy I'm gonna marry…

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