Lady Writes The Blues: The Life Of Rose McCoy Rose Marie McCoy is one of the most prolific songwriters of '50s American pop music, yet her legacy remains relatively unknown. During her career, the artist published more than 800 songs, some of which were recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Dizzy Gillespie and James Brown.

Lady Writes The Blues: The Life Of Rose McCoy

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In the 1950s and early '60s, American pop music brought together the music of black and white, North and South, rhythm and blues, country and rock 'n roll, melded into a potent and popular brew. Recent movies, including "Cadillac Records" and "Dreamgirls," have vividly told the stories of the performers and producers of this music, but there's been less attention paid to the people who wrote the songs.

Joe Richman of Radio Diaries has this story of one of the most prolific songwriters of that time: Rose Marie McCoy.

JOE RICHMAN: Rose Marie McCoy is 86 years old. She lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, in a house crowded with cardboard boxes filled with reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes and old records.

Ms. ROSE MARIE McCOY (Songwriter): I keep all of my tapes. I got boxes of songs back there right now. But I save them 'cause there's a lot of good things in there.

RICHMAND: Rose starts picking through the old recordings, reading the faded labels.

Ms. McCOY: Country songs, gospel songs, pop songs, every kind of song. "I'm Just Going to Wait 'Til Love Come Back in Style," that's a good title.

RICHMAN: Over the years, Rose's songs have been recorded by Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, Louis Jordan, Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin, even Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. And she's still writing. Rose says sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night with a whole new song in her head.

Ms. McCOY: I had that happen on, I think, the night before last. I should've got up and wrote it down. But you say, what's the use? Like, I'm retired now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I left home one morning in 1944.

RICHMAN: Rose grew up on a farm in Arkansas. But at the age of 19, she left home and moved to New York City to try and become a singer.

Unidentified Woman (Singing) …I came to the city...

Ms. McCOY: When I came to New York, I had six bucks. And I got a job working in a Chinese hand laundry, and I learned how to iron shirts. And then I worked weekends in nightclubs, singing.

RICHMAN: While she was waiting for her break as a singer, Rose started to write songs. And she found it came naturally.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Well, Amaline(ph). Amaline. Amaline, Amaline, still the one for you.

RICHMAN: In the pop music world of the time, most performers relied on professional songwriters for their hits. And the entire songwriting industry was centered around one square block in New York City. The core of that block was 1619 Broadway, the Brill Building, a 10-story hit factory stuffed with songwriters, producers and music publishers.

After work, many of them would gather at a restaurant around the corner called Beefsteak Charlie's. Soul singer Maxine Brown remembers it was like a music marketplace.

Ms. MAXINE BROWN (Soul Singer): And I mean, the place was hopping. Writers, they would run over and pitch their songs, just right there on the spot, start singing it. And the verse would be on a napkin, and he'd reach in his pocket, and the bridge could be on a brown piece of paper bag.

This was the way hit songs were made. I mean, it was like everybody was scrapping, but it was fun, and it was exciting. And a lot of the songs that you've heard back in the old days were sold right out of that restaurant.

RICHMAN: Rose had teamed up with a songwriting partner, Charlie Singleton, and they set up their office in a booth at Beefsteak Charlie's.

Ms. McCOY: We'd meet there every morning, 6 o'clock, and buy a little glass of wine for 30 cents, and we'd sip on that. And we'd write back there. People got to know us so well they used take our telephone calls.

(Soundbite of song, "Trying to Get to You")

Mr. JOHNNIE TAYLOR (Lead Singer, The Eagles): (Singing) I've been traveling over mountains...

RICHMAN: In 1954, Rose and Charlie wrote this song, called "Trying to Get to You."

Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) I've been traveling night and day. I've been running all the way, baby, trying to get to you. When I read your loving letters...

RICHMAN: If you think this sounds like Elvis Presley, it's not. It's a black vocal group called the Eagles. Elvis heard their version in a record store in Memphis, and he decided to do the song on his debut album for RCA Records in 1955.

(Soundbite of song, "Trying to Get to You")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Musician): (Singing) I've been traveling over mountains...

Ms. McCOY: Elvis did that just exactly like the Eagles. Exactly.

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) I've been traveling night and day.

Ms. McCOY: Every breath, every sound. Everything.

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) I've been running all the way, baby, trying to get to you.

Ms. McCOY: He wasn't a big star at that point. We thought he was terrible because we thought he couldn't sing. But we were grateful. Thank God for Elvis.

RICHMAN: Elvis's album spent 10 weeks at the number one slot on the pop charts.

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) …when I was trying to get to you.

Mr. ALAN FREED (Disc Jockey): Rock 'n' roll record to the big beat in popular music in America today.

RICHMAN: 1955 was a turning point in American music. Elvis Presley became an overnight sensation. And in Cleveland, DJ Alan Freed popularized the term rock 'n' roll on his radio show.

Mr. FREED: Yours truly, Alan Freed, the old king of the rock 'n' rollers, ready for another big night of rocking 'n' rolling.

(Soundbite of music)

RICHMAN: Like a lot of things in those days, music shows and dance halls were often segregated. But Maxine Brown remembers that more and more white teenagers were showing up to hear black performers.

Ms BROWN: So what happened, in order to get them both in the same building, they would put a rope down the middle: the whites on one side of the rope and the blacks on this side of the rope. And they're enjoying the same music, everybody is having a ball. You just didn't cross over that rope. The music brought these people together.

Ms. McCOY: When the rock 'n' roll come in, if you say you wrote rock 'n' roll, everybody wanted to see. They wanted to hear what you had. And if they liked it, they didn't care whether you're black or white. We thought it was the blues, and they used to call it rock 'n' roll. I still don't know the difference.

RICHMAN: One of Rose's biggest hits came in 1961. It was recorded by an up-and-coming act, Ike and Tina Turner.

(Soundbite of song, "I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine")

Ms. TINA TURNER (Musician): (Singing) Darling?

Mr. IKE TURNER (Musician): (Singing) Yes, Tina.

Ms. TURNER: (Singing) It's time to get next to me.

Mr. TURNER: (Singing) Honey, that was my plan from the very beginning.

RICHMAN: "I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine" went on to receive a Grammy nomination. By that time, Rose had bought a house and a green Cadillac. And she had her very own office in the Brill Building.

Ms. TURNER: (Singing) I think it's going to work out fine.

RICHMAN: Rose and her songwriting partner, Charlie Singleton, would arrive in the morning and sometimes, they would have two or three complete songs by the end of the day. Rose still has some of her old demo tapes.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. McCOY: When I get started putting something down and Charlie'd play chords, I'd get the melody in my head from his chords.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. McCOY: I just keep thinking anybody can do it, because it's like you talk. It's like you talk. And if you do that, it just sort of writes itself.

(Soundbite of song, "My Personal Possession")

Mr. NAT KING COLE (Musician): (Singing) You are my personal possession...

Ms. McCOY: "My Personal Possession," now that's a beautiful song. Nat King Cole.

Mr. COLE: (Singing) You are my personal possession...

Ms. McCOY: I had "Personal Property," and Charlie changed it to "Personal Possession," which is more singable. That's what a pro Charlie was - right away, he knew to make that possession.

Mr. COLE: (Singing) You are my personal possession...

Ms. McCOY: Can you picture my personal property? See, that don't sing. Kind of thing you could put in a book but not on a song.

(Soundbite of music)

RICHMAN: Over the years, Rose got offers to become a staff songwriter with Motown, Atlantic, Stax and other record labels, but she turned them down.

Al Bell is the former head of both Stax and Motown records. And Bell says Rose liked her independence, and she wanted to keep control of her music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AL BELL (Former Music Producer): I mean, she realized at some point in time that her power was in the pen, and she was just one of those rare persons that wanted to be free to just write her songs and do what she wanted to do.

Ms. BROWN: But she knew how to hang in there with the big boys. Everyone was scrapping to get there, but it was always men. They were the producers. They were the promoters. They were the piano players. Women didn't have a place, so she made a place for herself.

RICHMAN: The 1950s and early '60s were the heyday of the professional songwriter in pop music. But in 1964, the music scene was about to change.

(Soundbite of song, "A Hard Day's Night")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (The Beatles): (Singing) It's been a hard day's night, and I've been working…

RICHMAN: That year, The Beatles had five of the top 10 songs. One of these was the band's cover of "Twist and Shout." The rest were their own songs. And Al Bell says more artists were starting to write their own material.

Mr. BELL: As people like Bob Dylan, etc., start emerging that perform their own songs - so they got recognition as a singer but also a great writer. And literally I saw our industry - for want of a better way to put it - kicked the songwriter to the curb. And so, Rose was just another songwriter.

RICHMAN: The Brill Building songwriters had to find new ways to make a living. Carole King and Neil Diamond launched successful singing careers. Some became producers. Others left the music business. Rose kept working. In the '70s, she wrote and produced a jazz album with Sarah Vaughan. She branched out into country music. And she wrote jingles, like this one sung by Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.

(Soundbite of jingle)

Mr. RAY CHARLES (Musician): (Singing) Things go better with Coca-Cola. Things go better with Coke.

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) Yeah.

RICHMAN: Rose still lives in the same house she bought in 1955, the year Elvis had a hit with her song.

Ms. McCOY: I was just so glad I found this.

RICHMAN: She pulls out a box from under the dining room table and holds up an old, reel-to-reel tape.

Ms. McCOY: This is one of my special tapes. This is the Johnny Mathis tape of "Don't Look Back."

(Soundbite of tape loading)

RICHMAN: Rose says she wrote this song for Johnny Mathis in the 1960s, but it was never released. This is its broadcast premiere.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Look Back")

Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS (Singer): (Singing) Hush, now. You've got me now. All your bad times are behind you, so don't look back. Let's just go on from here.

Ms. McCOY: I wrote that song about my mother. My mother used to think negative, and she was always sad about things that had happened to her over the years, of looking back. She had lost my father and I said, don't look back. Let's just go on from here.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Look Back")

Mr. MATHIS: (Singing) …go on from here.

Ms. McCOY: She always used to have me sing it.

(Singing) Hush, now. You've got me now. All the bad times are behind you. Don't look back. Let's just go on from here.

That's about all I can say.

(Soundbite of song, "We'll Cry Together")

For NPR News, I'm Joe Richman.

Ms. BROWN: (Singing) We've talked it over, and we both agreed we've come to the end of the line.

BLOCK: Our story about songwriter Rose Marie McCoy was produced with help from Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Ben Shapiro, and edited by Deborah George. An hour-long special about McCoy's life in music airs on some public radio stations later this month. For photographs, and to hear more of McCoy's songs, visit

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