This Magic Moment
Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era
By Ken Emerson
Viking Press, 320 pages, $25.95.
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Strange to say, there was a world before Clear Channel, Sirius and XM, before niche marketing and consolidation, before the hard-edged distinction between golden oldies (your parents’ music) and classic rock (your older brother’s choice). This was a world before FM, where AM radio was dominated not by rightwing blowhards but by “pop” music in the broadest definition of the term. Here’s an example: WABC’s top 100 songs of 1962 included “The Twist” (Chubby Checker), “The Stripper” (David Rose and His Orchestra),“The Theme From Dr. Kildare” (Richard Chamberlain), “Ramblin’ Rose” (Nat King Cole), “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (Neil Sedaka), “Desafinado” (Stan Getz), “Pepino, the Italian Mouse” (Lou Monte) and “The Locomotion” (Little Eva), not to mention the usual suspects on their way up or down — Elvis, The Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. What a concept — jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop, soul and just plain schlock, all played side by side on the same station in the same city.
Most of the top tunes of the early 1960s were not written by the folks who performed them. As it turns out, the period between Elvis and The Beatles — a transitional moment before the major record labels figured out how to fully exploit the new teenage market— was perhaps the last collective gasp of Tin Pan Alley, the final installment of the Great American Songbook.
Of course, it did not seem that way to the swing-era song-smiths and music publishers when the new guys — some of them barely out of their teens themselves — started settling into the cramped offices of New York City’s Brill Building and 1650 Broadway, the two main headquarters of music’s old guard. Ken Emerson’s “Always Magic in the Air” presents an engaging, break-neck group biography of six teams of these young composers and lyricists, all associated, however loosely, with Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music.
This small battalion commanded the charts and the airwaves from the end of the 1950s, mastering a number of styles and genres. The composers could write such jump blues as “Hound Dog” (Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber) and “Lonely Avenue” (Doc Pomus), and teenage laments like “Teenager in Love” (Pomus and Mort Shuman), “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (Gerry Goffin and Carole King) and “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (Sedaka and Howard Greenfield). They could whip up such confections as “The Locomotion” (Goffin and King) and “Hanky Panky” (Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich), and odd novelty numbers like Eydie Gorme’s “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” (Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil). They chalked up strings of hits for the Drifters, the Coasters and Elvis. They provided producer Phil Spector’s various projects with successes from The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” right through to the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” And because Hal David and Burt Bacharach were part of the crew, they were able to produce some of the finest grown-up pop music of the period.
Although Emerson’s tale includes some nice bits of local color (such as Pomus running a poker game from his bedside, or Greenwich having it out with the tough and slightly scary Shangri-Las in the studio women’s room), it has relatively little grit, almost no glamour, and hardly a whiff of the sex and drugs that came to be associated with rock ’n’ roll. His history is not about artistic creativity as such; it is about solidly middle-class notions of work and about the nervy, exciting and improvisatory early days of an industry.
Of course, the pop-rock industry that Kirshner and company created was different from the music industry of the immediate past. Though these young people were, like previous songwriters, composing irresistible musical hooks on spec, they did not approach their craft in the way that Rodgers and Hart did. In the previous generation, the way to the stars was through Broadway. The big boys, the Gershwins and the Porters and their ilk, all wrote songs for the theater. The Brill Building irregulars who succeeded them were making singles to be bought in stores and heard on the air. Not surprisingly, most of them became accomplished arrangers and producers. They were not creating songs as much as a total sound.
This total sound actually represented a promiscuous mix of influences. The blues and gospel were there to be sure, as was jazz. There were also echoes of country and western, of Cuban and Brazilian music, of the European classical repertoire and even, in more than one case, of “Hava Nagila.” Like the radio playlists that included the Brill Building hits, the songs themselves were messy, sometimes silly and very eclectic. This eclecticism their creators’ aspirations, if not their backgrounds.
Of the 12 songwriters in Emerson’s book, 11 were Jewish. (The sole exception — if she in fact was one — is Greenwich. Her father was not a Jew.) The older ones — Pomus (born Jerome Solon Felder), Leiber and Stoller — identified strongly with African Americans and, in their own way, tried to be black. (Pomus had a successful career as a blues singer in the early 1950s.) They belong to that long line of Jews in 20th-century popular music who, like Irving Berlin and Al Jolson, became American by donning blackface.
This does not appear to have been true of the younger songwriters in Emerson’s book. They had assimilated African American music through rock ’n’ roll. “Race” records had most likely become — for them, at least — less racially tinged. What is more, because of the remarkable change in the social status of Jews after World War II, the younger ones could also afford to launch a more direct assault on American music. In this way, they were closer to that most dazzling Jewish shape-shifter of their musical generation, Bob Dylan, who, it could be said, tried American music on for size to see how it would fit.
Dylan once claimed to have killed off Tin Pan Alley; as the premier singer-songwriter of his time, he might have had a point. By the same token, the composers and lyricists associated with the Brill Building were able to ride the charts almost to the end of the 1960s. They survived The Beatles and Dylan’s first two incarnations, as well as the Monkees, and could be said to have made it — with diminishing returns — to the Summer of Love. Emerson cites a number of reasons for the decline of their fortunes. When Kirshner sold Aldon to Columbia-Screen Gems, the competitive camaraderie he had cultivated among his writers could not help but dissipate in the chillier atmosphere of a large corporation. And that was just a harbinger of things to come. The power in a recording industry that had finally figured out how to make rock pay left New York for Los Angeles by the 1960s’ end. On a broader cultural front, performers were increasingly expected to write their own material. Not surprisingly, as the 1970s began, the most successful member of the Aldon group was, of course, Carole King, whose solo album “Tapestry” remains one of the defining recordings of that decade.
But perhaps the most deadly change for the Tin Pan Alley of rock ’n’ roll was one that Emerson does not mention: The writers of the Brill Building constructed singles, not albums, 45s and not LPs. As the 1960s wore on, albums — truly long-playing records — became the gold standard of the music industry. Radio soon caught up. A change in Federal Communications Commission regulations that took force in 1967 liberated FM radio disc jockeys from the strict playlists of their AM counterparts and led to the development of “album-oriented” rock stations in the early 1970s. In other words, the very spectrum that can be said to have created the Brill Building, the spectrum in which it made sense, was breaking up. Ironically, the only place where you can catch a glimmer of that spectrum these days is on a specialty station, one devoted to the “oldies” of the 1950s and ’60s. And many of those hits — if indeed not most of them —will be Brill Building compositions.
David Kaufmann teaches English at George Mason University.