Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Dance Party: A Couple of Doo-Wop Ditties

I had something completely different in mind for this week's Dance Party, but the death of composer Ellie Greenwich cannot be ignored. She was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the early and mid-60s, and was a bit of a trail blazer, too. Along with Carole King (to whom she was often compared), she proved that women could pen pop hits.

I love her story, which includes collaboration with a half-dozen lyricists over her career. She married one of them, Jeff Barry, a match which yielded a string of hits for the likes of The Crystals, The Ronelles, the Shangri-Las (don't you love the names of early 60s girl groups?) and Lesley Gore. She was a major player in the famous Brill Building, where songwriters of the day churned out hits. Her tunes have all been covered by more contemporary artists, a testament to their artistic integrity.

I have no such integrity. Though there are videos out there of the original artists singing Greenwich's songs, I prefer to present these lower class clips instead. I hope Greenwich wouldn't mind if her tribute comes from the voices of some of those later artists.

One of the things I love about Greenwich's story is the fact that she became involved in one of the first "jukebox musicals" (before that term was coined) of her own work. Leader of the Pack had a healthy run at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village in 1984, after which it was retooled, expanded, and presented on Broadway. Greenwich herself appeared in the musical, which garnered a Tony nomination for Best Musical, in a year infamous for its lack of new musicals (the Tony went to Big River that year, largely, in my opinion, by default). But the show flopped, with the New York Times calling it an "embarrassment," and Frank Rich adding that the show's producers later battled each other in litigation that "entertained Broadway far longer than their show had."

Well, our girl didn't need a Broadway hit to secure her place in the history of popular music. As well as writing songs, she became a music producer, and is credited with discovering Neil Diamond. She was a singer as well, recording her own work as a member of The Raindrops, and as a solo artist later in her career. She was often in demand as a studio vocalist, and appears on most of the Archies hits.

As I said, her songs are sung by all sorts of people, including this travesty of one of her biggest hits. Take a peek at this performance by the middle Cassidy boy, before he matured into the television producer he is now. Shaun actually had a few pop hits back when he was a teeny-bopper star of The Hardy Boys, and this was one of them. And may I add, I really don't understand why shiny bell-bottoms went out of style. They are so groovy!

OK, a tribute to Ellie Greenwich cannot be complete without a word from the Divine Miss M. In Bette's early years, she peppered her stage shows with doo-wop hits for which Geenwich was famous, usually turning them into mini-musicals all on their own (Bette did a hilarious staging of Chapel of Love). Here, Midler is appearing on some TV show, I don't know which, and is clearly in her early prime. The telecast is a little wavy, but you can still see the power of the Divine One. Oh, and keep an eye on the background girls ("The Harlettes"). The tall one in the middle is Katey Sagal, who leaped from background vocals to Married With Children and never looked back:

Ellie Greenwich suffered a fatal heart attack this week at the age of 68.

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