Songwriter Interviews

Andy Kim

by Greg Prato

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The "Sugar Sugar" co-writer talks about life in the Brill Building, and how that song came together.



Throughout the course of pop music history, there have been songwriters who made quite the name for themselves by penning hits for others. Some of the most obvious names would include the teams of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland; Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; Burt Bacharach and Hal David; Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. But one songwriter who tends to get overlooked is Andy Kim, whose credits include the #1 hits "Sugar, Sugar" and "Rock Me Gently."

Kim learned his stuff at the famed Brill Building during the same golden era that such legendary songwriters as Carole King, Neil Diamond, and Laura Nyro penned classics within its walls. Born to Lebanese immigrants in Montreal, Canada during the 1940s, Kim later relocated to New York City, where he would eventually land a job at the aforementioned Brill Building (located at 1619 Broadway on 49th Street), as a songwriter for hire. There, he co-wrote "Sugar, Sugar" with Jeff Barry. Sung by Ron Dante, it was credited to The Archies, the animated TV show in which it was used. According to Billboard, it was the biggest hit of 1969.

As a solo artist, Kim scored with a cover of "Baby, I Love You," and a song he wrote on his own, "Rock Me Gently," one of the biggest hits of 1974. He spoke with Songfacts about his Brill Building experience, and how "Sugar Sugar" overcame stiff resistance to earn airplay.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did you become a songwriter in the Brill Building in the '60s?

Andy Kim: First of all, you have to understand that I had no idea - growing up where I grew up [in Montreal, Quebec] - that there was anything outside of the alleyway that I played in with my brothers. I was schooled by my transistor radio - listening to WABC at night, and WKBW in Buffalo. I couldn't believe the explosion of sound with the intro of "Be My Baby" on this transistor radio. What is it? How does it happen? I don't understand this. And so, I became really crazed about everything that I was hearing.

There was a record store that had Hit Parader magazine. I saved my money - my kid brother and I used to go through the alleyways to find Coke bottles in the garbage so we could cash them in for a couple cents apiece, and maybe have a banana split. So, I saved my money to get this magazine, and they would tell you songwriting credits. That was my connection to the Brill Building, although at the time I didn't know anything about the Brill Building.

Later on in life, when MapQuest and GPS showed up, it asked you two questions: "Where are you?" and "Where do you want to go?" Well, I knew where I was, and I knew where I wanted to go, but there was no way to articulate the passage - "You have to turn left here, you have to turn right here."

Man, I was a good student. I was allowed to go to New York for three days, and one of the places I wanted to go was the offices of Leiber and Stoller and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector. That, to me, was all one place. When I got off the bus at Port Authority, around 42nd Street, I walked on 42nd and took Broadway to get to 7th, and then got to 49th and there it was: 1619 Broadway. The Brill Building. Somehow or other, I just lucked out. But there was something that Jeff saw in me, and Jerry [Leiber] and Mike [Stoller] saw in me. Something.

Basically, the Brill Building was a building where songwriters got together. And producers. It was so creative. I remember Jerry Leiber telling me one of the instructions was, "You walk out of this office, you never think of music. Don't hum in the elevators. There are songwriters all around - someone is going to snatch your thinking! Don't hum, don't think about the song. As soon as you walk out of the front door, then you can start thinking. But remember, it's a building of songwriters and creative people."

But it became home after a while. It was where my life began. I do the yearly pilgrimage, and the building is not the same. You can feel the emptiness. Well, it's gone. That whole idea was such a comfort. It's like losing someone that you really, really love, and you know that while you're holding them and they pass on to the next place, their spirit is still around you. But something just left the building.

There was a community of people there that sang on each other's sessions and heard something that you were doing in another room and said, "Hey man, how about this?" There was no me, me, me there. It was all about the community of artists, singers, and songwriters. And how lucky and blessed I am to have - by a life's accident - been there, and to have learned there, to have been nurtured there, and to always be reminded that you are always as good as your last two minutes and thirty seconds. The anxiety of life didn't exist. It's the excitement of writing and the excitement of showing a lyric or singing a melody to someone - it's the biggest high. And then everybody went home to their lives. It just was such a beautiful place to be.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the story behind "Sugar, Sugar."

Andy: It was a pretty simple thing at the time, to just be there when someone wanted an idea or someone wanted something. I was very blessed to be around Jeff Barry and Leiber and Stoller and everyone in the Brill Building. That was a second home for me.

The Archies were a consequence of Don Kirshner having left The Monkees [Kirshner was hired by the producers of the show to gather songwriters for The Monkees], and knowing that Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, and Jughead were going to have their own Saturday morning half-hour show [The Archie Show]. And what do you write for the Archies?

Inspiration happens, and you never know if it's going to be anything other than three chords on a guitar, and a melody. It wasn't written for anything other than to satisfy a Saturday morning animated show. "Sugar, Sugar" was one of those songs that I kept humming. I kept loving it. It would not leave me. And with the magical mind of Jeff Barry, a great record was made. There was no time to analyze and to pontificate and to see if it made any sense. The writing and the recording and the euphoria of being part of it just excited me.

But nobody wanted to play it. There was a resistance from radio and from everyone. Take it into context: It was 1969 - the year of Woodstock. The year of underground music. Really the birth of FM. It was that rush to be something other than "Sugar, Sugar," if you know what I'm saying. The somewhat "backlash" that nobody wanted to play it was strange to me, because I believed that if there was something I loved, someone else would love it as well.

As you get older, people ask you when you get another perspective of it all. So, I'm articulating not what I was feeling then, because I was feeling excited. And then I was feeling lonely, and part of it was confusing. I wasn't as seasoned as everyone else in the Brill Building - Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector or Leiber and Stoller. It was just, "Hey, I've got a song." It started out with "How'd We Ever Get This Way?" [a 1968 single by Andy that peaked at #21 in the US] and a couple of other things, and now you've got another song for not really an artist, but a television show.

It took a little while before an independent promotion man showed up. I believe Don Kirshner hired this gentleman out of LA, and he in turn took a 45 blank label, put every expletive that you could ever think on the label, and walked into a radio station. The stations were familiar with him, as independent promotion people are. They go there, they go to meetings, they play something for a program director. So basically, he went in and said, "I've got this record, man. It's really cool. I've got a hit here."

The program director would say, "Who is it?"

"I can't tell you."

"You've got to tell me."

"I can't tell you. But, if you hear it and you think it's a hit, would you play it?"

And he says, "Man, that's what we do here - we play the hits!"

"OK, so let's play it, and if you like it, you'll play it."

"Of course."

He plays it, the guy just loves the sound of the record. He doesn't have a framework of anything - he's just listening to the music.

He says, "I love this! Who is it?"

The guy says, "The Archies."

He says, "I can't play it."

"You just told me you were going to play it!"

"Yeah, well, we can't play The Archies - it's not a band. It's not going to tour, there's nothing there. We're not here to satisfy a television show."

But the promo guy, he said, "Man, you've got play it. Just play it once. Just play it."

So, they played it one time, and the phones rang at the station. That was the best part of being in the music world then - you really had such an active audience response to what they hear. And you didn't have that many choices. So, if the audience loves it, you play it. And that started what became a wildfire all across this planet. When I toured, no matter where I was, I'd start the song and everyone would sing along.

I did a show a couple of years ago with a buddy of mine, Kevin Drew from the Broken Social Scene, to talk about my early days in New York, coming from Montreal, really knowing nothing, but knowing I had a dream. I was one of those guys - and still am - that believe in the passion, believe in the dream. And if you believe it enough, you become that dream, so people will pick up on it. So here I am, playing to strangers that came to see Kevin, and talking about my days in New York and learning about music and life in the great USA. I start the song, and you couldn't hear me from everybody singing! And this is in the Bowery.

There was a conversation between the journalist Lester Bangs and Lou Reed. Lou Reed mentioned that he wished he could have written a song like "Sugar, Sugar." It's the strangest thing. It's an interview that Lou Reed had with Lester Bangs, and I don't know how they got to it, but "Sugar, Sugar" came up, and Lou Reed's answer was the wildest thing.

It's one of those songs that brings a community together, brings a city together, brings people together and they smile. There's something innately good about it. And here we are, a thousand years later, and we're talking about this song. I don't get it beyond the fact that I was a part of it on all levels.

I remember my kid brother was working on the weekend as a stockboy in a record store. I was talking to him on the phone, and he says, "You know, we can't keep that song 'Sugar, Sugar' in. We order it, and it's gone. But nobody buys it for themselves. It's like, 'It's my cousin's birthday and he likes this song,' 'My niece liked this song,' 'My girlfriend wants it.'"

Nobody came in just wanting to buy the record! It's not like, "Hey, do you have the new Stones record? Man, I've been waiting for it a long time!'" No. This is like a tag that was part of the buying thing. And I started laughing at it.

I know that a lot of people saw it as fluff. I looked at Ron Dante as a warrior who showed up and recorded the song, and then other warriors showed up - I'm talking about Wilson Pickett. And you've heard Ike and Tina Turner's version? And you've heard the Bob Marley version? It really changed the focus of what people thought that song was.

I have a huge, huge problem with the word "bubblegum" with that song. Someone interviewed me some time ago and said, "It's a great bubblegum song." And I said, "Wait a minute, what do you mean by bubblegum?" And that person said, "You know, disposable - just kind of nice and cute." I said, "Well, are you saying 'She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah' and 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' are also bubblegum songs? And 'Teddy Bear' and 'Tutti Frutti' are bubblegum songs, too?" He kind of stared at me for a while, and said, "OK, I get your point." But I think somewhere, somehow, it was a condescending thought. That, You wrote a song, it sold a gazillion records, but so what? That's the thing you go through when something is bigger than what it was imagined to be. And then, people start to break it down and put it into a category.

Music, you either like it or you don't like it. The bottom line is I like it, and not because I'm supposed to like it or it's the coolest thing in the world, but because I happen to like it.

Songfacts: And let's discuss "Baby, I Love You."

Andy: There was a point very early on in my relationship with Jeff Barry where I had the key, so I'd be in his office when he wasn't there. When we weren't writing together or doing things together, I was able to hang there. So one day, I'm there, because "there" was better than any other place called "there" in my life. I see this sheet music and the chords. I pick up the guitar and I'm playing this song, and I'm singing this song that I had never heard of. Jeff walks in, and he says, "Hey man, I heard you through the door. I love what you're playing, but that's not how the song goes."

It was the Ronettes follow-up to "Be My Baby," which I had never heard. I often think it's like "Jingle Jangle" - that was the follow-up to "Sugar, Sugar." "Sugar, Sugar" was a Gold record in the US of A, but no one heard "Jingle Jangle." [Actually, "Jingle Jangle" went Gold as well.] And for me, growing up in Montreal, I never heard "Baby, I Love You." So we worked on my learning the song.

We went in the studio and the idea was for us to make this record together, because it really sounded great in the office. To work with Jeff that way was the magic of it all. We went to A&R Studios - Studio A or 1, whatever they called it at the time. A huge room. Sat in the middle of this huge recording space with a microphone next to the guitar. Jeff went into the booth, and was kind of the metronome. He just clapped and hummed along the way - what he needed from me was to get one guitar down from beginning to end. I was able to do that five more times on separate tracks, and it would bounce back and forth. And if you do that, there are overtones and there is a sound without drums or anything. So that's how the song was built - one instrument at a time. Drums were played by hand, percussion. Then Chuck Rainey came in to put bass on the song, and everything just glued together.

It was the magic of making that record, which translated into making a few other records that way, with Jeff and I. It would be starting with my guitar and building on that, and maybe having a piano in the second verse taking over where we're not comping the same arrangements at all.

And then I did my vocal. I remember it was midnight when my vocal was done. I just listened to it in awe of the fact that it started just by accident. And then there's the matter of having the right voices, and Jeff having had a history with that song. And then some radio station somewhere started to play it, and it became my first Gold record. Depending on the charts - at the time, there was Cash Box, Record World, and Billboard - I either had a Top 10 record or a Top 20 record. The first time I heard it was in my mom and dad's kitchen, on a radio station in Montreal, on a tube radio that my mom and dad had for the longest time.

December 10, 2017
For more on "Sugar, Sugar" and life in this songwriting scene, check out our interview with Toni Wine, who sang on the track.
For more Andy, visit facebook.com/AndyKimMusic

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Comments: 1

  • Jerry from White Plains, NyHoney... (ba ba bop ba ba bum)...
    Impossible to get out of your head.
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