Right smack-dab in the middle of town
I've found a paradise that's trouble-proof
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The Brill Building at 1619 Broadway
(thanks, John Wisniewski)
Perhaps one of the most widely spoken criticisms of mainstream, contemporary popular music in America is how overproduced it is. From Jay-Z to Justin Bieber and from Miley Cyrus to Maroon 5, musicians, it seems, have never had to rely so heavily on studio effects from producers who utilize a digital 'black bag' of parlor tricks. The modern day ability to turn incoherent garbage into easily digestible, radio-friendly tunes has never been achieved in the past.
However, few realize that pop music has had a long history of grooming "acts" to perform unoriginal music ("unoriginal": the performers themselves didn't compose or produce the songs, they merely sing them). During the 1950s and 1960s, in one building... on one street... in one city, 165 music companies cranked out hit after hit after hit for performer after performer after performer: The Brill Building.
If a musician needed to find a publisher, printer, or writer, they could just head to 49th street in midtown Manhattan, just north of Times Square. They could also cut demos, promote records, and deal with radio promoters, all with a single stop. The music that came out of this location came to be referred to as the Brill Sound and that approach to music making continues to this day - and, some say, can be blamed for the degradation in the quality of pop music compositions.
The art of music became a business through the Brill Sound technique. The suits took control of the industry after realizing the enormous profitability of selling music to the emerging teenage culture which, prior to the end of World War II, barely - if at all - existed. In the '50s, teenagers took the country by storm and companies began directing their advertising initiatives to this new demographic of consumers. The entertainment world was no different, and the Brill Building was the epicenter.
According to John Covach in his book What's that Sound?
, "In the Brill Building practice, there were no more unpredictable or rebellious singers; in fact, a specific singer in most cases could be easily replaced with another. These songs were written to order [like fast food joints] by professionals who could custom fit the music and lyrics to the targeted teen audience." The Brill Sound returned the power to recording companies and diminished the performers' importance to the entire process.
Hundreds of writers worked in the Brill Building during this period - many went on to forge their own personal music careers - including Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach, Neil Sedaka, Sonny Bono, Phil Spector, and Carole King. Likewise, many popular musicians were headquartered here, including Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Bobby Darin, Dionne Warwick, Lesley Gore, Tony Orlando, and The Drifters.
Carole King said, "Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist, if you were lucky. You'd sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure was really terrific, because they'd play one songwriter after another." While working at the Brill, King penned a number of classic songs, like "Chains" (later covered by the Beatles), "The Loco-Motion" (performed by Little Eva), "Take Good Care of My Baby" (Bobby Vee), "Pleasant Valley Sunday" (The Monkees), "Natural Woman" (Aretha Franklin), and "Up on the Roof" (the Drifters).
The Drifters, an R&B/Doo Wop group, began in 1953 as a backing group for Clyde McPhatter, but had a string of hits (and members) throughout the' 50s and '60s. They're known for such legendary songs as "Under the Boardwalk," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "There Goes My Baby," and "This Magic Moment," to name but a few.
"Up On the Roof" tells the story of a blue collar working man living in a dingy, dirty, hard-edged, urban sprawl. The narrator finds peace (and an escape) by coming home after a long day and ascending above the grit and grime of the city to relax on the roof of his apartment building. "I climb way up to the top of the stairs and all my cares just drift right into space." This lyric in and of itself is a masterpiece - the inner rhyme of 'stairs' with 'cares' (evidenced by the phrasing of the line as it's sung) coupled with the use of the word 'drift' (since it was recorded by the Drifters) is one of the most sophisticated pieces of poetry found in any piece of popular music at that time.
Additional lyrics add to the imagery of the story, painting a very vivid picture of this man's struggle with life and his creative solution to overcome his troubles. "I get away from the hustling crowd and all that rat-race noise down in the street." The over-produced pop music has come a long way in 60 years, but it's nice to listen to a timeless tune that carries with it the same emotions many of us feel today. Whether fans of pop music or some other genre, nobody can debate the importance of the artists, writers, and songs that came out of the Brill Building era.
~ Justin Novelli
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