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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Competition Makes the World Beautiful: The Early Years of Rock

Striving for excellence in the production of music for others


On my way to attend “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” I looked forward to a show with so many great ‘60’s and ‘70’s hits. To my thinking, the amalgamation of rock, soul, country, and so many other genres in that time is the best music ever written. Of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 songs of all time, 69% are from these two decades. Besides, I often wondered what makes certain songwriters keep cranking out hit after hit. Once royalty money starts rolling in, what drives a writer to keep producing?   

Competition is what gives us the best possible goods and services at the lowest prices. Less than half way into Act One, it became apparent. Competition. After all, competition is everywhere. Grocery stores compete not only against different brand stores, but against branches in their own chain. McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Burger King scrap over consumer dining dollars every minute of every day. Even on this website, writers compete, first to be published, and then for page views.    

Competition is what gives us the best possible goods and services at the lowest prices. When we complain of expensive and poor quality products, it’s typically things like education, road conditions, law enforcement, and healthcare, all controlled by government.

What the play portrays beautifully is the competition between Carole King with her husband Gerry Goffin and competing songwriters Cynthia Weil and her spouse Barry Mann.

Sure, they had to feed themselves, but the two couples (and five other songwriting duos not portrayed in the play) constantly kept track of who had hits on the Billboard charts. During Act I, Mann comes to Weil in a panic. She wonders why, and he says it’s because King and Goffin’s “Up on the Roof” for the Drifters had just reached No. 5 on Billboard. They had to get busy and write a hit. “They even had a hit with their babysitter (Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion”)!” he whines.  

Mann and Weil go to work and write The Drifters’ next smash. Mann says to Weil, “And I have the perfect title, “One Thin Dime.” Of course, Weil had something better in mind, and Beautiful’s cast version of The Drifters hit the stage to sing “On Broadway.”

More and Better

“Beautiful,” being about Carole King, didn’t portray all the songwriting teams working at the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway and the building across the street at 1650 Broadway. Not only was there competition between songwriting teams, there was competition between buildings, writes Ken Emerson in his extraordinary book chronicling the period, Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era.

Emerson fills in the blanks that a Broadway musical must leave out. Mann and Weil actually worked with the prolific team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to create “On Broadway.” Leiber and Stoller were Elvis Presley’s most-favored songwriting team, not to mention, as Emerson writes, “the patres familias, influencing and inspiring all these writers (with the exception of Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield), hiring some of them, working with others, and producing some of their greatest songs.”

Selling Tunes

Most people don’t think of songwriting and producing as economic production. Perhaps they think of it as artistic fiddling that occasionally turns a few catchy phrases into gold with the help of intellectual property laws. However, after Elvis was drafted into the Army, hits needed to be created for young teens who loved the sound and had money to spend. The Brill Building and 1650 Broadway provided a home for “the music publishers and songwriters who worked there routiniz[ing] the creation and production of rock ‘n’ roll.”

To produce hits, songwriters studied other people’s successes, analyzing the tunes line by line and note by note to provide them with ideas.Don Kirshner, who plays a big part in “Beautiful,” according to Phil Spector, “made rock and roll a profession rather than just a vehicle of rebellion.” Young people today probably laugh at the idea that these golden oldies their parents or grandparents listen to were somehow rebellious. But at the time, Frank Sinatra denounced rock ‘n’ roll as “written for the most part by cretinous goons.” Old Blue Eyes said, “It is the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.”   

The songwriting teams, all members being Jewish excepting one who was half-Jewish, and most from Brooklyn, “smoothed the rough edges of black R&B performers to help them appeal to a white audience, and they roughed up white performers just enough to create a tousled titillation,” Emerson explains. At the same time, these teams “calculatedly cranked out hit after hit with assembly-line efficiency…”

The work area wasn’t much cushier than an assembly line. Each team worked in a room about six feet by seven feet, crammed with a piano, a table and a couple old chairs that desperately needed reupholstering. “We had a theory that there were no windows in those rooms because they wanted us to recirculate the creative energy and not let anything go out into the air–and that’s how we could write smash hits,” said Beverly Ross.

These tight quarters meant songwriters could hear each other work. “The great thing about going in was the music you heard through the walls,” said Weil. “It was like a bazaar, or a lottery ticket,” Emerson quotes attorney Herb Moelis as saying. “You never knew which little room was going to produce the next hit record.” 

To produce hits, songwriters studied other people’s successes, analyzing the tunes line by line and note by note to provide them ideas. Neil Sedaka, in a panic to produce a hit, scanned Billboard and purchased every country’s top three records to study. “I decided to write a song that incorporated all these elements in one record.” The result was “Oh! Carol,” which went top ten. Carole’s husband Gerry Goffin responded with “Oh! Neil” which King, who had dated Sedaka in high school, recorded but with little commercial success.     

Striving for Excellence

The competition was friendly on the surface, “but,” as Goffin said, “you could feel a little bit of jealousy…about who would get the next record.” Emerson relates a story about an out-of-breath Barry Mann telling a friend, who had just congratulated him on having three songs in the top 10, “Yeah, but they’re all on the way down. I gotta go do some demos.”   

“To be a producer, you have to have the stomach of a peasant, the nerves of a matador, and the patience of a saint.”Not everyone could keep up and they would soon leave. Hank Hunter, who co-wrote songs for Sedaka, said “It became almost like a factory. The competition was ridiculous.”  Goffin and Mann made a game of it. The song “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)? reached No. 7 in September 1961 after Goffin challenged Mann, “I bet you we could write three songs in half an hour.” Goffin remembers the song taking ten minutes to write before they went on with another idea.

The pressure continued when recording. Each song received an hour, remembers Tony Orlando. “If you didn’t make it in that hour, as a writer, or producer or singer, it was on to the next song.” Producer Al Nevins told Jack Keller, “To be a producer, you have to have the stomach of a peasant, the nerves of a matador, and the patience of a saint.”

The competitiveness between the songwriting teams was stoked by Don Kirshner. Writers would wait outside the men’s room to see if anyone needed a song, knowing eventually he would have to go. Weil said she once grabbed Kirshner, telling him she’d been waiting for three days. “‘Okay, come with me,’ and we started to walk into the men’s room together.”

In the musical’s rendition of events, Kirshner needs a song for The Shirelles and says whomever gets him the right song by eight the next morning gets to record. Mann and Weil went to work, as did King, who wrote the melody at home while Goffin was at work at the chemical plant. Goffin came home tired but wrote the lyrics to go with King’s music.

Mann and Weil arrived on time the next morning, but King and Goffin had come in early, and had already sold Kirshner on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Shirelles lead singer Shirley Owens was a tougher sell. She thought the song was “too country” and didn’t want to record it. Strings were added and she relented. The rest is history. The song went to number one, a first by an all-female group, and is ranked by Rolling Stone as number 126 in the magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. 

The competition benefited both the winners and losers, Orlando explained. “And even though it was very competitive, the loser was always a winner. Because the secondary song would wind up No. 1 for another artist.”

Competition Is Always with Us

This has been the story throughout history.

The great Picasso and Matisse had an intense rivalry that made them both better. Samuel Bacharach writes on Inc.com,

Matisse pushed Picasso to break completely from an earlier artistic legacy to create new, exciting, challenging, and maddening works of art.

It cut both ways. Picasso commented, “No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.” Matisse acknowledged Picasso as a partner on his march toward modernity, and borrowed from Picasso’s style.

Bacharach uses the two artists to illustrate to business leaders that competition makes everyone better, just as the competition in the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway did. He writes, “Rivalries supply people with focus and the audacity to try new daring things…By studying the work of a rival, one can easily see flaws, missteps, and errors…Rivalries, though frustrating, raise the bar and make you work harder, smarter, and faster…Most of the time, rivalries make winners of both parties.”

Whether it’s music, art, or commerce, it’s competition that makes the world beautiful.