Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Songwriting Back in the Day
Once upon a time there was what was called a "stable" of professional songwriters. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was known as Tin Pan Alley. On West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in New York, writers cranked out what is known today as the Great American Songbook. Of more recent vintage are the professional songwriters who worked at the Brill Building (1619 Broadway, just north of Times Square) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I speak of talents like Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and—as related in a terrific radio diary from NPR—the great Rose Marie McCoy.
This interview is priceless for many reasons. Rose Marie is 86 years old now, living in the same house in Teaneck, New Jersey where she commuted to go to the Brill Building over 50 years ago. Her home is overflowing with demos and tapes, and she shares her treasure trouve with the interviewer. "Here's one called 'I'll Wait 'Till Love Comes Back in Style'," she says. "I like that title." So do I.
During the 1950s, Rose Marie would meet fellow writer Charlie Singleton in a booth at a place called Beefsteak Charlie's. "We'd meet there every morning, 6 o'clock, and buy a little glass of wine for 30 cents, and we'd sip on that," she says. Now that's what I call conjuring up ol'Herpsichore!
She and Charlie wrote songs that were recorded by Elvis Presley ("Trying to Get to You") and Ike and Tina Turner ("I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine"). I confess that I didn't know either track, but it was fun listening and comparing their version to originals by black artists.
With the Beatles's arrival in 1963, the sands shifted. No—I guess it should rightfully be called a tsunami. They owned five of the ten best-selling singles on the charts that year, and they only "covered" one of them. ("Twist and Shout") The rest were all by Lennon-McCartney.
Aforementioned singers like Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Neil Sedaka shifted to recording their own songs then, and went on to build stellar solo careers. Rose, who began as a professional singer, chose to remain a songwriter, and she fell into obscurity. The radio diary plays some work she did for Pepsi in the 1970s that stirred a memory in my subconscious, and I'm very eager to locate the album she wrote for Sarah Vaughan.
Rose explains to the interviewer that she doesn't see the distinction between rock and roll and the blues to this day. It takes a musician to appreciate that, but all do.
One wonders, though, if the professional songwriter is truly extinct. In the 1960s you had the incomparable Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Since the 1970s, singer/songwriters like Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb have built enviable track records having other people record their material. (They undoubtedly wish that THEY had been the popularizer, but at some point a songwriter comes to peace with the fact that their sound isn't commercial.) Check out the archives of Performing Songwriter for more professionals.
So, I don't know if this radio diary's thesis is completely solid, but I appreciated hearing Rose Marie's voice, and recalling a more simpler time. Carve out an additional twelve minutes right now to give it a listen. You won't be sorry.