Ellie Greenwich, 68

Ellie Greenwich, 68; Brill Building Hitmaker Helped Define 'Girl Group' Sound

Ellie Greenwich co-wrote
Ellie Greenwich co-wrote "Be My Baby" and launched Neil Diamond's career. (Mgm Records File Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009

Ellie Greenwich, one of the most prolific hitmakers of the 1960s, who was the co-writer of such catchy and enduring pop hits as "Be My Baby," "Chapel of Love," "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Leader of the Pack," and who was credited with launching the career of singer Neil Diamond, died Aug. 26 of a heart attack at Roosevelt Hospital in New York, where she was being treated for pneumonia. She was 68.

Ms. Greenwich was in her early 20s when she joined the celebrated Brill Building school of songwriters, named for the New York workplace of such renowned pop tunesmiths as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Neil Sedaka, Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

With her then-husband Jeff Barry, Ms. Greenwich teamed with producer Phil Spector and turned out one Top 40 hit after another. Their songs, often written from a feminine point of view, helped define the infectious "girl group" sound of the early 1960s popularized by the Ronettes, Crystals and Shangri-Las, among others.

The New York Times once described Ms. Greenwich as "probably the least known of all the major songwriters from the Brill Building school," but seven of her tunes with Barry are on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of the rock era. "Be My Baby," which reached No. 2 on the pop charts for the Ronettes in 1963, is ranked No. 22.

In 1964, Ms. Greenwich and Barry had three songs reach No. 1 on the pop charts: "Chapel of Love" by the Dixie Cups, which begins with the memorably upbeat line, "Goin' to the chapel, and we're gonna get married"; "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," by Manfred Mann (originally recorded by a girl group called the Exciters); and "Leader of the Pack," by the Shangri-Las, which included the menacing roar of a motorcycle dubbed into the record. They had another No. 1 hit in 1966 with "Hanky Panky" by Tommy James and the Shondells.

Another Greenwich-Barry song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," has become a rousing holiday tradition on the "Late Show With David Letterman," performed every year since 1986 by its original singer, Darlene Love.

Besides her songwriting, Ms. Greenwich worked as an arranger, record producer and backup singer, including sessions with Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. In the mid-1960s, she encouraged Neil Diamond, then a songwriter at the Brill Building, to take up a singing career. With Barry, she produced and sang background vocals on his early hits, including "Solitary Man," (1966), "I Got the Feelin' " (1966), "Kentucky Woman" (1967) and "Shilo" (1970).

"Ellie Greenwich was one of the most important people in my career," Diamond said in a statement. "She discovered me as a down-and-out songwriter and with her then-husband Jeff Barry co-produced all my early hits on Bang Records."

Ms. Greenwich was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1991. Describing her partnership with Barry in 2001, she said, "Wherever our heartbeats were, they were kind of all beating together. We thought along the same lines. We were hopeful romantics, and our songs came out that way."

Eleanor Louise Greenwich was born in Oct. 23, 1940, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up on Long Island. She played the accordion and piano, began writing songs at 13 and formed a singing group in school called the Jivettes.

"I learned songwriting by listening to the radio and pretending I was in the different groups," she said in 1984. "I sang along and became the Everly Sister. But it was the Shirelles who made me decide I had to try do it myself."

At 18, she recorded a few songs under the name Ellie Gaye, then attended Hofstra University on Long Island, graduating in 1962. She spent three weeks as a high school English teacher before quitting to marry Barry, whom she had known since childhood.

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