Jeff Barry’s legendary path to be on display in Aspen
September 17, 2010
ASPEN – In 1963, with “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album, Bob Dylan upended the music landscape. Dylan had the chutzpah to write the songs he recorded (and never mind that the songs – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Masters of War,” etc. – were unlike anything that had been heard), ushering in the idea of the singer-songwriter, a recording artist who didn’t rely on a writer to feed him his tunes. The implications for the listening public, for music as an art form, and for the music industry were enormous.
And Jeff Barry barely blinked. A songwriter with hits like “Tell Laura I Love Her” already to his name, Barry continued to work in what looks now like old-school fashion: showing up at his office in the Brill Building, New York’s legendary songwriting headquarters; coming up with three-minute pieces of pop music; and helping to find artists to record them.
“It didn’t shift. It just added a dimension, a new facet. Almost a new concept,” Barry said. “I just cocked my head at the Beatles and said, ‘That’s cute.’ Then I went back and did what I did. I was so busy.”
In fact, 1963 was an especially productive year for Barry. It was the year his partnership with Ellie Greenwich, his co-writer and then his wife, took off, as one song after another – “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me,” both recorded by the Crystals, “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You,” recorded by the Ronettes – went up the charts. And while Barry’s way of doing things could be seen as part of the old way of doing things, especially compared to the way Dylan and the Beatles were revolutionizing not only music but the world, Barry still saw himself as part of the ’60s cultural eruption.
“We were all part of the same wave. The ’60s – that was the beginning of pop; there were no rules. What I grew up with – Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como – there was nothing really for me to take from that. There was nothing to look back at. I was into creating new things. I wasn’t looking backwards at anyone; let them catch up to me,” said Barry, a tall, dark and handsome 72-year-old.
He will be honored with a tribute concert at 6:30 p.m. Friday, as part of the Wheeler Opera House’s 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival. Among the scheduled highlights: Tift Merritt singing “Be My Baby,” and Barry singing “Tell Laura I Love Her” and leading the audience in a medley of his songs.
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A New York native who grew up with only the slightest musical input, Barry early on had his sights on being a recording artist. Through the neighbor of a friend’s second cousin’s boss, or something like that, he got an audition with a music publisher, Albert Shaw. Shaw wasn’t overly impressed with the voice. But Barry had written his own songs – they were the only ones he knew – and the tunes were enough to land him a job as a songwriter (as well as a contract as a recording artist that didn’t go very far). He quit the City College of New York, where he had been studying industrial design, and headed to the Brill Building.
At the infamous corner of Broadway and 49th, which he says wasn’t recognized, Barry was assigned to a veteran writer, Ben Raleigh, who set a good example: wear a suit, show up at 9 a.m., write until lunch break. The formula worked; the two came up with “Tell Laura I Love Her,” a 1960 hit for Ray Peterson. But soon Barry hooked on with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, whose long list of songs included “Jailhouse Rock,” “Young Blood” and “Hound Dog.” In 1964 Leiber, Stoller, Barry and Greenwich formed Red Bird Records, and Barry started to loosen his tie.
“By then, there wasn’t any schedule,” he said. “But we were crazy busy; there was so much work to do. I can’t even call it work, it was so much fun. It was play.”
Part of the fun had to be the success they had. Barry won’t swear to the exact numbers, but in his recollection, Red Bird, over a span of three or four years, produced 18 records, and 16 were hits. Whatever the figures, it was impressive; Red Bird released “Chapel of Love,” “The Leader of the Pack,” “Iko Iko” and “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand).” The success continued a few years later when Barry and Greenwich discovered a fellow New Yorker, Neil Diamond, and produced his first songs, including “Cherry Cherry” and “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon”; and then collaborated with Phil Spector to write “River Deep, Mountain High” and “I Can Hear Music,” hits, respectively, for Tina Turner and the Ronettes.
There was a method to how Barry worked. A self-taught musician, Barry handled lyrics and melody – what he thinks of as the simpler parts of songwriting – while his partners did the more complex chord arrangements. But there wasn’t a formula to how to make a song; Barry says there wasn’t even a strategy behind the fact that it was girl groups and female singers who tended to have hits with his songs.
“I usually started with a title, or what the story was, the subject matter. I was mainly a lyrics guy,” he said. “Then you get in with your collaborator and the magic happens. There’s no formula. You can’t teach it or learn it. It just happens.” Nonetheless, Barry will also lead a songwriting workshop at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18.
Barry, who has lived in California since 1970, and done plenty of TV and film work, remains interested in creating new, up-to-the-minute sounds. His preference lately is to work with younger artists. He has been exploring working with the Jonas Brothers, and next week he will start a collaboration with a 16-year-old Swedish singer. (Other projects in the works include making a musical, with pianist Jed Leiber, of the 1986 film “Ruthless People”; and creating a “Jersey Boys”-like musical of his own life story.)
“It’s all old school/new school stuff, and that combination is really powerful,” he said. “I go in the room with a kid and I want to pull out of her the best – adding as little as possible, but whatever is necessary. A song that, 15 years from now, her audience will still be interested in hearing.”