Brill Building

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Brill Building

The Brill Building, located at 1619 Broadway in New York City, was the center of Tin Pan Alley, New York's songwriting and music publishing industry during the 1920s and 1930s. Although changes in the music industry ended the Tin Pan Alley era by 1945, in the late 1950s the Brill Building again emerged as the center of professional songwriting and music publishing when a number of companies gathered there to cater to the new rock and roll market. In the process, they created what has become known as the "Brill Building Sound," a marriage of finely crafted, professional songwriting in the best Tin Pan Alley tradition with the youthful urgency and drive of rock and roll.

The most important and influential of these companies was Aldon Music, founded by Al Nevins and Don Kirschner in 1958 and located across the street from the Brill Building. Nevins and Kirschner sought to meet two crucial market demands that emerged in the late 1950s. First, the established music industry, represented by such record labels as Columbia, RCA, Capitol, and others, were surprised by the rapid rise of rock and roll, and by the late 1950s they were attempting to find a way to make rock music fit into the long-established Tin Pan Alley mode of music-selling, where professional songwriters wrote music for a variety of artists and groups. Secondly, these record companies, and even prominent upstarts such as Atlantic Records, had an acute need for quality songs that could become hits for their many recording stars. To meet these needs, Nevins and Kirschner established a stable of great young songwriters including Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka, and Howard Greenfield, among many others. Often working in teams (Goffin-King, Mann-Weil, Sedaka-Greenfield), they churned out one hit after another for such groups as the Shangri-Las, the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, and the Chiffons. Usually accomplished singers as well as writers, a few had hits of their own as performers, like Neil Sedaka with "Calendar Girl" and Barry Mann with "Who Put the Bomp."

Working in close proximity on a day-to-day basis, these songwriters developed a common style that became the "Brill Building Sound." Songs such as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen," "Then He Kissed Me," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and hundreds of others, spoke directly to teenagers, expressing their thoughts, dreams, and feelings in a simple and straightforward language that made many of these songs huge hits between 1958 and 1965. By assembling a team of gifted songwriters, Nevins and Kirschner brought the standards of professional songwriting to rock and roll music.

Aldon Music's success prompted other companies and songwriters to follow. Among these other songwriters, the most prominent were Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman, who crafted such pop gems as "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me" (both huge hits for the Drifters on Atlantic Records), and "Teenager in Love" (recorded by Dion and the Belmonts); and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, whose hits include "Da Doo Ron Ron" (a success for the Crystals) and "Baby I Love You" (a hit for the Ronettes), all on the Philles Label led by legendary producer Phil Spector.

The most successful challenge to the dominance of Aldon Music's stable of writers came from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller were actually precursors to Aldon Music, for they began writing hit songs in the rhythm and blues vein beginning in 1950. Although white, they had a true feeling for black rhythm and blues music, and they were responsible for a number of hits on Atlantic Records, one of the pioneer rhythm and blues labels. They later wrote a string of hits for Atlantic with the Coasters such as "Charlie Brown," "Young Blood," "Searchin'," and "Poison Ivy." They were also crucial in the creation of rock and roll, using their rhythm and blues sensibilities to write some of Elvis Presley's biggest hits in the 1950s, including "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Treat Me Nice." They continued their success into the 1960s, adding to the larger world of Brill Building pop.

The "Brill Building Sound" was essentially over by 1965. With the arrival of the Beatles in 1964, the music industry underwent an important shift. Groups such as the Beatles were not simply great performers; they were great songwriters as well. As rock and roll matured as a musical style, its sound diversified as a wide variety of artists and groups began writing and performing their own music. As a result, the need for professional songwriting lessened, although it did continue in the hands of songwriters such as Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who became producers as well as songwriters in the later 1960s. The great songwriting teams also began to feel the constraints of what has been called "assembly-line" songwriting, and most eventually went their separate ways. Some had solo careers as performers, most notably Carole King, whose Tapestry album was a milestone in the singer-songwriter genre of the 1970s and one of the best selling albums of that decade.

The legacy of the "Brill Building Sound" transcends anything resembling an assembly-line. Despite the constraints of pumping out songs on a daily basis, these songwriters produced some of the most enduring rock and pop tunes that defined popular music in the early 1960s. Those songs are among the gems not only of popular music, but of American culture as well.

—Timothy Berg

Further Reading:

Cuellar, Carol, editor. Phil Spector: Back to Mono. New York, Warner Books, 1993.

Miller, Jim, editor. Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York, Rolling Stone Press, 1980.

Various artists. Phil Spector: Back to Mono (1958-1969). Phil Spector Records/Abkco Records, 1991.