Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Be My Baby" / The Ronettes
In Memoriam: Songwriter Ellie Greenwich

There's a fantastic moment at the opening of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, one of my favorite movies of all time. Harvey Keitel sits up in bed with a jolt, waking up from some bad dream. He stumbles to the mirror, wipes the night sweats from his face, then sinks wearily back onto the bed. As his head falls back onto the pillow, we're assaulted by whomping drumbeats: Bomp buh-bomp, bump, bomp buh-bomp, bump. Then Ronnie Spector's shivery girlish voice swoops in: "The night we met I knew I / Needed you so / And if I had the chance I'd / Never let you go . . . ." Scorsese's soundtrack choices are never accidental; "Be My Baby" was throwing down a gauntlet for his hero. It spins us right into a world of single-minded passion, the sort of passion that Keitel's conflicted character, Charlie Boy, just can't summon up. There's the movie's conflict in a nutshell, laid right out in the opening sequence without a word of dialogue. You gotta know the songs, that's all.

I loved those 60s girl groups, and the Ronettes were at the top of the heap. I was still pretty young in their heyday, but those girl-group songs are an indelible part of my earliest music consciousness. I didn't yet have any "ideas" about music -- I just took it all in, with no prejudice about what I should be listening to. I wasn't even aware enough to know, a few years later, how many songs of the British Invasion groups were taken from the girl groups, with the genders switched -- Manfred Mann's "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy," Herman's Hermits' "I'm Into Something Good," and a host of album back tracks. I only knew that it had a beat and I could dance to it.

How many years of feminist education are undone as soon as a song like "And Then He Kissed Me" or "Leader of the Pack" comes on? I turn right back into an empty vessel waiting for a boy's love to complete me. Wrong, I know -- but I'd be lying if I didn't confess it was true. (As the Phil Spector murder trial showed us, that fantasy was dangerous even for the girl singers themselves. It took years for Ronnie Spector to come clean on how her Svengali, Phil Spector, abused her.)

And yet those song, those songs. The cool thing was that most of them were written by women -- or rather, by two husband-and-wife songwriting teams: Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. It just makes sense that female songwriters would "get" how a girl in love feels, even within the confines of mid-century pop traditions. It's even cooler that both those women songwriters went on to greater acclaim after they were divorced from their creative partners. When Carole King resurfaced as a singer-songwriter in the mid-1970s, she gave a second life to songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"; every girl in my freshman dorm owned her album Tapestry. Likewise, her counterpart Ellie Greenwich found a niche on Broadway, with the 1980s revue Leader of the Pack.

Ellie's classic "Leader of the Pack" was an amazing song in its own right, a mini-novel in song -- complete with sound effects! -- about a girl who loves a "bad boy" (haven't we all, ladies?) who dies in a motorcycle crash. But "Be My Baby" is the song that whooshed first into my head when I heard the news today of Ellie Greenwich's sad death, at only 68 years of age. Maybe it's that great whomping beat -- part cha-cha, part doo-wop -- loaded up with maracas and handclaps, with a schmear of schmaltzy strings in the bridge. "I'll make you happy, baby/ Just wait and see / For every kiss you give me / I'll give you three" -- it ain't profound, but the way Ronnie sings it, oh, is it heartfelt.

The chorus isn't quite call-and-response, but a clever hybrid -- call it repeat-and-embroider. "Be my, be my baby," the Ronnettes sing three times, while Ronnie adds, like the swirl of icing on the top, "Be my little baby," then "Say you'll be my darling," and "Be my baby now." Listen to how her voice slices right through Phil's wall of sound -- sassy, assured, knowing. This may not be feminism, but I'll lay my money on this chick getting whatever she wants.

"Da Doo Ron Ron," "Chapel of Love," "Hanky Panky," "I Can Hear Music" -- Ellie Greenwich cranked them out, song after song, in the great Brill Building tradition. They gave form to a generation of inchoate female yearnings, with their BFFs right there to add the back-up vocals. (Just listen to those girls confab in "Leader of the Pack": "'Get the picture?' / 'Yes, we see.'") And let's be honest: Ellie and Carole weren't that far off the mark. "Oh, since the day I saw you / I have been waiting for you / You know I will adore you / Till eternity" -- that's the gospel according to Ellie Greenwich.

Be My Baby sample


The Modesto Kid said...

Cool -- this song has been in my head for a day or two also, since some other blogger linked to a video of them singing it. I did not realize though, that he was memorializing the songwriter.

wwolfe said...

I recommend Ken Emerson's "Always Magic in the Air," about the Brill Building songwriters. My favorite story in the book is about the the first meeting between Ellie and Phil Spector. She came to his office, and then waited for several hours for the tardy Boy Genius. When he finally showed up, he spent about a half-hour in front of a full-length mirror, fussing with his hair. Finally, Ellie said, "Listen you little pr*ck - do you want to hear my songs or comb your hair?" I bet not many women talked to Phil that way. (Ironically, Ellie and Jeff Barry wound up writing more songs for Spector than anyone else.) Go to a site called Spectropop for a very enjoyable interview with her from 1988. And thanks for the tribute - girl groups are one of my favorite genres of music, and the songs of Barry/Greenwich epitomized the form.

Holly A Hughes said...

It would have been better for Phil Spector if more women HAD talked to him that way!