Graded on a Curve:
Ellie Greenwich, “I Want You to Be My Baby” b/w “Goodnight, Goodnight”

The late Ellie Greenwich’s well-deserved fame derives primarily from her activities a songwriter, specifically as one half of the behemoth Brill Building duo Greenwich-Barry, a pair that penned some of the most brilliant and enduring tunes in the rich history of the ‘60s Girl-Group sound. But she was also a gifted vocalist, and while her talents behind the microphone will never eclipse her abilities as a composer, a little enthusiasm for her efforts as a performer can only serve to deepen an already impressive legacy. Exhibit number one should be her fabulous single from 1967 “I Want You to Be My Baby” b/w “Goodnight, Goodnight (What’s So Good About It?)”

Once upon a time, the highly rewarding phenomenon of the ‘60s girl-groups was firmly in the grips of the formidable tentacles of nostalgia. Such was the intense power of the “golden oldies” experience. While the same can be said of the numerous more rock-based genres that also happened to remain in the cultural memory through widespread popularity, those forms were also separated far more easily from their sticky status as representatives of a supposedly simpler and somehow preferable past.

As such, younger folks often come to grips with the greatness of Stax before they integrate the more sophisticated pop direction of Motown into their listening diets. And to this day, whole hypothetical countries can be populated with Beatles fans that care nothing about the concept of the ‘60s as a great time to be alive, mainly because they weren’t around to form any memories of that nature.

Sure, there’s the familiar “born in the wrong era” attitude, but that’s generally a phase and different from the impulse to lock that radio dial into good times and great oldies. And for decades the whole girl-group shebang was dominated by the limitations of those station playlists. Talking seriously about the stuff often revolved around the talents of producer Phil Spector; this wasn’t the “wrong” approach as much as it shouldn’t have been the prevailing one.

Yes, studying The Ramones could help provide insight that girl-group pop was more than just Big Chill music, though Spector still loomed large in this potential opening. Another possible entry-point was the films of Martin Scorsese, though the use of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” in Mean Streets and The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” in Goodfellas is complicated, and in very interesting ways, by their function of cinematic remembering.

Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry co-wrote both of those songs, and if those were the only two tunes the duo ever produced their visages would still be worthy of commemoration on a postage stamp. But they combined to write a whole lot more. In fact, they were just one songwriter tag-team amongst a beautiful spurt of Brill Building combos that included Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

In retrospect, the cultural reinvestigation of those songwriting entities was really the final straw, breaking the intensely sturdy back of that nostalgic camel and earning the girl-group era some seriously belated respect. But without the sweet sounds of those records, it should be plain as day that few people would’ve really cared in the first place. And the easiest way to sidestep any lingering oldies-ism is to dig a little deeper than the prevailing warhorse hits.

In terms of Greenwich and Barry, one avenue would be the work of The Raindrops, a group that actually featured the pair in the somewhat unlikely role of recording artists. The historical gist on the couple is that they cared far more about their fruitful writing activities than in any prospective performance-based pop stardom, but when their demo of “What a Guy” was chosen for release by the Jubilee label it became a mild hit, landing at #41 in ’63. Unsurprisingly, the formula was repeated, and “The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget” climbed all the way to #17 later that same year.

The die was cast, but The Raindrops were never major hit-makers. They did hit the Hot 100 five times in a two-year period however, and “That Boy John” probably would’ve been a lot bigger if the assassination of JFK hadn’t deflated its charms (it stalled at #64 in November of ’63.) But the records of the group, which were compiled onto a self-titled LP by Jubilee (surely very scarce these days, but quietly available digitally via eMusic), remain quite interesting for their insights into the maneuverings of the scene that produced them.

There’s a nifty version of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” a song made famous by The Crystals, and a very enlightening take of “Hanky Panky,” which hit big outside the girl-group context for Tommy James & the Shondells. The Raindrops’ material stays pretty close to the femme-fronted aura that brought Greenwich and Barry their biggest success as songwriters, though the latter’s backing vocals do add a doo-wop flavor to many of the tracks.

Greenwich’s voice is the main attraction, however. While she was multi-tracked in the studio to provide both the lead and the backing, Greenwich’s sister Laura was part of Jubilee’s promotional strategy for The Raindrops, figuring in numerous publicity photos. This also extended to live dates; to preserve their image as a trio, the younger sibling reportedly sang into a dead microphone. That the music survives these ministrations toward image is a big part of girl-group pop’s lasting appeal.

Another is hearing the results of grown-ups writing songs that were so specifically targeted to the burgeoning teen market. And it’s just this very circumstance that occasionally gets the girl-group scene tagged as being superficial and conservative. That shallowness is manifested in The Raindrops via the song “Even Though You Can’t Dance,” though the results are far from unlikeable, mainly because Greenwich as narrator does overcome her beau’s shortcoming and loves him anyway.

Far stickier however is the rumination on relationships that is “When the Boy’s Happy,” the chorus of which claims, “when the boy’s happy, the girl is happy, too.” Egads. While unprogressive lyrical attitudes weren’t uncommon in the girl-group realm, with maybe the most famously disturbing example being The Crystals’ Goffin-King penned “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” (made even more so by the fact that Gerry Goffin wrote the words), the genre also didn’t have the market cornered on the era’s retrograde sensibilities.

The fact that the Brill Building was one of the only musical avenues of the period where musically talented women came close to standing on equal footing with their male counterparts greatly complicates this issue. And it’s not like the brief rise of problematic attitudes does much to mire The Raindrops’ music, anyway. Think of it as the opposite of nostalgia; just shrug your shoulders and be happy that we live in a more enlightened, if far from perfect time.

Thankfully, the single that Ellie Greenwich cut for United Artists in ’67 lacks any such issues. The A-side monster of that disc, “I Want You to Be My Baby” retains some of that girl-group allure, a sound that’s days were numbered in the year of The Summer of Love, and fuses it with the passionate strains of sophisto R&B. The result has been described as a Northern Soul classic.

The song is a cover, first recorded by that eternally loveable jump-blues slickster Louis Jordan. His original was an R&B hit in 1953. The model that Greenwich uses as her inspiration is by Lillian Briggs, her take a million-seller from ’55 that would’ve surely climbed higher than #18 Pop if not for a simultaneously released version from Georgia Gibbs.

Greenwich had fond recollections of Briggs performing the song on one of legendary disc jockey Alan Freed’s early rock ‘n’ roll showcases, and she chose the tune for her solo debut. A nostalgic decision perhaps, but in those days the pop hits of yesteryear were generally cast aside after their commercial potential was exhausted (personal record collections were an obvious exception.) So the impulse toward cover material was much more frequent, with the new versions hopefully triggering a memory and inspiring the purchase of a record.

On one hand, the fact that Greenwich’s “I Want You to Be My Baby” stalled out at #83 Pop feels inexplicable. For she and producer Bob Crewe utterly transform the tune. The girl-group vibe is certainly present through the splendid arranging and the singer’s sassy manner, but it’s far from overstated at this late point in the game. It’s that aforementioned R&B angle that gets played up, turning the track into an utter dance floor mover.

The call-and-response that plays such a huge role in the song’s structural appeal is tackled by Greenwich and her backing crew with full-tilt vitality, and then it’s followed by a stretch of vocal intensity that’s magnified by the singer’s total control. She’s spitting out syllables like a woman possessed, but underneath it all is the poise of an expert pop scientist.

The instrumentation is also massive. While the horns and strings bring the necessary shading, it’s really the rhythm section that pulls off the finest trick, with the bass playing becoming immediately infectious. But best of all is the production; interestingly, Crewe doesn’t favor Greenwich in the mix but places everything on the same level. This might seem strange, but it sounds magnificent. As the song unwinds it connects far less like a polished studio confection and much more like audio captured from the floor of some majestic discotheque.

That it’s not always discernible what Greenwich is saying actually adds to the appeal. Plus, the call-and-response feels like it’s coming from a delirious crowd, and it’s easy to want to join right in. As stated above, inexplicable; but on the other hand, at least in pop terms the lamentations that a song should’ve been bigger can be a little hard to justify. At the time of this 45’s modest success, record buyers were doing what they always do; dropping coin on all kinds of discs that naturally ran the gamut from outstanding to execrable.

The flip side “Goodnight, Goodnight (What’s So Good About It?),” is a pleasant enough slice of ambitious gal-fronted production-pop, but it’s very much a B-side. “I Want You to Be My Baby” is the meat of the matter. And if you stumble upon a copy of her ’68 album Composes, Produces and Sings, don’t snatch it up on the basis of the tune’s inclusion; the version found there is an inferior, much tamer recording.

While it does include the terrific “Niki Hoeki” (#1 hit in Japan!) and the richly soulful “A Long Time Coming,” that LP is rather scattershot overall, with much attention paid to the Middle of the Road. Only spring for it if found super-cheap. Unless the Middle of the Road is your thing, and then by all means spend away.

The plug side of Ellie Greenwich’s 45 is very far from any broken white line, however. And since the single was a high-profile issue from a large label, persistent digging might actually uncover a copy that’s not too pricey. It’s a classic heard far too seldom, and it serves to considerably broaden a body of work that’s already quite extraordinary.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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