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Fantastic Histories of NYC: The Brill Building

Matt Roper takes a trip to Times Square where, amidst the hustle-bustle of human life, he takes a look at one of the hidden gems of New York history

 

The cacophony of heavy traffic, the steam that rises from the manholes in the road and the on-duty cops who direct traffic across busy intersections are all synonymous with most people’s idea of what Manhattan is, and to walk through the Midtown streets is an experience most non-New Yorkers relish.

But suggest a visit to Times Square to a native New Yorker and you’ll more or less guarantee a look will cross their face that fast turns into porridge. Just the thought of trying to fight their way through the masses of people – the Jesus freaks, the MAGA tourists, the hawkers and the street performers – is enough to give most New Yorkers the Times Square Headache. Especially if they have somewhere to get to in a hurry. Yet people tend miss so much about the city by hurrying or even if they’re the hapless tourist behest to a guidebook.

Standing on the corner of Broadway and 49th St., the Brill Building barely stands out in New York today (aside from the beautiful bronze awning that surrounds the entrance that you might notice) as it’s almost been eaten up by the neon signage, projections and aforementioned tat that Times Square offers today.

If history were to pay the rent on the place, the owners need never have to worry about making ends meet again, as it was once one of the best regarded addresses in the music industry with 165 businesses working there, including publishers, printers, promoters and songwriters. Up until the mid Sixties, the name of the building was synonymous with American mainstream popular song.

With such songs as River Deep, Mountain High, Devil in Disguise and I Feel The Earth Move written there, the Brill Building was literally the quintessential hit factory. Teams of songwriters could rent a tiny room with a piano, write a song, run downstairs, copyright the arrangement, hire singers, cut a demo, then head up to another floor and hawk it to publishers, record companies and artist managers. Assembly line pop music for the masses.

Carole King, who wrote most of her best known songs there alongside her sometime writing partner Gerry Goffin, recalls “just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You'd sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific.”

From those tiny writing rooms King wrote Natural Woman for Aretha Franklin, One Fine Day for the Chiffons and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? for the Shirelles.

Phil Spector was another of the Brill Building’s busiest people, penning Spanish Harlem for Ben E. King with Jerry Lieber who, a few years earlier, partnered with Mike Stoller to give Elvis Presley Don’t Be Cruel from the tiny rooms of Brill.

But Elvis was about as rebellious as things got for the American teens who consumed pop from this epic production line. Most songwriters were playing things safe – but sometimes sophisticated. Burt Bacharach and his writing partner Hal David composed some of their most celebrated songs in the Brill Building including Don’t Make Me Over, I Say A Little Prayer and Walk on By for their perfect interpreter: Dionne Warwick.

The Brill Building Sound is an odd umbrella term, still talked about here and there – for there is no one distinctive sound that came from the rooms of the Brill Building. Just a legacy of a lot of great songs of a few different genres ranging from early big band to doo-wop to rock ‘n’ roll and bubblegum pop. And all of it would slowly collapse when four lads from Liverpool appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Gone in a New York minute.

 

Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he performed for the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings – a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.     

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If history were to pay the rent on the place, the owners need never have to worry about making ends meet again

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