An Interview with Ellie Greenwich
2013 update: I interviewed the late Ellie Greenwich in the summer of 2005. I recall hanging up the phone, putting my headphones on and practically skipping across the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan. With “The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget” on full blast, I remember feeling completely and utterly elated that I had just spoken to my hero. This interview originally appeared on the old Cha Cha Charming site. A few people have been asking if I’d re-post the collection of articles, so here is the first of the lot, and definitely my favorite. I wanted to include the audio to go along with the text, but that will require a lot of digging through un-labeled cassettes, so I’ll save that for a later date.
Musical geniuses were never envisioned as perky blondes in miniskirts gushing over the “Kind Of Boy You Can’t Forget.” Such honors have always been reserved for the troubled frat pack—deranged producers, couch-ridden junkies, and worse, sensitive strummers seeking answers in the wind. Rock snobbery may dictate, but those aware of pop’s purest pleasures rank Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich at the top. 100% drug-free and always upbeat, Ellie wrote extraordinary pop songs, tons of them—”Be My Baby,” Leader Of The Pack,” “Chapel Of Love,” “Da Doo Ron Ron.” They sold in the millions, yet pop writers and producers—especially of the sane, female kind—are rarely paid their dues. Her Brill Building compatriot-in-pop, Carole King was similarly written off by the music intelligentsia until she grew her hair long, discovered real pain, and underwent a musical exorcism she called Tapestry. And even then, the word genius was used sparingly. Ellie Greenwich also had her obligatory singer/songwriter moment with 1973’s Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung, although it was a role she was reluctant to accept. Ellie was always vehemently aligned with pop—from her earliest compositions for the Ronettes, the Dixie Cups, the Shangri Las, and her own group the Raindrops to the late ’70s when she joined Blondie on “Dreaming” and “Atomic,” and sang backing vocals on Cyndi Lauper’s chick cheer She’s So Unusual.
On the phone from her New York apartment, Ellie speaks in exclamation points when pulling memories from her pop past. There’s no bitterness towards the “geniuses” whose production credits monopolized her compositions, nor much interest in the great pop vs. rock debate. Nope, Ellie’s just thrilled to have been a part of it all. As those championing her cause collect signatures for a petition pressing for her induction into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame and stage worldwide performances of her “Leader Of The Pack” Broadway show, Ellie sits back in amazement—still bewildered that a Long Island gal who grew up “in a nice little house with a white picket fence” was behind the scenes scripting the American dream, one perfect pop song after another.
CCC: Of all the songs you’ve ever written, which is the most dear to your heart?
Ellie: Oh God….Jeeezz… That’s a hard one because they all really do mean something to me. I would say dear to my heart where it affected me in a very incredible way was definitely “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” [Darlene Love]. I was hysterical when it first came out. And probably also “Be My Baby” and “I Can Hear Music.” “Be My Baby” was an interesting story because Phil had recorded a couple of things that we had written for the Ronettes. And I preferred “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love” to “Be My Baby.” So when Phil went back to California after cutting those sides with the Ronettes and said “Be My Baby” was gonna be it, I said, “You’re putting out “Be My Baby??” I was so disappointed.
Is that hysterical? And you know what’s happened to me….Seriously Sheila, back then I was just doing what I was doing. I was young, it was exciting, and I cried when I heard my songs on the radio. But I don’t think it was until many years later—when I see how the songs have lived on—that I really understood. When I hear “Be My Baby” now—when I hear that “Boom! Ch-chik! Boom!” intro—I get goose bumps. I really do.
I think most of us get that exact feeling when we hear “Be My Baby.”
It’s unbelievable. It was one of the first times for me that, as a listener, I could go, “Wow….That’s terrific.” It was so so many years later that I actually really really felt that I liked this song. Because it was my song and I never really gave it much thought.
As you know, I named my web-magazine Cha Cha Charming after your first single as Ellie Gaye. Why did you choose the name Ellie Gaye? And can you tell me more about “Cha-Cha-Charming.”
Well, the name Ellie Gaye wasn’t exactly original because there was a record out by an artist named Barbie Gaye who covered this one song—”My Boy Lollipop, he makes my heart go right” (Singing). It was such a great little record, and I thought, “Oh….Ellie Gaye! I’m so happy.” So I called myself Ellie Gaye. Plus, people were always messing up Greenwich. “Cha-Cha-Charming”—I don’t know. I’m always coming up with these cute little names. It’s kind of silly, but it works.
How did you end up choosing the accordion as your first instrument?
This couple my parents knew sent us an 80 base, which is a smaller accordion. I didn’t know what it was, but I kept looking it at it and would pick it up even though I didn’t understand the bellows and whatnot. And my mother asks, “Would you like lessons dear?” And I said, “But of course!” And that’s how I started playing. Anything musical I got into. And if I may say so myself—I was really good. I was so technically terrific. I mean I practiced and I would do “Lady Of Spain” [an accordion standard from the 1920s] and all these really technical songs. I couldn’t believe it! And then I started to write my own songs because I had a crush on this guy. I was a freshman in high school and he was a senior.
You started writing songs on the accordion about your crush?
Yup I did.
That’s so dreamy.
As a matter of fact, the song was called “The Moment I Saw You.” All my very first songs were written on the accordion. I wrote “Cha-Cha-Charming” on the accordion actually.
I know you have influenced a lot of songwriters, but I’m wondering if any particular artists influenced your own writing?
I must say that Shirley [Alston] from the Shirelles was one of my biggest influences as far as their sound. And all the early rock ‘n’ roll stuff like The Penguins’ “Earth Angel.” I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I heard that.