How the kids who brought you “Stupid Cupid” changed American music
Fifty years ago this May, a nineteen-year-old boy from Brighton Beach named Neil Sedaka arrived at 1650 Broadway, a building that housed dozens of music publishers, to peddle “Stupid Cupid,” a song he’d cowritten with Howard Greenfield. The pair bumped into another songwriting team, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, in the hallway. Pomus suggested they try their luck at Aldon Music, a new outfit on the sixth floor.
Sedaka and Greenfield headed downstairs and were greeted by Don Kirshner, the burly son of a tailor from the Bronx, and his business partner Al Nevins. Sedaka and Greenfield showed Kirshner their song and he signed them on the spot. At Sedaka’s recommendation, Aldon (“Al” and “Don”) would soon add his high school friend Carole King and her husband Gerry Goffin to their roster.
Over the next five years, this loose family of songwriters—all Jewish, all in their twenties—were the architects and assembly line workers of Aldon’s chief asset: sweet pop tunes recorded by teen-friendly performers for the growing rock ’n’ roll market. The dozens of hits they wrote—“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”—defined the soda shop and sock-hop melodies of the era and came to be known as “the Brill Building Sound,” in honor of the actual Brill Building, up the block at 1615 Broadway. The Brill Building had been the home of the American music publishing industry for an earlier generation of predominantly Jewish entertainers and businessmen on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. The kids at Aldon both loved this music and wanted to make it their own, adding R&B tempos and Latin rhythms from rock ’n’ roll’s first era. By bridging past to future, they became, writes Ken Emerson, author of Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, “the last gasp of the Great American Songbook, the heirs of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern,” and “paved the way for the British Invasion that rolled right over many of them.”
Years later, Kirshner declared on History-of-Rock.com, “After I’m gone, my grandchildren will be whistling these tunes.” He’s probably right. In movies and commercials, on oldies radio and American Idol, Aldon’s catalog is now part of American folklore.
This wasn’t always the case. For years music critics dismissed the Brill Building era as barren intermission between rock’s first golden age (represented by Elvis and the bluesy raunch of Chuck Berry and Little Richard) and Beatlemania. The rebuke went like this: Aldon’s songwriters—middle-class goody-goodies from safe Jewish neighborhoods—cranked out saccharine ditties for prefabricated pretty faces to perform. It was seen as “at best pop and at worst pap,” according to Ken Emerson, and only the arrival of the Fab Four and Bob Dylan helped catapult popular music to its rightful place as album-driven art.
The last decade or so has been more generous in its consideration of Sedaka and his ilk. Contemporary artists like Stephin Merritt worship the Brill Building catalog; Ben Folds has cited Sedaka as one of his primary influences; and Alison Anders’ 1996 film Grace of My Heart, loosely based on King’s life, introduced the music to a new generation. In the era of the mp3, there’s something to be said for a song that does its job in two minutes, then skedaddles.
It makes sense then to see the life and legacy of Aldon Music (1958–1963) as transition, not interruption. Don Kirshner transformed youth entertainment, disregarded by the more established music publishers, into a cultural force and viable business. His songwriters made the incorporation of black music into the American pop mainstream not transgressive, thereby opening the door for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
But by early 1958, rock’s soaring fortunes seemed in danger of crashing. That same year, Elvis was drafted and Jerry Lee Lewis was banned from radio for carrying on with an underage cousin. One year later, Chuck Berry was similarly ostracized for his affair with a minor and a plane crash killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, ending what Nick Tosches called “rock ’n’ roll’s innocence.”
Back in New York, rock was tearing the town’s music business down the middle. At the actual Brill Building, the older musicians’ unions and publishing houses wouldn’t even consider composers of rock music, which Frank Sinatra had labeled “music by cretinous goons.” Aldon’s spartan home base at 1650 Broadway, where no appointment was necessary, housed “the schleppers,” interested more in the business opportunity the youth market presented.
Kirshner organized his Aldon songwriters much the way Hollywood moguls had organized their screenwriters a generation before. Each composer had an office just big enough for a piano, a bench, and “maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky” recalled Carole King in The Sociology of Rock, and Kirshner lined them up so that each composer could hear the others and so that he could hear all of them. Like Samuel Goldwyn, who’d raise hell if he didn’t hear typewriters clacking, Kirshner knew by sound exactly who was at work. The songwriters knew they were in competition to create a smash.
Don Kirshner, Carole King, and Gerry Goffin
And yet the magic created at Aldon was as much about the midcentury Jewish American experience as it was about talent, business savvy, or strategic office plans. Music publishing had long been a business run by Jews, often excluded from “respectable” lines of work such as law and finance. In the boroughs of New York, Jewish kids recommended friends and neighbors like them if they found footing with an employer who didn’t have a “gentiles only” policy. While Kirshner did a fabulous job at vetting talent, the pool offered him seemed very much the result of Jewish geography, notes Michael Billig, author of Rock ’n’ Roll Jews.
Ken Emerson also points to the impact of Tin Pan Alley and musical theater composers on Aldon’s songwriters: They grew up in households that worshipped these genres. These earlier songwriters were immigrants, eager to embrace their new American identities. Aldon’s stable, a single generation removed, felt the same sonic pull but made it their own, blending the sounds of their parents’ music with the R&B records that were popular, recalled Sedaka, with the “Italian tuffs and black leather set” at their high schools. Their compositions were an attempt to fit in, to transform the old-world sounds of home into something for the kids who personified American teenagerhood.
Kirshner functioned as Jewish cultural middleman, making an underground music palatable to the mainstream listener. According to Jonathan Karp, professor of Jewish History at SUNY Binghamton, it’s a pattern that has repeated itself again and again in popular music, from Malcolm McLaren, who discovered the Sex Pistols, to Rick Rubin, who paired Aerosmith with Run-D.M.C. and made hip-hop familiar to white suburban kids like him. For Kirshner and his writers, Aldon’s songs were a dream of assimilation in tuneful miniature. As he put it, ”Of all the legacies that I have given, personally to me it’s very important that I was able to come out of the streets of Harlem, out of my dad’s tailor shop, and have the ability to create an environment where this sound will be part of American culture forever.”
On April 12, 1963, Don Kirshner sold Aldon to Columbia Pictures Television and decamped to Los Angeles to lead the new venture. The March on Washington and John Kennedy’s assassination lay just ahead. By the time the Beatles arrived the following February, songs about how much you loved your calendar girl seemed quaint.
And yet Aldon’s influence was put on pause, not stopped, by the British Invasion. In 1971, Carole King recorded the multiplatinum solo album Tapestry, ushering in the California singer/songwriter era. Just a few years later Joseph Hyman (aka Joey Ramone), a gangly singer from Queens, gave birth to a domestic punk scene by composing a faster, louder version of Brill Building sounds he had grown up with and loved.
Neil Sedaka has recorded and toured steadily since the Aldon days and in 2007 celebrated his fiftieth year in music with a tribute concert at Lincoln Center. Kirshner went on to produce The Monkees, as well as create and host Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, a live music program that foretold Austin City Limits and MTV. This year, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“The Brill Building Sound,” to our contemporary sensibilities, is 1950s music, oldies, or background to eating a blue-plate special. And yet like any significant cultural movement, it’s notable not just for its own achievements but for the eras from which it grabbed and to which it passed the baton. It was rock ’n’ roll’s adolescence and, for its fans and itself, made growing up less hard to do.