Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were unquestionably one of the most popular Brill Building-era Sixties songwriting teams. Their hit parade is legendary and includes such ubiquitous hits as the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” the Drifters’ “On Broadway” and, of course, the Righteous Brothers’ #1 smash “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” This song is particularly notable not only because it’s completely effing gorgeous but also because it was radio’s most played song of the 20th Century according to BMI.
Mann and Weil weren’t the only husband/wife songwriting team working during that fruitful era. There was also Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Carole King and Gerry Goffin. In fact, King, Goffin, Mann, and Weil were all so close personally that Man and Weil’s story is an important subplot of the Carole King jukebox musical Beautiful. For a lot of younger listeners, their first exposure to Mann and Weil’s tunes are the ones licensed for performance in the Tony-winning Broadway production.
While Barry and Greenwich’s most popular compositions were sweeping and romantic, and King and Goffin cornered the market on catchy and hooky, there’s a noticeable moodiness and maturity to Mann and Weil’s most successful songs. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” is about a love affair gone south, the spark vanished, maybe never to return. There’s no satisfying resolution there.
The same could be said for the rewritten version of “On Broadway” either. The Drifters’ iconic 1963 version deftly captures the longing, insecurity, optimism, and shifting emotions of those trying to make it in a tough town.
The depth of the writing on these songs and their unique voice is what makes Playback Records’ new compilation, On Broadway: The Songs of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil so vital, both for the Mann/Weil fan and those younger newcomers eager to learn more about the duo after seeing Beautiful wanting to learn more about the duo.
Playback Records is an up-and-coming reissue label from Austrailia, and their catalog is surprisingly diverse with a lot to offer for retro-music aficionados. On Broadway is 28 sprawling tracks of Mann/Weil-written music, some familiar songs by era artists that perhaps you’ve never heard, and deep cuts that are definitely worth a listen. When compilations are this comprehensive, there’s bound to be some standouts and some tracks that feel less essential, but, for the most part, this CD is quite a strong showing almost all the way though.
We open with the sweet and swinging “It’s a Happening World,” a minor hit for the Tokens in the US but is represented here by Sydney outfit the Executives. This pop-oriented track is a low-key lost Sixties anthem that’s exciting to rediscover. This version has strong, sweeping production, rivaling it’s US counterpart. Next up is Terry Knight’s (of Grand Funk Railroad fame) jangly “Come Home Baby,” a soulful track with sultry female vocal backups.
Mysterious Philly singer Dewey Edwards’ rendition of “Come on Over to My Place” follows; his version is a little more expressive and bangin’ than the Drifters’ minor hit. Barry Mann himself then gets to showcase his falsetto chops on “Talk to Me Baby.” This wasn’t as big a hit for Mann as “Who Put the Bomp” earlier in his career but is still really exciting to hear within the context of the other songs he co-wrote.
These first four tracks are a strong start to what is admittedly a bit of a mixed bag of tracks to follow. There are, however, more winners than losers here. Some of the other standouts include a girl-group version of “Baby Baby You” by the Lovenotes, the equally pony-worthy “Baby Baby (I Still Love You)” from Julie Grant, the garage-rock track “Hungry” by the 5 A.M. Event, the strange, bagpipe-infused “I Love How You Love Me” by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, and the late-period Jackie Wilson track “Nobody But You.”
On the flipside, there are a few less-impressive tracks, like Danny and Diego’s meandering “Glitter and Gold,” the sleepy “I Don’t Want To Love You” from Skeeter Davis, and the slow and somewhat dated ballad “It’s Not Easy” by Normie Row. With 28 tracks to choose from, however, there’s a lot here that works. This CD is a such a smart overview of Mann and Weil’s songwriting virtuosity that I’m willing to ignore some of the tracks that aren’t entirely to my taste.
Mann and Weil’s notable heavy hitters on here, too. There’s the aforementioned title track, of course, here handled in a Spectoresque 1962 version by the Crystals. A seldom-heard (and new-to-CD) version of “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” by bluesman and Mamas and Papas backer Chuck Day brings new depth to the Animals’ counterculture megahit. Last but certainly not least is a hard-soul version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” by Dionne Warwick. This version made the Billboard Top 20 when it was released and rightfully so. It’s a more aggressive vocal than we’re used to with Warwick, and it’s a revelation here.
There’s definitely a lot here to recommend On Broadway: it paints a detailed and vast portrait of Mann and Weil’s talents. The exhaustive liner notes by the Second Disc’s Joe Marchese tell the story behind every song. It’s comforting to know that so much of Mann and Weil’s atmospheric and sophisticated writing still holds up over 50 years after a lot of these songs were written. It’s a treat that On Broadway: The Songs of Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil allows us to explore some of the lesser-known versions of bigger hits and some deep cuts that otherwise might have otherwise been gone, gone, gone… woah, oh, oh.
Get your copy of On Broadway: The Songs of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil on Amazon.