Like most aspects of the 1960s music business, songwriting was a male-dominated field. Though there were plenty of female singers on the radio, women and girls were primarily seen as consumers: rabid fans whose infatuation with male performers would entice them to buy records, tickets, and memorabilia. Singing was sometimes an acceptable pastime for a girl, but playing an instrument, writing songs, or producing records simply wasn’t done. As sociologist Candy Leonard notes in Beatleness, “Girls loved the music too, but, for the most part, were not socialized to see themselves as people who create it.”
Yet in the early ’60s, a few women transcended that cultural norm and began to break through the music industry’s gender barrier. Most of these earliest female composers were part of the late ’50s to early ’60s “Brill Building era,” a time when the nearly all American pop hits were written and produced by the same group of composers, music publishers, and record labels who held offices in New York City’s Brill Building. In the tradition of Rogers and Hammerstein and the Gershwins, much of the Brill-era writing was done in teams; at a time when gender equality was rare, most of the early female composers got their start as one half of a partnership with their husbands.
As the ‘60s progressed, the Women’s Lib movement created a new generation of independent women who felt that any career could be open to them. For the music industry, the women of the Brill era were trailblazers — role models who showed a new generation of girls that they could and should be people who create music.
As members of a popular, local band, the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney would scour record stores for new singles to add to their repertoire. They were especially excited when anything written by the American songwriting duo Goffin-King was released in Britain; both Beatles adored these songs and hoped their own partnership would be as successful. At the time, Lennon and McCartney may not have known that one half of this songwriting team was a woman.
These days, Carole King is most well known as one of the giants of ’70s folk-rock, writing hit songs for herself and contemporaries like James Taylor, whose cover of “You’ve Got a Friend” was his first and only #1 hit. But before her solo career took off, she was part of one of the Brill era’s most successful songwriting partnerships with husband Gerry Goffin. A young couple just out of college, the two had a knack for writing beautifully-crafted songs that spoke to teenage fans. Their music ranged from bubble gum pop (“The Loco-Motion,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”) to soulful and introspective tracks (“Up on the Roof,” “Natural Woman”).
The Goffin-King partnership ended when the couple divorced in 1968, but King had continued success writing for others while developing her own career as a singer-songwriter. A pioneer to this day, King was the first female recipient of the 2013 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and was 2014’s MusicCares Person of the Year — top honors that Paul McCartney, who once so idolized her talent, also recently won.
Though lesser-known than King, Ellie Greenwich may have been the most trailblazing composer of the era. She also wrote primarily with husband Jeff Barry, but unlike many others, she earned her place in the Brill Building on her own. While waiting for an appointment, she began playing piano in an empty office, which turned out to belong to the famous Leiber and Stoller composing duo. They were so impressed that they offered her a contract, and she eventually became a staff member with their publishing company.
Greenwich paired with a variety of partners in the early ‘60s before marrying Barry and writing exclusively with him. Their partnership produced a number of notable songs performed by girl groups on Phil Spector’s Philles label, such as “Then He Kissed Me” (The Crystals) and “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes). They later scored a big hit with “River Deep, Mountain High,” recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, the Four Tops, and the Supremes.
As with Goffin-King, the partnership ended with their 1966 divorce. During that time, however, Ellie Greenwich personally discovered an up-and-coming performer: Neil Diamond. Barry and Greenwich’s final efforts together included writing, producing, and singing background vocals on Diamond’s first recordings.
Greenwich had fewer successes after the partnership dissolved, but she left her mark as a tenacious woman who not only began her songwriting career without relying on a male partner, but who also may have been one of the first women to discover new talent on her own.
Laura Nyro was one of the first Brill-era female composers who wrote almost exclusively as an individual. An eclectic composer, her songs ranged from pop (“Wedding Bell Blues,” covered by the 5th Dimension) to rock ballads (“Eli’s Coming,” Three Dog Night) to folk (“And When I Die,” Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul and Mary).
Nyro didn’t have the commercial success of some of her contemporaries, but her unwaveringly authentic approach to songwriting is notable, especially in the early ’60s when most pop music was still extremely commercial. It has been said that she was one of the pioneers of the singer-songwriter genre, and that she inspired both Carole King and Todd Rundgren to break out as solo artists. As she noted in the liner notes for Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro, “I’m not interested in conventional limitations when it comes to my songwriting….I may bring a certain feminist perspective to my songwriting, because that’s how I see life….it’s about self-expression.”
A quiet impact
The female composers of the Brill era were groundbreaking, but in a quiet way. Though the gender of a song’s composer may not have been known to the general public, it’s no coincidence that women wrote many girl groups’ biggest hits; whether conscious or not, their perspective resonated with female singers and their fans. And as the Women’s Lib movement progressed, so did their songs, quietly shifting from the innocence and helplessness of “Be My Baby” to the mature and outspoken sexuality of “Natural Woman.”
Today, as in so many male-dominated professions, we have a ways to go here. Women continue to be a minority in the music industry, and there’s still some lingering stigma for girls who want to create music or play traditionally male-dominated instruments. But the progress that began with King, Greenwich, Nyro, and many other successful women composers helped new generations of female musicians realize that their voices and experiences are important and should be heard.