‘Always Magic in the Air’ by Ken Emerson

I recently read Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson (Amazon US, UK) which was very good and very recommended if you’re at all interested in the music churned out by those around New York’s Brill Building in the 1950s and 60s.

Update: Here’s my Spotify playlist of all the songs discussed in the book.

When many of the composers and lyricists started on their careers, they thought all the classic songs had been written earlier in the century. But, as the first page of the book’s introduction suggests, they did pretty well themselves:

Stand By Me, Save the Last Dance for Me, Walk on By, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Do Wah Diddy Diddy, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin, or (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman[p.ix]

The book’s a good account of two themes.

First, how a particular kind of popular music changed over time, from being heavily inspired by the “alley music” of black neighbourhoods, which would never appear on white radio, on to being more smoothed-out and mainstream (Bacharach and David, The Monkees, etc.).

Second, the book describes a particular instance of scenius, as this group of people worked closely together, inspired and competed against each other, and produced some amazing work.

Because many of the songs written at the Brill Building are so familiar to us, either from the original recording or the many, many cover versions, it’s really hard for anyone born since then to position them in time. It all merges together and there’s no way to sense which songs were shocking to a contemporary audience, or how sounds and ideas evolved from one track to another.

We have no sense of which songs came first, what their origins were, who wrote them, what the influences were. But all these factors make quite a difference. The first batch of writers may have been white men, writing for a mainstream audience, but they were comfortable visiting and, often, playing at black venues in black neighbourhoods, unlike their later Brill Building counterparts:

Unlike Leiber and Stoller and Pomus and Shuman, from the very outset Neil Sedaka wrote (and performed) music in order to be accepted by his peers. This is a critical difference between the elder generation of “white Negroes” … and Sedaka, as well as most of the songwriters who would follow him to Aldon Music. Sedaka and his cohort were not for the most part rebelling against their families, their crowd, or even the mainstream pop music that Leiber and Stoller and Pomus and Shuman scorned. Nor, in embracing rock ‘n’ roll, did they reject Tin Pan Alley. To the contrary, they were eager to update the Great American Songbook by adapting it to changing times. And although they loved black music … they did not live it. … One consequence of this racial and ethnic isolation, as well as of these songwriters’ youth, was that they had little knowledge of or interest in jazz. The music they would write owed less to Big Joe Turner than to Irving Berlin. Though it often rocked, it seldom swung. [p.68-9]

Without all this context it’s hard to recognise when big changes in music happend. For example, in 1959 the Drifters recorded There Goes My Baby (at Wikipedia), by Leiber and Stoller, and, listening to it now, you have to make a conscious effort to recognise just how disturbing it was at the time, because the sound is so familiar, almost unremarkable.

But before we look at that song more closely, maybe have a quick listen on YouTube to some of the Leiber and Stoller tunes that came out before There Goes My Baby. For example, the Coasters’ Searchin’, or the Drifters’ Fools Fall in Love, both from 1957. I guess these were standard (but very good) re-workings of the doo-wop sound for more white, mainstream audiences.

One of the big differences with There Goes My Baby was the use of a string section, something virtually unheard of in R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll:

To many such listeners [in the black and young audiences], violins suggested “longhair” music, which still meant Toscanini and Stokowski (or even Mantovani) rather than the Beatles. [p.59]

But, “strings were not the only innovation”:

In the studio where they recorded the song were timpani that no one knew quite how to tune. That did not deter the producers from asking a percussionist to belabour one beat on the kettle drums throughout the song, and not just any beat but the rhythm of the Brazilian baion. “The baion beat is a very simple, specific beat,” [arranger Stanley] Applebaum explained, “a dotted quarter with an eighth note going into a quarter.” BOM-be-bom. [p.60]

This beat comes up again and again in later songs, but at this point it was a crazy, new idea:

… no one had ever been so audacious as to wed the Italian bastardisation of a Brazilian samba to an ersatz Russian string orchestration on a rhythm-and-blues record by an African-American quartet. …

Even today, There Goes My Baby sounds wild and weird. The presence of strings is not as striking as the absence or inaudibility of nearly everything else. An upright acoustic bass is dimly detectable, but a guitar can be heard only faintly for a couple of measures. There’s no piano, no saxophone, and if there’s a conventional drum kit, it doesn’t register. Suspended between the churning violins and cello and the timpani’s hollow thud, the lead vocal seems to echo out of some desolate limbo. [p.61]

Atlantic Records didn’t know what this sound was, or what to do with it:

When Leiber and Stoller played it for Jerry Wexler, he gagged on his tuna fish sandwich. “I totally misprized the record. I thought it was a horrible abortion. Out of tune, which it was, … it sounded like two radio stations.” [p.62]

The release was delayed for months. Ben E. King, who’d contributed to the writing, tried to sell his interest in the song because he thought it was going nowhere.

Wexler said that in order to prevent King from selling out to a “shyster,” he personally purchased King’s interest for $200, drew up a contract, put it in a drawer, and tore it up when the song became a hit.” [p.62]

And it did. So now, with a bit of perspective, give There Goes My Baby a listen:

Despite what Emerson says, it’s still hard to recognise the newness. The strings, which were so unusual and shocking in 1959, sound much like they do on, say Stand By Me or Under the Boardwalk, which are now so familiar to us.

But that there is the sound of something new, a moment of change in music.

It’s great to be able to gradually separate out the many strands of all this music which, from far in the future, is a generic morass of “golden oldies”.

It’s also interesting to read about some of the fun things the composers did. For example, Barry Mann (a composer as well as singer) had a big novelty hit with Who Put the Bomp, which pokes fun at the strange words in doo-wop songs. His next two singles flopped and so he followed them up with Teenage Has Been, the bitter, but tongue-in-cheek, account of a young pop-star’s life after fame deserts him, which refers directly to Who Put the Bomp. This didn’t make the charts either.

Then there were times when writers responded to each other in song. Neil Sedaka wrote and performed Oh! Carol in 1959, “an ode to my old high school girlfriend, Carol Klein.” Carol, now writing and singing under the name Carole King, then recorded the less-than-serious Oh, Neil. Oh, what larks!

So, the book’s a good, illuminating read. Here are a couple more bits that jumped out at me. The first helps show exactly how new and different some of this music, which now seems so innocuous, was compared to what had gone before:

The very month Leiber and Stoller arrived [in New York, in 1957], Frank Sinatra denounced rock ‘n’ roll as “written for the most part by cretinous goons.” “[B]y means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics,” he fulminated, “it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth. It is the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.” [p.17]

We can also see how establishment figures have always been wanting to go back to the “good old days”. Small-c conservatives might now want to go back to the certainties of the nice, safe 1950s, but back then a judge warned a US Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency:

[I]f we do not get off our soft fannies in this country and get down to basic things and get down to business and perhaps turn back the clock a bit to the old times when we had family life and the father was the head of the family … [the Russians] will not beat us only with sputniks, and with missiles, they will also beat us in the markets of the world. [p.18]

The past was always safer and better.

And that’s all there is. Until tomorrow, when I’ll post a Spotify playlist of all the songs discussed in the book.

Here’s my Spotify playlist of all the songs discussed in the book.


  • Thanks for this - very much enjoyed listening to the Drifters again, as you say, in context. Feels good, this sort of “close listening” born of the dream combination of book + Spotify, as I’ve been discovering lately with Alex Ross’ “Listen To This” (http://www.spotifyclassical.com/2010/09/chacona-lamento-walking-blues-spotify.html) and Rob Young’s “Electric Eden” (http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/2010/09/the-history-of-british-music-rob-youngs-electric-eden/).

  • Dear Phil Gyford:

    Thanks for your kind words. It’s deeply gratifying that “Always Magic in the Air” continues to find, entertain and inform readers.

    All best,
    Ken Emerson

9 May 2011 at Twitter

  • 08:19am: That helicopter circling over north London from 3am ensured I was able to get up extra early for swimming, sun and coffee! #happytweets
  • 02:58pm: @spaceboy Please present to the board on your strategic diversification in the Anno-targetted chocolate-coated snack food segment.
  • 03:10pm: @spaceboy @chrislunch I forecast a retreat into familiar comfort snacks in this climate, and will invest in Double Deckers going forward.
  • 06:26pm: After making this ident for @warrenellis my fingers were bruised and I could barely walk next day. Fun! http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=...

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