Special To The Classic Bubblegum Home Page:
Sugar, Spice, Everything Nice -
The Sweet Sounds of Jeff Barry
By Laura Pinto
(Laura's Official Jeff Barry Fan Site)
Jeff Barry never set out to be a composer of bubblegum tunes, and, indeed, this genre only comprises a tiny percentage of his body of work. Prior to 1967, working with notables such as Phil Spector, Jeff was best known as one of the pioneers of the Girl Group sound. Along with then-wife Ellie Greenwich, Jeff was responsible for such tunes as “Baby I Love You” and “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes), “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me” (The Crystals), and “Not Too Young To Get Married” (Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans, featuring Darlene Love). The husband-wife songwriting team also gave the world “Hanky Panky,” “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” and, along with George “Shadow” Morton, “Leader of the Pack.” For the most part, notwithstanding the occasional “teen tragedy” songs thrown into the mix (Jeff’s first big hit as a composer was of this genre), the songs were light and fluffy and bouncy, although whether or not they could be classified as bubblegum is highly debatable.
Actually, Jeff Barry didn’t originally set out to be a composer at all. His goal, after graduating from high school and doing a stint in the Army, was to be a singer. Blessed with a great ear, a fantastic range and a pleasing, commercial-sounding voice which he could bend and shape according to the material and his mood, Jeff seemed a natural for the light pop sounds that were being turned out regularly by RCA Records. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Jeff was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 3, 1938. His father was blind, and Jeff often acted as his dad’s eyes, particularly at the movies where he would quickly and quietly explain what was taking place on the screen. No doubt this contributed to Jeff’s enormous writing talents – without his realizing it, he was increasing his vocabulary as well as honing his ability to describe scenarios and situations using as few words as possible.
After his stint in the service, Jeff enrolled in community college to study engineering, but his desire to sing professionally was overshadowing any other vocational leanings he may have had. In 1958, through a family friend, Jeff was introduced to someone in the music business, publisher Arnold Shaw. Jeff had written several original tunes, which he performed when he auditioned for Shaw. Although impressed with Jeff’s singing voice, Shaw was even more so with Jeff’s talent as a songwriter. Jeff was signed to RCA Records and in short order recorded and released the self-penned “It’s Called Rock and Roll” (which can essentially be considered his theme song!) Backed with “Hip Couple,” this single often pops up on auction site eBay and is worth purchasing if for no other reason than to hear the very first professional offering by a 20-year-old Jeff Barry. Other singles would follow, like “Teen Quartet,” “It Won’t Hurt,” and “Lonely Lips,” written with Ben Raleigh, which is one of Jeff’s finest early efforts as a vocalist. In between, Jeff’s talents as a composer were beginning to overshadow his singing aspirations, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing! In 1960, songwriter Jeff landed on the R&B charts with the lovely ballad “Teenage Sonata,” recorded by Sam Cooke. That same year, Jeff realized his first pop hit with another Barry/Raleigh collaboration, “Tell Laura I Love Her.” Brilliantly executed by RCA labelmate Ray Peterson, “Tell Laura…” sailed up the charts into the Top Ten in the U.S. and not too long afterwards was covered by British singer Ricky Valance, who took it all the way to #1 in the United Kingdom. (Peterson would later record another Barry-penned teen tragedy tune, “Give Us Your Blessings,” which was also covered by The Shangri-La’s.) At the tender age of 22, Jeff was on his way - his career as a composer was now in its ascendancy, and baby, did it ever ascend!
In October of 1962, Jeff married Ellie Greenwich, a pretty blonde whom he’d met at a family gathering a couple of years before (her aunt was married to his cousin). Ellie was herself a tunesmith and had been working with the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Ellie introduced Jeff to her newest songwriting partner, Phil Spector, who had recently started his own label, Philles Records, with Lester Sill. During the next two years, the songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich was virtually unstoppable – along with Phil, they defined the Girl Group sound, turning out hit after hit for The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love. Jeff and Ellie recorded an album and several singles under the name The Raindrops, offering up their own cool renditions of "Hanky Panky," "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Not Too Young To Get Married," among other Barry/Greenwich tunes; they made the national Top Twenty in ’63 with "The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget." In 1964, Jeff and Ellie, with Leiber and Stoller, started a new label, Red Bird Records, and began cranking out hits for The Dixie Cups (“Chapel of Love”) and The Shangri-La’s. In 1965, Jeff released a single under his own name, “I’ll Still Love You” coupled with “Our Love Can Still Be Saved.” On the former track, Jeff can be heard singing in a funky, soulful and uptempo Motor City style. The latter tune, a heartfelt ballad, is a somewhat wistful offering in retrospect; despite their continuing success as songwriting partners, harmony was absent from Jeff and Ellie’s marriage. Within a year, the couple would divorce; and shortly after the Phil Spector-produced “River Deep, Mountain High” was recorded by Tina Turner and released to a less than favorable reception, Jeff and Ellie’s professional alliance was history as well. But not before they’d discovered a brilliant new young singer/songwriter named Neil Diamond and co-produced his first recordings for songwriter Bert Bern’s label, Bang Records. (If you listen closely, you can hear Jeff singing backgrounds on some of Neil’s early hits like “Cherry Cherry” as well as on another Bang recording, Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.”)
In 1966, Jeff Barry was recruited by music supervisor Don Kirshner to produce sessions for The Monkees. Jeff brought several Neil Diamond tunes for the group to record, among them a gem that would go on to become one of the biggest-selling singles of all time and RIAA Record of the Year – produced by Jeff, The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” with lead vocal by Micky Dolenz, sailed to the top of the charts and hasn’t been absent from the airwaves since then. Another Diamond-composed, Barry-produced track, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” with Davy Jones doing the lead singing honors this time, made the national Top Ten as well. Whether he realized it or not, Jeff was now irrevocably part of the bubblegum music scene. This fact was brought into sharper focus when, in 1968, Don Kirshner was appointed to do the music for a new Saturday-morning cartoon series, The Archie Show, and one of the first people he brought to the project was Jeff. Jeff in turn brought in session singer Ron Dante to handle lead vocal honors for the fictional Archies musical group. In addition to acting as The Archies’ producer, Jeff was also its primary songwriter, penning somewhere between seventy and a hundred or so tunes for the group during the course of the next three years. (It’s hard to pin down the exact number because not all of the tracks were released on vinyl.) Jeff also lent vocals to several Archies recordings, including backgrounds on tracks such as "You Little Angel, You" and "Jingle Jangle" (using his "bass man" voice, as he'd done with The Raindrops recordings) and spoken-word parts on "A Summer Prayer for Peace" (Jeff was the numbers guy in the narrative).
During the same time period, Jeff was writing with and producing an up-and-coming singer, Canadian-born-and-bred Andy Kim. Andy had hits with remakes of Jeff’s Ronettes tunes “Baby I Love You” and “Be My Baby.” Jeff and Andy together composed several of the songs Andy recorded for Jeff’s own label, Steed Records, including “How’d We Ever Get This Way,” “Shoot ‘Em Up, Baby,” “Rainbow Ride,” and “So Good Together.” Since Jeff and Andy were, indeed, So Good Together as a songwriting team, it was only natural that they join forces to pen tunes for The Archies. One early effort was the exotically groovy “Feeling So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y.-D.O.O.),” The Archies’ second single (the first single was “Bang Shang a-Lang,” composed by Jeff alone). Jeff and Andy followed “Feelin’ So Good” up with a tune that would go on to earn the first gold record for The Archies and become 1969’s RIAA Record of the Year - “Sugar, Sugar.” The group’s fourth single, “Jingle Jangle,” another Barry-Kim composition, garnered a second gold record. Most of The Archies’ eleven singles and five studio albums were produced by Jeff, and in 1970 he was at the production helm for Ron Dante’s first solo album, Ron Dante Brings You Up, for which he and Andy collaborated on the title track, “Let Me Bring You Up.” Also in 1970, Jeff was writing and producing for Robin McNamara (“Lay a Little Lovin' On Me”) and Bobby Bloom (“Montego Bay”). When this man found time to sleep is a mystery.
In 1971, Jeff moved to Los Angeles and shifted his base of operations from New York to California. Far from being over, his career had entered a new phase. During the remainder of the 70’s and into the 80’s, Jeff wrote for TV shows (the theme songs for “One Day At A Time,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Family Ties”) and movies (The Idolmaker) and continued to enjoy success as a songwriter. In 1973, Jeff recorded a solo album for A&M Records entitled Walkin’ in the Sun, which unfortunately for the music world was never released beyond a handful of test pressings. Jeff’s father inspired the title track, a beautiful country-western midtempo ballad with a cool guitar lick and heartfelt, optimistic lyrics. “Walkin’ in the Sun” was released as a single, backed with a funky and soulful track called “Watcha Wanna Do.” (Like Jeff’s early efforts, “Walkin…” often shows up on eBay, either the white-label mono/stereo 45 or the non-promo version with both songs.) In 1974, “I Honestly Love You,” composed with Peter Allen, became a #1 hit for Olivia Newton-John; and, in 1984, Jeffrey Osborne and Joyce Kennedy hit the Top 40 with another Barry composition, “The Last Time I Made Love,” written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. In 1991, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
When asked for his take on bubblegum, a style that’s often maligned by critics who unfairly compare The Archies’ music with that of, say, Led Zeppelin, Jeff responds with his usual eloquence: “Most of what I have created was intended for the entertainment of young people. Some of it, like The Archies’ songs and records, was intended for very young people, preschoolers, three to five years old. To judge any of this music against some blurry adult or ‘heavy’ standard is as silly as judging a Porky Pig cartoon against an adult film. [Such] a review might read: ‘The plot is shallow, the story linear and simplistic, and the lead character only has three fingers and does not wear underwear!’”
How can you argue with logic like that?
Nowadays, Jeff considers himself semi-retired, but like all truly artistic and talented people, he’ll always have a project or two to keep him busy. In 2000, Jeff gathered together a bunch of old friends who’d had hits with Barry tunes and taped a PBS special called Chapel of Love: Jeff Barry and Friends, which was released on home video the following year. Among those performing on Chapel were The Crystals, Ronnie Spector, Andy Kim, Ron Dante, the late Ray Peterson, and of course The Dixie Cups, who sang the title track of the program with a sparkling new arrangement. On June 14, 2005, Jeff was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the LA Weekly Music Awards in Los Angeles, California. Jeff’s recent projects include scoring a Broadway-bound musical comedy called Knight Life. To learn more about Jeff’s incredible career and to keep up with what he’s up to these days, visit his official fan site at http://lpintop.tripod.com/jeffbarry/ .
This writeup would not have been possible without the extensive research and interviews conducted by my friend and "brother," Don Charles - without his efforts, there would be a lot of blank spaces in this piece! My heartfelt thanks to Don, for his tireless work and also for his love and generosity. Special thanks also to Jeff Barry for his assistance in putting this article together. Jeff, you're a true gentleman and a wonderful human being, definitely one in a million - six-foot-four and all heart. Thanks for sharing your talent, wit, and genius with me and with the world. And thank you for your spirit, humor, kindness and friendship. Baby, I love you.
Click here to go to Laura's Ron Dante Fan Pages:
And her profile, Ron Dante of The Archies , on this site!