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They're Not Only '60s Songwriting Superstars, But They're Also Married


This FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guests, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, have been a songwriting team, as well as husband and wife, for more than 50 years. Their hits include "On Broadway," "Uptown," "Only In America," "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" and this song.


THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS: (Singing) You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips. And there's tenderness like before in your fingertips. You're trying hard not to show it, but baby, baby I know it. You lost that lovin' feelin', whoa, that lovin' feelin'. You lose that lovin' feelin'. Now it's gone, gone, gone - whoa.

BIANCULLI: When Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil teamed up in the early '60s, they were staff writers for a music publishing company owned by Don Kirshner. They were among the famed Brill Building songwriters, a group that also included Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Neil Sedaka. Unlike many songwriters of the '60s, Mann and Weil survived in the British invasion. They were still writing songs when Terry Gross spoke with them in 2000. Today, their younger selves are portrayed in the current Broadway musical "Beautiful" about Carole King. And Cynthia Weil has just written a novel drawing on her Brill Building experiences called "I'm Glad I Did." But long before any of that, Mann and Weil were songwriters. And at the end of 1999, their "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" was the most-performed song of the century in the BMI publishing catalog.


THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS: (Singing) Baby, baby, I beg you please, please. I need your love. I need your love. Well, bring it on back.



Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BARRY MANN: Oh, thank you.

CYNTHIA WEIL: Thank you.

GROSS: Barry Mann, let me ask you first. What's happening in the melody of that song? Is there anything that you worked on that is particularly interesting to describe?

MANN: Oh, I don't know if it would be interesting now, but when we wrote the song, it was very - it was a very different first time. That middle part of the song, the, you know, kind of the soulful part, had never been done before. And also at the time, the record ran long, which for nowadays, it's really short (laughter). It ran over three minutes. And so Phil Spector produced the record even though it was - I think it was two - he put 2:58 on it even though I think it ran around 3:10 or so. So that's about the only difference I can talk about now.

GROSS: Oh, so he lied about the length so DJs could play it.

MANN: Yes.

GROSS: Cynthia Weil, what was the part of the lyric that came to you first that you built everything else around?

WEIL: You know, Barry started playing that opening melody, and I'm not sure which one of us - as a matter of fact, I think it was Barry who came up with the opening line, you never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips. And it just seemed to flow. And when we hit the chorus, one of us - I think it was me - sang that you've lost that lovin' feelin'. And we weren't even thinking of using it as the real title. I mean, in those days, we used to write a song and kind of just fill it up with any words just so we'd remember it, and we used to call that a dummy title or a dummy lyric. And that was our dummy lyric. And then we wrote a verse and a chorus, and we called Phil. And we played it for him, and he said, that's not the dummy lyric, that's the lyric.

MANN: That's the title, definitely.

WEIL: Yeah.

MANN: Yeah.

GROSS: So were you writing the song on assignment? Were you writing it for The Righteous Brothers?

MANN: Yes.

WEIL: When we wrote the song, they weren't that crazy about it (laughter).

GROSS: Really?

MANN: Well, when I sang it - I loved The Everly Brothers at the time, and I sounded like The Everly Brothers. So when I sang it to Bill and Bobby, they said, you know, it sounds really good, very good for The Everly Brothers. And another thing that happened is that at the time, you know, the records that they had been putting out, they both sang together, and this one, Bill Medley had the lead. So Bobby said, well, what am I going to do while he sings? And I think Phil Spector says, well, you'll be walking to the bank.


MANN: So that's...

WEIL: Phil was quite confident in his abilities (laughter).

GROSS: Give us a sense of the process. When you became a songwriting team, were you assigned which singers you would be writing for back when you were working for Don Kirshner?

MANN: It went both ways. We could just sit and write a song or there were assignments. The Drifters would be up, say, as a group, and everybody at Aldon Music would want to write for The Drifters. But at the same time, there were songs we just sat down to write. When we originally - Cynthia and I wrote the original - there was an original version of "On Broadway." And I always had the concept to try to write a Gershwin-esque kind of contemporary song, and that's basically how "On Broadway" was written, the reason for it. Again, there was no specific artist in mind. So it happened all different ways.

GROSS: OK, let's stick with "On Broadway" for a minute.

MANN: Sure.

GROSS: This was a big hit for The Drifters. You had nobody particular in mind when you wrote it. Did The Drifters have the first recording of it?

MANN: Yes. Oh, no, they didn't.

WEIL: Well, they had the first recording that was released, but...

MANN: Released, yeah.

WEIL: ...It actually - Carole and Gerry were recording a group, right?

GROSS: This is Carole King and Gerry Goffin?

MANN: Carole King, yeah.

WEIL: Yeah.

MANN: But also, the - Phil Spector cut our original version of "On Broadway" with, I think, The Crystals.

WEIL: Yeah.

MANN: He never completed it. As a matter of fact, I have it at home. I should've brought it here. It would've been very interesting to hear.

GROSS: Now, how did that version compare to the one The Drifters did?

MANN: Melodically, it was very, very close. The opening line - if I - it was - instead of, (singing) they say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, ours was, (singing) they say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. Bright is very Gershwin-y - kind of, you know, kind of more of a bluesy note. And so it was changed. If I remember, Mike Stoller suggested that we change it. And also, we didn't modulate three times, and that was a very good suggestion. And then lyrically, there was a different lyrical perspective. You can talk about it, Cynthia, if you want.

WEIL: Well, I think we had written it for a girl group, so it was about a girl coming to New York and dreaming of Broadway and stardom. And it was much more kind of escape from a small town and I'm going to make it. And when we met with Jerry and Mike and played this for them, they said, you know, we're doing The Drifters, so it would need a whole other perspective. And you can go home and do it yourself, or you can write it with us. And these guys were our idols. We thought they were great and it would be a fantastic opportunity to work with them. So we ended up reworking the song together.

MANN: Which was...

WEIL: And it was really - it was like going to songwriting school, working with Jerry Leiber is - for me as a lyricist.

MANN: Like I say, they have very - two different approaches, lyrically. Cynthia's much more organized. She would want to write the first verse, make sure it's completed and go to the chorus.

WEIL: Yeah, I'd stay on that second line. If I couldn't get it, I'd be there for months, you know?


MANN: And she...

WEIL: I wouldn't move. And Jerry just kind of jumped around and showed me that you can, you know, go different places and move things around. (Laughter) You don't have to be so rigid.

MANN: Yeah, it was a very exciting experience.

GROSS: Why don't we hear The Drifters' recording of "On Broadway," the song written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil?

MANN: And Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

WEIL: And Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

GROSS: Right.


THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. They say there's always magic in the air. But when you're walking down the street and you ain't had enough to eat, the glitter rubs right off, and you're nowhere. They say the girls are something else on Broadway, but looking at them just gives me the blues 'cause how're you going to make some time when all you got is one thin dime? And one thin dime won't even shine your shoes. They say that I won't last too long on Broadway.

GROSS: Now, Barry Mann, before we heard this, you mentioned that - I think it was Leiber and Stoller suggested adding the modulations. We just heard one of those key changes. What does that kind of key change do to the emotional quality of a song?

MANN: Well, especially in that song, it really works because that song is basically one melody. It's a verse that's repeated three times. So it would really get very boring to just do the same melody three times in the same key. So that really uplifted the song.

BIANCULLI: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil speaking to Terry Gross in 2000 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) Oh, Saturday night at the movies - who cares what picture you see? When you're hugging with your baby...

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.


GROSS: One of the types of groups that you worked for was the girl groups. You wrote a few girl group hits, including a couple for The Crystals: "Uptown" and "He's Sure The Boy I Love." Were there any considerations lyrically writing for the girl groups? Was there a certain type of lyric, certain type of song?

WEIL: I somehow felt that my girls group lyrics - except for "Walking In The Rain," which was really adolescent (laughter) - were - they were just a little sharper. I mean, "Uptown" certainly is not a girls group song.

MANN: You just wrote a song.

WEIL: It's really - it's sung by a girls group, but I just don't think that I was really a good girls group songwriter.

MANN: And if I could just kind of interject, when I first started writing with Cynthia, first she showed me some of her lyrics, and I really like them a lot. And what I saw in them was this - there was kind of a - they were very - had a show quality to them. There was a sophistication. And I really thought that that sophistication combined with rock 'n roll would be very fresh. And I think Cynthia always has kept that kind of sophistication unless she really had to go sideways, just like "Walking In The Rain." And it was a great combination.

GROSS: Well, "Uptown" kind of tells a story. What's the story it tells?

WEIL: Well, it really tells a story of a man who, because of his race, is regarded one way in the workplace and then another way with his friends and family and the woman who loves him. That song had a story to it also in that when we had written it and Phil had recorded it, I think there were a couple of notes that Phil had changed because the singer couldn't hit them. And we went nuts (laughter), you know? We were so young and insane that those things really mattered, and one note could drive both of us over the edge. And we begged him to come in and record it again with another singer that we had found who happened to be Carole King and Gerry Goffin's babysitter named Eva.

GROSS: Oh, Little Eva...

MANN: That's right.

WEIL: (Laughter) Little, so...

GROSS: ...who did "The Loco-Motion."

MANN: That's right.

WEIL: Exactly, so before Little Eva did "The Loco-Motion," we dragged her into a studio with Phil, and it was the first time she'd ever been on mic, and Phil was driving her crazy. And she didn't realize that when she was on the mic, even if we weren't recording you could hear what she was saying in the control booth. And so she was ranting about hating Phil during the whole thing.


WEIL: And he was enjoying it so much. And when she finished, we realized that Phil had made the better record anyway, and he really just was humoring us to do this. It was very sweet of him to do it.

MANN: He was humoring us and torturing her (laughter).

WEIL: (Laughter) Yes, exactly. But then Eva of course went on to become Little Eva.

GROSS: Well, let's hear The Crystals' hit version of "Uptown."


THE CRYSTALS: (Singing) He gets up each morning and he goes downtown, where everyone's his boss and he's lost in an angry land. He's a little mad. But then, he comes uptown each evenin' to my tenement. Uptown, where folks don't have to pay much rent. And when he's there with me, he can see that he's everything. Then he's tall. He don't crawl. He's a king. Downtown, he's just one of a million guys. He don't get no breaks and he takes all they got to give 'cause he's got to live. But then, he comes uptown where he can hold his head up high. Uptown, he knows that I'll be standing by. And when I take his hand, there's no man who could put him down. The world is sweet. It's at his feet when he's uptown. Whoa...

GROSS: That's "Uptown," written by my guests Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Was it Phil Spector who came up with that real Latin-sounding instrumentation, the castanets and...?

MANN: Yes.

WEIL: Yes, uh-huh. That was Phil.

MANN: Yeah, yeah, that's...

GROSS: Now, let me ask you about another song that you wrote, "Only In America." And Jay & The Americans had the hit of this. I understand the original version was actually written for The Drifters.

MANN: It was, and it was recorded by The Drifters. But then when they tried - they brought these around to disc jockeys, the black disc jockeys, they wouldn't play it because they felt that with the lyric was a lie. You know, and very interesting, this little, quick concept that we almost did - it wasn't really serious - but we almost wrote it the opposite way. And I would've loved to have done it. And that pair was like, (singing) only - instead of (singing) only in America, where they preach the Golden Rule, do they start to march when my kids try to go to school. Only in America, land of opportunity, do they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me - which I thought was really very - it was sort of harsh, but...

WEIL: That was the way we wanted to go. This...

MANN: Yes.

GROSS: So you wanted to go like a civil rights protest song?

MANN: Absolutely.

WEIL: Exactly, exactly. And Jerry Leiber, who was the voice of reason, said...

MANN: And - yes...

WEIL: ...You'll never get this played. Don't waste your time. We have to think positively, and we have to write it from another viewpoint.

MANN: So basically, if we wrote it from a really white viewpoint, which was, you know, valid for the, you know, someone who was white. And they ended up (unintelligible) taking that Drifters track and putting Jay & The Americans onto that track.

GROSS: So the lyric you ended up with is very kind of positive - (reading) only in America...

MANN: Yes.

GROSS: ...(Reading) land of opportunity...

MANN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...(Reading) can a rich girl like you fall for a poor boy like me.

MANN: Yes, yes.

GROSS: So you say that the Jay & The Americans version had The Drifters...

MANN: Track.

GROSS: ...Track.

WEIL: But Leiber and Stoller produced both The Drifters and Jay & The Americans. So after they took The Drifters' voices off, they put Jay & The Americans on.

GROSS: I see. How did The Drifters feel when the song was taken away from them because it was felt that a black group really couldn't sing a song about how great America was (laughter)...

MANN: I don't...

GROSS: ...And be believable?

WEIL: I don't know.


WEIL: We never discussed it with them, but I'm sure that they felt a sense of hypocrisy singing the song at the time.

GROSS: OK, well, let's hear the Jay & The Americans' hit version of "Only In America."

>>JAY & THE AMERICANS: (Singing) Only in America can a guy from anywhere go to sleep a pauper and wake up a millionaire. Only in America can a kid without a cent get a break and maybe grow up to be president. Only in America, land of opportunity, yeah, could a classy girl like you fall for a poor boy like me. Only in America can a kid who's washing cars take a giant step and reach right up and touch the stars. Only in America could a dream like this come true, could a guy like me start with nothing and end up with you.



GROSS: Back in the early 60s, when you started writing near the Brill Building, you have - what? - an office in a high-rise building, and you'd come to work each day and sit down in your office and write tunes.

MANN: Not always. Sometimes we would be writing at home, too.

GROSS: Yeah?

MANN: It was very half and half, yeah.

WEIL: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your office like? Did it have, like, a typewriter and a piano in it?

WEIL: It just had a piano and a bench and a chair...

MANN: That was it.

WEIL: ...And an ashtray.

MANN: Yeah. Then they'd give us stale bread every once in a while.


WEIL: But, you know, the great thing about coming in to write was that you heard what everybody else was doing because the walls were quite thin. And so we would hear what Goffin and King were pounding out in the cubicle next to us. And it was always inspirational, and it was always - it really kind of fed your creative hungers. And, you know, now, when everybody has their own home studio and we're all kind of isolated, you really have to make an effort to get that input.

GROSS: Wasn't it distracting to hear other people writing?


WEIL: No, not really. You just played louder. That's all (laughter).

GROSS: Now, did you compete with each other about whose song The Drifters would do, like, you know...?

WEIL: Oh...

MANN: Oh, incredibly.

WEIL: ...Absolutely.

MANN: Oh, it was very competitive.

WEIL: Absolutely.

MANN: Yeah, and at the same...

GROSS: What was that process like? How would you try to get The Drifters your song instead of letting Carole King get the next one with them?

WEIL: Well, we really didn't have control over that. Our publisher would have us all writing for - for example, The Drifters - and then he would go over and pitch all the songs. That was Don Kirshner or somebody who worked for him.

MANN: Who was a great publisher. He was an incredible salesman.

WEIL: And so we would just be sitting out, waiting to hear the verdict, you know?

MANN: It got so powerful at that period that - Donny did and that publishing company that - say The Drifters were up. Donny would play them a song, and they would love the song.

WEIL: And he would say, you can only have it if my publishing company gets the B side also, you know?

MANN: Right.

WEIL: Or gets the next single, or...

MANN: And some record companies would give into that because, you know...

WEIL: They wanted the song so badly.

MANN: That's right.

BIANCULLI: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. Weil's new novel, "I'm Glad I Did," is a fictional work set in the glory days of the Brill Building.

Coming up, a visit with Hal Blaine, one of the subjects of the new music documentary about The Wrecking Crew. And David Edelstein reviews the new film "It Follows." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) Well, Saturday night at eight o'clock, I know where I'm gonna go. I'm a gonna pick my baby up, and take her to the picture show. Everybody in the neighborhood is dressing up to be there, too. And we're gonna have a ball just like we always do. Saturday night at the movies. Who cares what picture you see? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.