27 July 2006

Howard Greenfield

Howard Greenfield

Stairway To Heaven
The Howard Greenfield Story
by Don Charles Hampton
His friends called him “Howie.“ He was the Billy Strayhorn of the Brill Building, a genius of a musical collaborator who dared to be openly homosexual long before it was safe to do so. He was warm, sweet, impulsive, bossy, funny, sexy, ambitious, energetic, emotional and a great friend. Everybody who knew him seemed to love him, and Pop singers went absolutely crazy for his songs. Dozens of them were recorded by Neil Sedaka, Brenda Lee, Jimmy Clanton, Gene Pitney, Tony Orlando, Timi Yuro, Petula Clark, The Shirelles, Captain and Tennille, The Fifth Dimension, The Everly Brothers, Cher, Tom Jones, The Four Tops, Carol Burnett, Dionne Warwick, Connie Francis and many other stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Before his untimely death on 4 March 1986, the million-sellers Howard Greenfield wrote had garnered a whopping twenty BMI awards and topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart four times.

He was a songwriter in the grand tradition of Tin Pan Alley legends like Gershwin, Berlin, Loesser and Porter. Anybody looking to find a satirical or campy sensibility in Howard Greenfield lyrics will be disappointed. He wrote boy-girl love songs that were so authentic, they put most heterosexual lyric writers to shame! Using the work of showtune master Lorenz Hart as his inspiration, Howie married Broadway-calibre wordplay to Top Forty commercialism. His teenybopper tunes overflowed with romantic imagery; in less than three minutes, he could turn a Jack and Jill high school crush into a lover’s saga worthy of Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet or Rhett and Scarlett. In Howard Greenfield’s world, you knew Venus in blue jeans was sure to find her Frankie where the boys are. You knew they would build a stairway to heaven together and climb up to the highest star! He’d be her puppet man and she’d be his calendar girl. Sure, he’d leave her cryin‘ in the rain every so often, but she knew in her heart that love would keep them together. Before long, they’d be playing tag with Stupid Cupid again, and planning for that day when rainy day bells would ring in the chapel.

Neil Sedaka played Duke Ellington to Howard Greenfield's Strayhorn. They met in 1952 when both of them were teenagers. At the time, Howie was setting poetry to rudimentary melodies, and sensing that he needed a good collaborator. His mother felt Neil might be the right one; he lived in the same building, was studying classical piano, and rumor had it he could sing just like Johnny Ray. Neil was unwilling at first, but he eventually succumbed to Howie‘s infectious enthusiasm. The boys set at the task of songwriting with a strong sense of discipline that was unusual for their age; they completed one song every day for a year, honing their composing skills to a fine point. They were quite versatile; their output ranged from classically-influenced airs to uptempo doo-wop swingers to torrid R & B ballads. During this period, Neil actually taught Howie how to sing! Soon, Neil was landing professional piano gigs and cutting one-off recordings of their original songs.

Meanwhile, Howie was securing odd jobs at music publishing houses and making important connections. Those connections led to some early Greenfield/Sedaka compositions being recorded by The Cookies, The Clovers and other Atlantic Records R & B artists. By 1958, the talented pair were driving into Manhattan to make the rounds of Tin Pan Alley publishers. Armed with reams of sheet music, they had their hearts set on staff writer jobs. However, the old-school song factories despised Rock ‘n’ Roll, and they felt threatened by Rock ‘n’ Roll songwriters. R & B scribe Doc Pomus advised them to try Aldon Music, a brand new publishing company located at 1650 Broadway. It was run by Al Nevins, a member of the successful ’50s Pop trio The Three Suns, along with his inexperienced but extremely savvy partner, one Don Kirshner.

Howie and Neil were not terribly impressed with the Aldon setup. “It looked like they were trying to figure out how to pay the rent,” Neil remarked years later. Nevertheless, the boys agreed to sign on if Nevins and Kirshner could place one of their songs with a major Pop recording artist. As it happened, Don Kirshner was friendly with a hot new singer named Connie Francis. He dispatched them to her home in New Jersey where they met the “Who’s Sorry Now” girl and played several numbers for her. Although Connie hit it off with Howie immediately, she didn’t initially like the songs he and Neil were pitching; she thought they were too sophisticated for teenagers. At Neil’s instigation, they all but rocked the keys off her piano playing “Stupid Cupid,” a tune they’d written with teen idol Sal Mineo in mind. She loved it, cut it in June of 1958 with Neil playing piano in the same maniacal way, and scored a national Top Ten hit. That same month, Greenfield and Sedaka became the flagship songwriting team at Aldon, a company that would evolve into Screen Gems, the music division of Columbia Pictures. By the time that happened, its catalog boasted million-sellers penned by legendary talents like Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Hank Hunter and Jack Keller.

With and without Neil, Howie went on to write a string of Top Ten hits for Connie Francis including back-to-back #1’s, “Everybody‘s Somebody‘s Fool“ and “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own.” However, he hardly had to depend on her patronage for income. He had the incomparable Sedaka singing voice to fall back on, and it wasn‘t long before Al Nevins fell in love with it. Neil was actually a much better singer than his idol Johnny Ray; he was a pure tenor who could leap into countertenor range at will, and convincingly put across anything from traditional Hebrew melodies to African-American Gospel standards. Nevins arranged for him to record for The Three Suns’ label, RCA Victor, in the fall of 1958. Neil’s very first release was “The Diary,” a song inspired by some playful repartée between Howie and Connie Francis. It became his breakthrough hit, and inaugurated a five-year string of Neil Sedaka chart records, 95% of which were co-written by Howard Greenfield.

Sedaka and Greenfield went together like latkas and applesauce. By themselves, both were great, but together! Man, oh, man, what a sensation! To be sure, they didn’t need each other’s help to write hit songs; While Neil was off on tour, Howie racked up chart records with Jack Keller, Carole King, Barry Mann and Helen Miller, among others. Later on, Neil’s work with Roger Atkins, Carole Bayer-Sager and Phil Cody pulled in some very nice royalty checks. However, they always wrote their best tunes with each other, and if Neil recorded them, nine times out of ten the records would be brilliant. Neil’s work under the production supervision of Al Nevins represents some of the greatest music making of the twentieth century.

Every Greenfield/Sedaka number Neil cut sounded like something straight out of a Broadway show: “Oh! Carol,” with its exotic rhumba rhythm; “Stairway To Heaven,” whose majestic Wall of Sound production laid a template for the kind of records Phil Spector would later make; the international smash “Calendar Girl,” which showcases Howie’s clever phrasing at its best; “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” so visual you can practically see the streamers and confetti; “Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do,” a hand-clapping, finger-snapping schoolyard anthem that would return to radio years later as a cocktail lounge ballad par excellence; and the sassy “Next Door To An Angel,” a rollicking song that fairly begs to be turned into a Busby Berkeley production number. Not to mention lesser known gems like “Let’s Go Steady Again,” “Alice In Wonderland,” the magnificent Rock ’n’ Roll pasodoble “King Of Clowns,” the drama-drenched “Without Your Love,“ excellent covers of the Connie Francis hits “Stupid Cupid” and “Fallin’,“ and “Sunny,” the best Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons single those Jersey boys never made. Later on, Howie got to do a bit of recording himself. He scored a one-off novelty hit in 1964 called “The Invasion” with former Dickie Goodman cohort Bill Buchanan.

Howie was open to collaborating with anyone when Neil wasn‘t around, even novice Aldon writers like Toni Wine and Ron Dante. “I met Howie the first week I was signed to Aldon Music,“ Dante recalls. “He was in the next room writing a song with Helen Miller. Two weeks later, that song was on the radio and a hit for The Shirelles called ‘Foolish Little Girl!‘ I had the opportunity to write with Howie while (writing and producing for) “The Archies” and (for) another TV series called ‘The Amazing Chan and The Chan Clan.’ Howie wrote exactly to the melody that I would come up with, and work for hours on just the right word or phrase.“ Dante admiringly calls him “a totally professional word man, but (he) had a great ear for melody, too. Of all the Kirshner writers, Howie was my favorite . . . he was the most fun to write with, and had the energy of a teenager during the writing sessions.“

He could be a stern taskmaster, though! In 1978, Neil Sedaka described the process of writing with Howie as they worked on material for his Elektra Records album All You Need Is The Music. “(Howie said) ’Neil, watch the vocal range! Make sure there are pauses between the musical phrases! Do the syllables match each note exactly? How is the attitude?” Nothing less than perfection would do . . . which suited Neil just fine! Howie’s fussiness didn’t bother him at all. By then, they’d been collaborating for a quarter century and knew exactly what to expect from each other. Neil always looked forward to sampling their unique creative synergy. “Howie is an inspiration to me,” he said in his album liner notes. “He is a master at his work, a craftsman.” Many other people in the music business agreed. His solid reputation as a lyricist won Howie the chance to write songs with noted composers like Lalo Shifrin, Maurice Jarre and Anthony Newley.

By the time Neil Sedaka’s contract with RCA expired and the British Invasion transformed the music industry, Howie had become a regular contributor to movie and television projects. It had started in 1960, when Connie Francis commissioned him and Neil to write the theme song for her debut film appearance in M-G-M’s Where The Boys Are. The runaway success of that immortal ballad opened the door for him to pen lyrics for a string of musical comedy and action flicks: The Victors (1963), Winter A-Go Go (1965), the Dean Martin/Ann-Margret espionage vehicle Murderer’s Row (1966), Kiss The Boys And Make Them Die (1966) and other Hollywood productions. A decade later, he was still busy at it, lending his magic touch to the soundtracks of such films as Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978) and Grease 2 (1982). The dawn of the new millenium saw Howie’s older Pop hits being recycled in big budget blockbusters like The Cable Guy (1996), The Princess Diaries (2001) and Starsky And Hutch (2004). Of all his movie songs, none is more beautiful than the sumptuous theme he and Jack Keller wrote in 1965 for Connie Francis’s fourth film, When The Boys Meet The Girls. It’s a gorgeous, totally cinematic ballad worthy of classic M-G-M musicals from the 1940s.

Screen Gems Music’s affiliation with Columbia Pictures brought Howie lucrative assignments to write theme songs for TV shows. That’s how his credits came to be attached to classic ’60s sitcoms like “Bewitched,” “Hazel,” “Gidget” (the unforgettable jazz number “Wait ’Til You See My Gidget” sung by Johnny Tillotson), “The Wackiest Ship In The Army” and “The Ugliest Girl In Town.” Television and movie soundtrack work kept him busy for more than a decade. However, he and Neil Sedaka still found time to pen best-selling Pop material. The British were treated to Tony Christie’s hit 1972 version of “Is This The Way To Amarillo.“ Back home, Captain and Tennille’s chart-topping 1975 cover of “Love Will Keep Us Together” and Wayne Newton’s successful 1976 waxing of “The Hungry Years” kept Howie’s name riding high on the charts while Neil successfully jump-started his solo career with a new writing partner. By the time Howie wrote the theme song for the short-lived Paul Schaffer/Greg Evigan musical showcase “A Year At The Top” (1978), the Pop hits had slowed to a trickle. Still, he stayed active on the commercial side of things almost to the end of his life. The last major chart record Howard Greenfield was involved in writing was Air Supply’s 1982 hit “Two Less Lonely People In The World.”

Let’s take a moment to shine a spotlight on ten of Howie’s choicest hits and rarities:

My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Jack Keller
Recorded by Connie Francis

This mariachi-flavored million-seller from 1960 is one of Howard Greenfield’s most lucrative copyrights. It happens to be Connie Francis’s all-time best-selling song in the United States. The record’s distinctive guitar and horn parts weren’t originally on the single; they were overdubbed for a second pressing at the insistence of the writers. Howie was a perfectionist long before 1978! Nearly all the Brill Building tunesmiths acquitted themselves well with Country material, but Howie seemed to have a special affinity for the Nashville sound. He wrote numerous other Country/Pop items for Connie Francis, including her last American chart entry to date, 1983‘s “There’s Still A Few Good Love Songs Left In Me.” He also penned words and music for Brenda Lee’s 1963 Top Forty platter “Your-Used-To-Be,” erroneously issued with a Jack Keller co-credit.

Rainy Day Bells
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Neil Sedaka
Recorded by The Globetrotters

Taken from the soundtrack of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series inspired by the famous exhibition basketball team, this is one of Neil Sedaka’s all-time favorite compositions. Basically, it’s Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector’s “Chapel Of Love” updated and kissed with an irresistible tinge of melancholy. Written and demo’d a few months before the TV series hit the airwaves in September of 1970, “Rainy Day Bells” sounds like it hails from the height of the doo-wop era. It got lots of regional airplay, but The Globetrotters’ single never charted. Even so, its authentic “retro” sound made it a much-sought-after cult item among Southern “beach music” enthusiasts. It has since appeared on surf music compilations, and even rated a reissue on 45 by Collectables Records a few years back. In 1978, Connie Francis had the song translated into German and subsequently waxed it for the European market under the title “Das Regenlied.”

Fallin’
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Neil Sedaka
Recorded by Connie Francis
This is one of the rare instances when Neil Sedaka did not record the definitive version of a song he wrote with Howie. “Fallin’” is Greenwich Village coffeehouse Rock, tailor-made for the guys in black turtlenecks and the chicks in French berets; it’s steamier than a demitasse of Espresso! Naturally, the subject is falling in love, and metaphors abound: Stars descend from Heaven, mountains crumble into rockslides, rain pours down, towers tumble. La Franconero sings this number like a woman possessed. It should’ve gone Top Ten, but Connie’s fans reportedly felt it was “too sexy” a number for her. Whatever!

Wheeling, West Virginia
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Neil Sedaka
Recorded by Neil Sedaka
A breathtakingly visual story song, originally recorded by Meredith MacRae, Lori Saunders and Linda Kaye Henning, the girls from the popular ‘60s TV show “Petticoat Junction.” This Country/Pop tale of a small-town girl coping with life as an M-G-M starlet works just as well when sung by a boy, and when that boy is sterling-voiced Neil Sedaka, the version can’t help but be definitive. You can find it on Neil’s 1969 Australian album Workin’ On A Groovy Thing, alongside recordings of dazzling Greenfield/Sedaka gems like “Puppet Man” (a hit for both Tom Jones and The Fifth Dimension), “Summer Symphony” (cut by Lesley Gore for her final Mercury Records single) and the fabulous “Johnny Walker, Ol’ Grandad, Jackie Daniels And You,” of which more will be said shortly.

His Lips Get In The Way
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Helen Miller
Recorded by The Shirelles
What a joke of a song this might have been . . . all about a guy with huge liver lips that girls can’t bear to kiss . . . snicker, snicker, har-de-har-har. It’s not that kind of song at all, though. It’s a clever tune about a guy who kisses so good, his girl can’t bear to break up with him! What can I do? wails Shirelles lead singer Shirley Alston Reeves as her group mates sha-la-la their way through the chorus. What can I say?/Each time I try to say goodbye/His lips get in the way. A very catchy tango rocker this is, and a fine example of Howie’s rhythmic approach to lyric writing; every note of the verse is matched with a corresponding word or syllable.

Don’t Lead Me On!
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Neil Sedaka
Recorded by Neil Sedaka

The boys decided to write a bluesy number to showcase Neil’s Johnny Ray vocal stylings. “Don’t Lead Me On!” was the sizzling result. The cries, the sighs, the fevered emotion . . . it’s all there. Damned if it doesn’t sound like Patti LaBelle trapped inside the body of a twenty-two-year-old Sephardic Jew! When this track was issued back in the early ’60s, common wisdom held that White people couldn’t (and shouldn’t) sing as soulfully as Black people did. Those who tried were regarded as freaks and/or degenerates (as demonstrated by the indignant reaction to Elvis Presley). Given the prevailing attitude toward musical miscegenation, RCA Victor might’ve been wise to hide Neil’s fiery performance of this tune on the flipside of “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen.” In retrospect, though, it seems like one Hell of a missed opportunity! With the right promotion, “Don’t Lead Me On!” could have topped the R & B charts and broadened Neil’s fan base considerably.

Don’t Turn Around
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Neil Sedaka
Recorded by Connie Francis

After being released from her M-G-M Records contract in 1970, Connie Francis chose to launch her short-lived stint on the Ivanhoe label with a Sedaka/Greenfield song. “Don’t Turn Around” was an excellent choice, the musical document of a woman’s struggle to leave her abusive lover. It’s definitely one of the grandest of the grand Greenfield romantic epics, underscored by a pull-out-the-stops orchestral arrangement by Charlie Calello. Sadly, few people other than her most ardent fans heard Connie’s virtuoso performance of this exquisite power ballad; Ivanhoe Records just didn’t have enough clout to give her single the kind of promotion it deserved.

Johnny Walker, Ol’ Grandad, Jackie Daniels and You
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Neil Sedaka
Recorded by Neil Sedaka
The lyrics seem to have been written for a woman to sing, but who can blame Neil Sedaka for gender-bending them? He probably couldn‘t cut them fast enough, because they’re quite simply the best honkytonk lyrics ever to come out of Howie’s pen. There are thousands of Country drinking songs, but how many of them portray brands of whiskey as respondents in a forthcoming divorce suit? While most girls have just one man, Neil sneers, You have quite a crew/Johnny Walker, Ol’ Grandad/Jackie Daniels and you. No Music Row scribe ever wrote a better line than that one! This song’s sassy attitude is timeless; it’d be perfect for Gretchen Wilson, Lee Ann Womack, The Dixie Chicks, or any of the rockin’ Country femmes currently on the Nashville scene.

It Hurts To Be In Love
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Music by Helen Miller
Recorded by Gene Pitney

The hands-down best song Howie ever wrote with Swing Era songwriter Helen Miller, and arguably the most commercial of any song he wrote. Greenfield and Miller also arranged and produced the hit version. The title and theme neatly sum up the sentiments of every teen heartbreak ballad ever played on a jukebox. Despite the yearning background vocal contributions from Toni Wine, this isn‘t a ballad, though. The lurching Habanera Rock rhythm and stumbling drum accents signal that this track was designed for the discothèque; you can easily imagine the madly mod dancers from England's "Ready, Steady, Go!" TV series doing the Jerk to it. Neil Sedaka’s unreleased original version hews close to the foot-stomping cha-cha rhythm Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons made famous, while Gene Pitney’s single leans more toward a Tex-Mex/Country sensibility. In either interpretation, “It Hurts To Be In Love” is the quintessential East Coast Rock ’n’ Roll record.

God Bless Rock ‘n’ Roll
Music by Ron Dante
Lyrics by Howard Greenfield
Recorded by Ron Dante
A West Side Story-inspired tale of a street gangster who reforms after joining a Rock ‘n’ Roll band. Slipping on a leather jacket, torn T-shirt and mirror shades, Ron Dante leaves his Archie Andrews persona far behind on this metal-tinged track. Taken from his 1980 solo album Street Angel, “God Bless Rock ’n’ Roll” somehow got pressed on the wrong side of a single; as an A-side, it could easily have jump-started his dormant recording career. When Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1996, Ron Dante was among the star-studded crowd in attendance at the gala ceremony. “Howie was the best of the Brill Building writers,” he declares. “His lyrics to songs like ’Love Will Keep Us Together’ and all the Neil Sedaka hits will be remembered for hundreds of years. His was truly the Golden Age of songwriting, and he led the pack for sure.”

Gay historians love to unearth forgotten heroes from the past, trailblazers who can be cited as role models for homosexual youth. They still haven’t gotten around to recognizing Howard Greenfield, and it’s high time they did! True, he wasn’t the kind of personality Gay culture tends to idolize these days. Howie wasn’t a porn star, a closeted stage or screen actor, a Disco-singing drag queen, a guerilla theatre impresario or a flamboyant makeover artist; he certainly wasn’t some kind of wild-eyed Gay activist, charging down Tin Pan Alley and screaming “I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it!” Oh, no. He strolled through that venerable district like the real cool cat he was, and took his place alongside Neil Sedaka, Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Leiber and Stoller and other distinguished colleagues. He belonged in their company. He was an extraordinarily gifted poet and musician whose gifts helped define American popular culture for a whole generation.

Howie’s place was squarely in the mainstream of society. He didn’t shut himself away in some bohemian Gay enclave, and aren’t we lucky that he didn’t? No doubt he experienced both anti-Semitism and heterosexism during his abbreviated life, but prejudice didn’t deter him. With plenty of guts and a truckload of talent, he forged ahead in his chosen field, leaving in his wake an amazing treasury of beloved Rock ’n’ Roll standards. What would we do without wonderful compositions like “Venus In Blue Jeans,” “Stairway To Heaven,” “Where The Boys Are,” “Cryin‘ In The Rain,” “Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do” and “It Hurts To Be In Love?” It doesn't bear thinking about. The music world was richer for Howard Greenfield’s presence, and without a doubt, it’s much poorer for having lost him prematurely.

Howard Greenfield was one of the dearest people I have ever known. Not only was he a wonderful lyricist, but he was a kind, gentle, loving man. Daryl (Dragon) and I treasured our friendship with Howard and his long-time partner, Tory Damon. We were devastated when we lost both of them to AIDS within weeks of each other. I wrote LOVE SURVIVES in honor of Howie's memory, because, even though he is gone, his songs will live on as long as there are singers to sing them . . . Love survives in a song and a memory/Love survives, though everything else has gone/In the darkest night, there will always be a light/Because love, love will survive.*

MISS TONI TENNILLE

*Lyric excerpts from "Love Survives" by Toni Tennille
Copyright 1995 Moonlight & Magnolias/Windswept Pacific Music (BMI)

Dedicated to Ella Greenfield and Eleanor Sedaka, without whom there would have been no music.
Special thanks to Toni Tennille, Becky Greenlaw, Rob Cotto, Laura Pinto
and Ron Dante.
HOWARD GREENFIELD
with DON KIRSHNER and NEIL SEDAKA
howie, don & neil