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NY Culture
Another Rock 'n' Roll Birthplace---at 1650 Broadway
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 26 Dec 2014 00:24:48 EST

In music-business lore, the stately Brill building in Midtown Manhattan has long been credited as one of the birthplaces of rock ’n’ roll—a hit-making hive where, in the 1950s and ’60s, songs popped like bright blasts of bubble gum out of its offices and studios and soared straight to the top of the radio charts.

But producers of two recent musicals, along with composers from the time and others, have one niggling note: Many of the era’s most famous hits were actually written at a nondescript office building a few blocks away: 1650 Broadway.

“I think 1650 has been swept under the rug,” said Grace Blake, director of artist relations at Iridium Jazz Club, which has operated in the building’s basement since 2001.

More than half a century ago, 1650 Broadway music businesses nurtured a stable of young composers—such as Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Chip Taylor and Bert Berns —who churned out a stream of hits from pop ditties like “Loco-Motion” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” to grittier rock tunes such as “Wild Thing” and “Piece of My Heart.”

The building at 1650 Broadway, where the hits used to be made.
The building at 1650 Broadway, where the hits used to be made. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

“It’s like a factory, but they make songs,” a young Ms. King assures her mother in the current Broadway show, “Beautiful–The Carole King Musical,” which is set almost entirely inside the building.

But for years, its role has been neglected, experts said.

Douglas McGrath, who wrote the book for “Beautiful,” said songwriters of the era “are very protective and precise when they talk about it. If you make the mistake of saying the Brill Building, they’re like, ‘No—1650!’ ”

With its Art Deco architecture, Broadway entrance and distinctive name, the Brill Building had more history and cachet, said Ken Emerson, who wrote a book about the era’s music. But since early rock ’n’ roll tended to eschew those qualities, he said, those musicians “tended to gravitate more naturally and readily” to the less-glamorous address, which “was a little sleazier, cheaper but also hipper.”

One 1650-based songwriter-producer who bridged the pop and rock worlds was Bert Berns, whose credits include such hits as “Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Piece of My Heart” and “I Want Candy.”

From his beginnings as a $50-a-week songwriter in 1960 until his death in December 1967, “his entire meteoric seven-year run happened there,” said his son Brett Berns. Along the way, the elder Mr. Berns produced Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” there, his son said, and brought Neil Diamond out on his Bang Records label.

In 1958, Don Kirshner founded Aldon Music with a partner, Al Nevins. They quickly signed songwriters including Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield (“Calendar Girl”), and Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin, who became known for a streak of hits from “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

Carole King poses for a portrait at the piano, circa 1970.
Carole King poses for a portrait at the piano, circa 1970. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

At 1650, strains of piano and percussion could be heard through the walls of the smoky cubicles where songwriters toiled side-by-side, said Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, another prolific Aldon writing team of the time (“On Broadway,” “Only in America”). Next door to them, they said, Ms. King and Mr. Goffin were scrambling to produce more hits and snag stars to sing their songs. Company officials pitted songwriters against one another, pushing them to generate more chart hits than their peers.

It was like “going through a war,” said Mr. Mann, who still writes with Ms. Weil, now his wife. But rivalry and friendship blossomed simultaneously. The couples frequently vacationed together—partly because they enjoyed each other’s company, “but also because we wanted to know what they were doing and make sure they weren’t writing when we were skiing,” Ms. Weil said, laughing.

On another floor, for a different publishing company, James Wesley Voight, aka Chip Taylor (“Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”) wrote in a second-floor office with a large arched window overlooking 51st street.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Taylor, who signed a staff contract writing songs in the building in the early 1960s, stared up from the sidewalk at the window just over the building entrance. It was filled with ballet-themed clothing displays.

Striding through the store, Mr. Taylor pointed out where he experimentally strummed the opening chords to “Wild Thing,” before retreating to a studio around the corner to finish the song as a stream-of-consciousness effort, with all the lights turned out.

“I just wanted to let myself go,” he said.

Stage manager Richard G. Freeman sets up the stage at Iridium Jazz Club in the basement of 1650 Broadway in November.
Stage manager Richard G. Freeman sets up the stage at Iridium Jazz Club in the basement of 1650 Broadway in November. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Descending into the Iridium Jazz Club, he pointed out where the recording studio used to be. The raised seats had been the mixing station; a booth had once been the recording spot.

“There was music going on at every floor here,” Mr. Taylor said.

The building hasn’t embraced its past. An effort by the “Beautiful” producers to erect a plaque honoring 1650’s musical history was rejected by the building management, show officials say. The management declined to comment.

But Iridium is collaborating with several other tenants to livestream a new concert and interview series that launched in mid-December. The tenants are also developing a documentary about the building’s history, including tracking down rumors that Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin hammered out key parts of their act on what is now the Iridium stage.

David Robinson, president of Moonshine Inc., a digital production film and television company, said the projects honor 1650’s history. “It starts to bring together some of the old magic of the building.”

Write to Sophia Hollander at

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