Songwriter Jeff Barry chats with Simon and Brian about the writing of his many hits, including ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, ‘Leader of the Pack’, ‘Chapel of Love’, ‘Then He Kissed Me’, ‘Be My Baby’, ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Doo Wah Diddy Diddy’, ‘River Deep – Mountain High’, ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’, ‘Iko Iko’ and ‘Sugar Sugar’. Jeff also discusses his work with Brill Building collaborators like Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector.
In July of 2005, Stephen Meyer interviewed Jeff Barry for his weekly newsletter, DISC & DAT. The interview was conducted via email, and Jeff’s responses to Stephen’s questions are economically worded but informative, eloquent – and witty!
Q. Your musical resume is deep as both a songwriter and a producer. Do you enjoy one role over the other, or do you like them both the same?
Jeff: Songwriting is first in my heart, but producing your own song is like directing your own screenplay.
Q. How did you become a songwriter? Was it what you always wanted to do?
Jeff: I’ve always done it – since seven years old … then one day someone said “Hey, kid!”
Q. Did you write lyrics as well as music?
Jeff: Mainly lyrics – I guess I’m basically a storyteller. Lyrics, melody, chords – in that order.
Q. Can you tell us how the creative songwriting process worked when you and (ex-wife) Ellie Greenwich collaborated with Phil Spector? What was it like working with Spector in those glory days?
Jeff: One of them, usually Phil, would be at the piano, and I would be banging on a desk or a file cabinet. It was all pretty effortless, and fun, looking back at it now.
Q. Do you have a favorite song that you’ve written?
Jeff: If I had to pick one … it would be “I Honestly Love You.”
Q. Do you remember any specific things that happened in the studio back then that you considered truly innovative? Certainly Spector was an innovator.
Jeff: I suppose I’ve had my moments, but it’s not for me to say.
Q. It seems that great songs stand the test of time. Many of your songs are still on the radio and are favorites of millions of people, both young and old…it must be truly rewarding to see your songs embraced by new audiences year after year.
Jeff: It truly is. Of course, the “old” you refer to were once the original “young.”
Q. As you know the record industry has changed dramatically in the past decade and it seems there’s been a shift away from most labels committing to artist development. It also means that there’s no real catalog being built now for the future when labels don’t build rosters with great singer/songwriters. How do you see the role of songwriters like yourself in today’s music industry environment and in the future?
Jeff: Impossible for me to predict, but if the world doesn’t have enough songs by now, it never will.
Q. While the major labels waste precious time and resources suing several hundred people every month who download music illegally on P2P sites, Apple’s leader Steve Jobs has revolutionized the industry by starting the iTunes online music store (which is close to selling a half billion legal songs online) and developing the iPod. How do you view the Internet and the digital future of the business from a songwriter/producer perspective?
Jeff: There was music, and music being bought before radio and television, so I assume it will survive the Internet as well – somehow.
Q. When I interviewed Al Kooper last year I asked him if he thought there was any downside for artists today with all the technology in place and being developed and he answered, “Yeah, the technology allows one person to make a whole record single-handedly. There are high-rated engineers today who have never miked a viola or a French horn. Solo acts who have never recorded with a roomful of real musicians. That’s a big mofo downside in my humble opinion … it’s also a possible destruction of camaraderie and interaction and sometimes that’s an integral part of making great music.” Would you agree?
Jeff: I agree, in that much is created live that cannot be created electronically.
Q. What artists out there today do you listen to?
Jeff: Mainly country – still writing good songs!!!!
Q. Is there one award or recognition you’ve received that you cherish most?
Jeff: That would have to be the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the kind words I receive from fans all the time.
Q. What are you doing these days to keep busy?
Jeff: I have a musical comedy opening in October [Knight Life, which premiered in Vero Beach, Florida in November 2005] – a TV series in development at Spelling TV. I am writing Ruthless People – The Musical, a screenplay close to being made.
Q. Any final thoughts?
Jeff: In every civilization ever found, a smile, frown, grimace, etc. means exactly the same as it does in all the other civilizations, and there is no civilization without some form of music – interesting, huh?