RIP, girl group icon Ellie Greenwich

One of rock's first great female songwriters could make even nonsense syllables like "da doo ron ron" sound dirty

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 27, 2009 4:28PM (EDT)

In the justifiable outpouring of tributes this week at the loss of Senator Ted Kennedy and author Dominick Dunne, let's not allow the passing of another great American legend go unremarked. Songwriter Ellie Greenwich died of a heart attack yesterday in New York City at 68.

In the early 60s, Greenwich entered the Brill Building and revolutionized the world of chaste, crinolined girl groups. With her husband Jeff Barry and other collaborators, she co-wrote some of the most potently sexual pop songs of the era. It was her ear for the drama of feminine love, combined with the tempestuous production of the legendary Phil Spector, that gave the world the urgently beautiful "Be My Baby," "Leader of the Pack," "He Kissed Me," and "River Deep, Mountain High." She was also a pioneer among female music producers (a field that remains dominated by men), working most notably on Neil Diamond's early hits "Cherry Cherry" and "Kentucky Woman."

Although her professional career waned after her wall-of-sound-era peak, she continued writing, producing and doing background vocals far into her later years and turned her hits into the Tony- and Grammy-nominated musical "Leader of the Pack." She earned over 25 gold and platinum records and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1991, an accomplishment few writers of either gender have ever matched. She was, unabashedly, one of rock's first great female songwriters, a woman whose music never failed to celebrate passion, who could make even nonsense syllables like "da doo ron ron" and "doo wah diddy" sound gloriously dirty. Sure, we would likely still have a Liz Phair and Patti Smith and Courtney Love if we hadn't had an Ellie Greenwich, but we're lucky someone of her unparalleled zest and humor blazed the path. And though she didn't invent the term hanky-panky, the next time your baby does it, give a little thanks to Ellie.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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