John Braheny Interviews Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann at TAXI Road Rally 2001
Perhaps the most successful pure songwriting team in history, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil have created a body of work so significant it has been described as "a soundtrack to our lives." Together, this husband and wife team have written songs like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (with Phil Spector), "On Broadway" (with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), "Walking In The Rain," "Kicks," "Soul and Inspiration," "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place," "I Just Can't Help Believing," "Here You Come Again," "Never Gonna Let You Go," "Just Once," and the Grammy-nominated "Don't Know Much" (with Tom Snow) to name a small few. The list of their hits spans the decades. They are still creating today's standards with Top Five records on the Country and Pop charts in just the last three years.
We asked songwriting guru John Braheny to sit down with Cynthia and Barry at this year's fifth annual TAXI Road Rally.
When you guys first started out, how much had you written before you actually started getting cuts?
Barry Mann: Probably about a year or so. It's really a long story. I quit college. I was studying architecture for about a year. I also used to work in the Catskill Mountains as a bus boy, and I performed in talent shows. For some reason, I kept the name of a publisher who had given me his name. When I quit college, I looked him up. I had already about five or six songs written just for myself, but I never thought I'd end up being a songwriter. I played him five songs, and he said, "Well, go cut a demo." I said, "What's a demo?" He explained it, and he ended up hiring the musicians for me. We cut a demo of this one song called "The Ecstasy of Love."
Cynthia Weil: That's how long ago it was. There were real live musicians in the studios.
BM: At one point I bumped into a guy named Don Kirshner who comes into my life later on. Anyway, those are kind of my beginnings.
Cynthia, what was happening with you before you hooked up with Barry?
CW: Nothing. Actually I was writing with people that didn't get records. I wanted to write for Broadway. I really had no interest in the pop market at the time, but I had shown material to Frank Lesser through someone I had auditioned for. Frank Lesser sent me up to his publishing company, Alden Music, and I wrote with some people there. Then I was introduced to a young writer named Teddy Randazzo. He was kind of the Italian boy singer of the day. I was writing with him too. While I was writing with Teddy, Barry came up with Harry Greenfield to play him a song. So I said, "So who's the cute guy?" I asked who he was, and if he had a girlfriend and the whole thing. Judy Tannen, who was the receptionist there, said, "Well he writes for a friend of mine named Don Kirshner. So why don't you go up there and maybe you'll see him and get him to ask you out." I went up there, actually stalking Barry, and ended up with a career. But it all begins with lust! [laughter]
BM: Let that be your first lesson. And the lust is still there!
CW: But actually I had an appointment to show Kirshner my lyrics, and he said, "Oh I have the perfect person to write with you." And I thought, "Here comes the cute guy!" And the door opens and in walks this little girl who looks about twelve. He said that her husband was a chemist and he worked during the day. She could only write with him at night and she was wasting her days just sitting around. So he thought I could write with her during the day. And that was Carole King. She and Gerry Goffin lived in a basement apartment in Brooklyn, and I was this Manhattan girl who never went in the subway. It took me two subways to get out there. It was like a nightmare. I had to change trains! It was really terrible. I got out to the basement apartment, and Carole played me this great melody. By that time I was exhausted. Who could write? I hadn't written that kind of song that much, but I knew it was a really good melody. So I said, "Why don't I take this home. I can play a little piano. Just make me a lead sheet. I'll fool around with it and I'll call you." So I go home on the two trains again, and by the time I got home and walked in, the phone was ringing and it was Carole. She said, "Well, Gerry just got home from work and he was very mad at me that I gave you that melody. He really likes it and I have to take it back." She said he had a really good idea, so I said, "Oh yeah, what's so good?" She said, "It's called 'Take Good Care of My Baby,'" which ended up being a #1 song for Bobby Vee. So it was a good idea, and I learned that you just have to think faster than I was thinking and move more smartly than I was moving.
So that got you right into the competitive environment of the Brill Building where you were competing with Carole and Gerry . . .
CW: Yes, mostly with Carole and Gerry, who were our best friends and our biggest competition. It was a very complex relationship.
Who else was up there then?
BM: We were actually in the building at 1650, which was a block away from the Brill Building. It was like the sister building. Basically all of the music in itself was kind of its own little city. It was Cynthia and myself, Carole and Gerry, Howie Greenfield and Neil Sedaka. Later on Carole Bayer came in. Then she only had two names!
Outside of Alden, of course there was Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were kind of everybody's mentors in one way or another. There was Jeff Barry and Ellie
Greenwich, the other married songwriting team. There were also some really terrific black songwriters. Otis Blackwell was a fantastic songwriter, who wrote some for Elvis. Then of course there was the Detroit sound which came a little bit after this, with Holland, Dozier, and Holland.
So your publisher would tell you who was recording, and then he would give those assignments to everybody, and whoever came up with the song got the cut?
BM: Yes, we'd all scramble. It was very competitive. It was filled with a lot of anxiety, but at the same time, there was a lot of excitement also.
CW: It was kind of like songwriter's boot camp. You had to produce. You had to produce fast. You had to learn. You made a lot of mistakes, and you wrote a lot of crap. But it was all part of the learning process.
BM: We've written something like 900 songs in all. I looked through our catalog year by year, and I saw that there were pockets of time when we wrote some terrific songs. Then all of a sudden, we'd go for another two or three months and there weren't great songs.
CW: They were junk.
BM: So we were learning how to write for different artists. We didn't only write for artists that were up, or about to record. We would write other songs too. We wrote for Broadway. I always had this concept to write a Gershwin-esque pop rock song. Basically, that's how I started the song "On Broadway." The original melody, which is very close to the melody we have now, had one little note that was kind of Gershwin-esque.
Tell me how it got to Leiber and Stoller.
BM: We had written a song, and it only had two verses. Phil Spector had already cut a version with The Crystals. Carole and Gerry had cut it with a group called The Cookies. Anyway, Leiber and Stoller were cutting The Drifters, so we brought it up for them. We played it for Jerry and Mike, and they said, "We really like the idea, and we really like the melody."
CW: It was from a female point of view, though. We had done it for these girl groups, originally, so it was about a girl coming to Broadway and wanting to make it on Broadway.
BM: Leiber and Stoller said, "It really needs work. You could go home and continue writing it, or if you want, you can write with us." We jumped at the chance to write with Jerry and Mike. It was fantastic. So we ended up going to Jerry's house and continued writing the song. It was a very, very exciting experience. Their process, especially Jerry Leiber's process as a lyricist, was totally different than Cynthia's.
CW: Jerry would write in a much more abstract way, kind of throwing out lines. I was always very linear. I had to be a good girl and finish verse one before I would allow myself to have the pleasure of verse two. But Jerry said, "Just loosen up, woman, and let's just write the song. We'll throw out lines that we think are good, and then we'll see where they go and if we can use any of them." That's the way we kind of approached it. Then it all came together. I was really interesting for me.
So did you take any of that away, in terms of how you wrote after that? Did you loosen up a bit?
CW: Well, as a rigid bitch, I became a little less rigid. My nature is to be linear, and when I'm not, I feel really proud of myself.
BM: My nature is to be totally unlinear. We're totally different.
CW: We are the yin and the yang of the creative process.
So what kind of problems does that cause in working on a song?
BM: The biggest problem is getting to work. She just wants to jump in, and I procrastinate for awhile until I really get into it. Once I get into it, then I'm into it.
CW: But I'm someone who the more afraid I am, the more I want to do it to get the fear over with. He's someone who will put it off for as long as possible. This leads to marital discord occasionally. [laughs]
That's a pressure cooker of its own, to have your craft, and your art, and your business, and your personal life all together. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't with people.
BM: In the long run, it really worked for us. There aren't a lot of problems.
You learn how to trigger each other's process.
CW: Well, you feel safe. That's the most important thing. When Barry wrote with Dan Hill, Dan came up with a great phraseÍ He said, "I don't like creative blind dates." That's what it is every time you walk into the room to write with someone new. It's like, oh god I have to take my clothes off˝my creative clothes˝and let them see all of my flaws.
BM: You have to be very brave in that first writing session.
CW: That's true no matter how much you've done. As a matter of fact, it's kind of harder now because when we go in to write with somebody, we're sure they are going to say, "How did they do all that? They're not so hot. Who really did that?" So it never gets easier. It's part of the agony of being a songwriter. So when you do have a partner that you feel comfortable with, you can make all of those mistakes, and you feel free enough to say, "That's a crappy line," or "You've written that chord change 25 times that I've heard."
BM: But at the same time, sometimes it is very good to write with other people because you do have that little bit of edge. You're tense. I think it helps you to get out of your rut. It's very important, at least for me and for Cynthia, to get outside input. You can get stale writing with each other for a while.
CW: Absolutely. Then we kind of come back and appreciate that feeling of comfort that we do have together. It's like, oh now I can really let go.
BM: Writing with other people is also beneficial, not only on the creative aspect, but also that they have a different context. They have their ear to what is going on in the street differently than you might have. It's very good, and you'll pick up on that input.
You said that in the beginning it was probably about 50-50 between songs you just wrote to write a song and some that were responses to actual projects or artists. How does that stand today? Are you still doing that?
BM: Right now we're writing a Broadway show. A rock musical. So we've really been very busy with that. Once in a while we will write for an artist. They tell us which artists are "up." And then sometimes we just sit and write a song.
CW: But actually the Nashville market is far more interesting, certainly lyrically, for me now than the pop market. I can't seem to write young enough anymore. Even when I think I'm writing really young, they say it's too mature.
Well "Wrong Again" was a big one that you wrote for Martina McBride. When you say it's easier for you, what are the differences with country? Was that written to be a country song?
CW: Yes, I wrote it with a country writer. Barry and I were in the middle of building a house, and I was in the midst of having a nervous breakdown, because that's what you do when you build a house. It's really bad. Just in the midst of this, this kid named Tommy Lee James came into town and called me up and said, "Barbara (Orbison˝Roy's widow and publisher -ed.) told me to look you up. I'd like to come over and play you a song." And I thought oh god, I can't do this. Then Barry said, "The best thing in the world would be for you to get your head into something besides this house." So Tommy came over, and he played me this song and melody. I didn't know if it was good. I didn't know if it was bad. I just thought,: "I'm going to write this for therapy." And for a couple of days I forgot about the money for the house that was flying out of the bank account. So I wrote "Wrong Again," and Tommy cut the demo. Then I played it for Barry. I had written this really depressing ending in which when everybody says you get over things, and I thought I would love again, butÍ wrong again. Barry said, "What do you want, for people to go around killing themselves? You can't do this."
BM: I'm usually not into the cliche where you have to have a happy ending, but this song was so negative.
CW: It was so depressing, so we came up with a more upbeat ending. That was the easiest record in the world. I thought: "Nashville. I know how to do this!" It seemed easy because a week later, he called me and said, "They loved it for Martina." A month later he called me and said, "They cut the record." And then a little while later, "It's going to be a single." And then, "Oh, it's #1." And I thought, "Oh this is a snap!" I tell you it has not been a snap ever since. We've been killing ourselves. Some of these things I think are fated, or written in the stars, or it was the right place at the right time. I don't know why.
What about Phil Spector and "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." How did Phil get involved in that?
BM: He wanted to write with us. He had been writing with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. For some reason, he wanted to change. He said he had this new group from Orange County called The Righteous Brothers. He said he'd love us to write something for them with him. At the time, we loved "Baby I Need Your Loving." We just loved that record and we thought it was great. We wanted to write something like it. Cynthia and I started alone without Phil. I remember we used "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" as a dummy title. We wrote a verse and a chorus. I didn't know how to end it. "Gone, gone, gone, whoa, whoa, whoa" wasn't in there yet. We played Phil the verse and the chorus and told him it was a dummy title. He ended up coming up with "Gone, gone, gone, whoa, whoa, whoa," but he also came up with the concept of that middle part ˝ the "bomp, do, do-do" which for the time, was very, very different. He also said, "Hey man, 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' is the title." So we ended up using that, and it ended up becoming the most played song of the last century.
Do you have any final words for our aspiring writers?
BM: You're fools to try to be songwriters! [laughs] You've got to really be able to accept the rejection. You're going to have more rejection than acceptance. One other thing, if it's possible, as songwriters, you should also develop yourself as record producers. You really can get rid of the middleman if you can become songwriter-producers.
CW: But also there are all the famous stories about the songs that have been rejected, but then went on to become hits. As William Goldman said about the film industry, "Nobody knows anything." It's the same thing in the music industry. A lot of guys spend their lives saying no because it's an easier way to keep your job. You just have to believe in yourself when you've got something, and just keep pounding on the door, because if you pound long enough, somebody is going to open it. You'll probably hit them in the face, but Sometimes it's something you've got to do. What can I say? There is the great creative part of it. The writing is the best part. When you feel good about what you've written, there is just no high that is greater.
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