Brill Building: Music, Songwriters & Songs

Instructor: David White
The musicians who worked out of the Brill Building in the 1950s and 60s produced some of the biggest hits of their time and left a lasting impression on the music industry. Learn the history of the Brill Building and explore some of these artists below.

What Is the Brill Building?

Think about some of the classic songs from the 1950s and 60s, like the Coasters' 'Yakety Yak', the Shirelles' 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow', or the Drifters' 'Save the Last Dance for Me'. What do these all have in common? Well, they're all iconic songs from the early days of pop and rhythm and blues, for one. They also all have the power to get stuck in your head on loop. But another thing these songs have in common is that none of them were actually written by the artists who sang them. Instead, they were all products of the legendary songwriters working out of the Brill Building in New York City.

The Brill Building is an office building located on 49th Street in Manhattan, made famous for the number of musicians and songwriters whose music written there dominated the charts throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Built as the Alan E. Lefcourt Building in 1930, the building was purchased two years later by the Brill Brothers, a pair of NY haberdashers, and has since been known as 'the Brill Building' for the business the brothers operated at the street level.

The Brill Building, located on 49th Street, New York.
brill

Although the brothers had intended to rent the building out as business offices, by the 1940s the building had begun to fill up with musicians. This is in part due to its proximity to Times Square, the Theater District, and the large collection of music publishers in the area, often referred to as Tin Pan Alley.

The 1940s and 50s

As early as the 1940s, the Brill Building was home to a number of jazz and big band musicians, including Irving Mills. As the president of the Jack Mills Music Company, Mills is credited with discovering a number of iconic jazz musicians like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. Given Mills' success and the building's proximity to the heart of the American music industry, it quickly attracted many other musicians, songwriters, and industry professionals.

Towards the end of 1940s, the Brill Building had become occupied by some of the biggest names in the industry. In 1949, for example, St. Nicholas Music was housed on the building's sixth floor, which is where songwriter Johnny Marks wrote Christmas songs that are still iconic today, including 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' (1949) and 'Rocking Around the Christmas Tree' (1958).

With rhythm and blues gaining popularity during the mid-to-late 1950s, record producers and record labels turned to Brill Building songwriters for new material. The songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), for example, composed a surprising number of hits for early R&B singers, including the Elvis Presley hits 'Hound Dog', 'Jailhouse Rock', and 'Treat Me Nice'. The two are also credited with being the first to incorporate sweeping orchestral arrangements into rhythm and blues music.

Among Leiber and Stoller hits are many written for Elvis Presley, including Hound Dog.
hound dog

The 1960s

By the early 1960s, the teen music craze was sweeping the United States, causing record labels to turn to the Brill Building songwriters for a constant stream of new hits. Many of these hits came from a small number of songwriting duos. The husband and wife team Goffin and King (Jerry Goffin and Carole King), for example, wrote a string of hits beginning in the early 60s that includes 'The Locomotion', 'One Fine Day', and 'Up on the Roof.'

While Goffin and King have become almost synonymous with the Brill Building sound of the 60s, there are a number of other teams that have contributed as much to the history. Among them, Burt Bacharach and his sometimes partner Hal David composed some of their most celebrated songs, including a number of hits for Dionne Warwick, like 'I Say a Little Prayer', 'Promises', and 'Do You Know the Way to San Jose?'

These songwriting teams tend to be the most frequently cited when referencing the Brill Building, but there were many other musicians that occupied the building during the 60s, including Neil Diamond, Phil Spector, and even John Lennon for a time. During this time, the building became something of a one-stop shop for musicians. They could find a variety of talented songwriters, record in one of the studios, sign a licensing deal with one of the publishers, and even perform in the building's 50-seat theater.

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