The Brill Building (built 1931) is an office building located at 1619 Broadway in New York City, just north of Times Square. The Brill Building (named after the Brill Brothers, who owned a clothing store on the street level and who later bought the entire building from its developer, A.E. Lefcourt) was intended as a financial office space for brokers and bankers. In the midst of the Depression, the timing couldn't have been worse, and the owners resorted to renting space to music publishers, as there were few other takers.
The building is 11 stories and approximately 175,000 rentable square feet.
The "Big Band Era"
Even before World War II
it became a centre of activity for the popular music industry, especially music publishing and songwriting. Scores of music publishers had offices in the Brill Building. Once songs had been published, the publishers sent song pluggers
to the popular white bands and radio stations. These song pluggers would sing and/or play the song for the band leaders to encourage bands to play their music.
During the ASCAP strike of 1941, many of the composers, authors and publishers turned to pseudonyms in order to have their songs played on the air.
Brill Building songs were constantly at the top of the Hit Parade and played by the leading bands of the day:
- Leo Feist Inc.
- Lewis Music Publishing
- Mills Music Publishing
Racial Politics of Music Publishing
The music publishers at this time followed the racial codes of the day. They either had their own (typically white) contract writers composing songs or they opened their doors to publish songs of others, but hid the fact that songs were created by non-white or non-Christian artists.
Jewish songwriters often adopted anglicized noms de plume in order for their songs to be published. This was necessary at a time when anti-semitism was widespread.
In the 1930s some publishers in the Brill Building specialized in publishing the songs of African American Swing composers. For example, Lewis Music published the songs of Erskine Hawkins and Avery Parrish, among others. These tunes were called "Race Music", the euphemism for songs written by black artists. If a composer wrote an instrumental (and even sometimes if there were already lyrics), the publishers provided their own lyricists. Top selling songs on the (white) Hit Parade, such as Tuxedo Junction and Jersey Bounce, were originally composed as instrumentals by black swing artists, but were not played by white bands on the radio until they had been published with lyrics, often by white writers.
The "Brill Building Sound"
The Brill Building's name has been widely adopted as a shorthand term for a broad and influential stream of American mainstream popular song (strongly influenced by Latin music
and rhythm and blues
) which enjoyed great commercial success in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Many significant American and international publishing companies, music agencies and recording labels were based in New York, and although these ventures were naturally spread across many locations, the Brill Building was regarded as probably the most prestigious address in New York for music business professionals. The term "The Brill Building Sound" is somewhat inaccurate, however, since much of the music so categorised actually emanated from other locations — music historian Ken Emerson
nominates buildings at 1650 Broadway and 1697 Broadway
as other significant bases of activity in this field.
By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses: a musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record, and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. The creative culture of the independent music companies of Brill Building and the nearby 1650 Broadway came to define the influential "Brill Building Sound" and the style of popular music songwriting and recording created by its writers and producers.
Carole King described the atmosphere at the 'Brill Building' publishing houses of the period:
- "Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You'd sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific — because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He'd say: 'We need a new smash hit' — and we'd all go back and write a song and the next day we'd each audition for Bobby Vee's producer." — quoted in The Sociology of Rock by Simon Frith (1978, ISBN 0-09-460220-4).
Many of the best works in this diverse category were written by a loosely affiliated group of songwriter-producer teams — mostly duos — that enjoyed immense success and who collectively wrote some of the biggest hits of the period. Many in this group were close friends, as well as being creative and business associates — and both individually and as a duo, they often worked with each other and with other writers in a wide variety of combinations.
Other famous musicians who were headquartered in The Brill Building:
Among the hundreds of hits written by this group are Leiber and Stoller's "Yakety Yak", Shuman and Pomus's "Save The Last Dance For Me", Bacharach and David's "The Look of Love", Sedaka and Greenfield's "Calendar Girl", King and Goffin's "The Loco-Motion", Mann and Weil's "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and Spector, Greenwich and Barry's "River Deep Mountain High".
Aldon Music — 1650 Broadway
Many of these writers came to prominence while under contract to Aldon Music
, a publishing company founded ca. 1958 by aspiring music entrepreneur Don Kirshner
and industry veteran Al Nevins
. Aldon was not initially located in the Brill Building, but rather, a block away at 1650 Broadway (at 51st St.). In fact, 1650 was built to be a musician's headquarters, so much so that the laws at the time required that the "front" door be placed on the side of the building due to laws restricting musicians from entering buildings from the front. Most so-called 'Brill Building' writers began their careers at 1650, and the building continued to house many record labels throughout the decades.
Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson, published by Viking Penguin in 2005 (ISBN 0-670-03456-8) (Reviewed by The New York Times here)
Selection of businesses located 1619 Broadway (Brill Building) and 1650 Broadway
- Broadway Video
- Postworks LLC/Orbit Digital
- Famous Music
- Coed Records, Inc.
- Mills Music
- Southern Music
- TM Music
- Helios Music/Glamorous Music
- KMA Music
- Paul Simon Music
- Maggie Vision Productions
- Aldon Music
- Bell Records, Inc.
- Buddah Records, Inc.
- Gamble Records, Inc.
- Scepter/Wand Records
- Web IV Music, Inc.
The Brill Building in fiction
The Brill Building in popular culture