One of the great eras in New York City music comes not from a ‘scene’ of musicians and audiences as we normally think of this term, but from the very mercenary activities associated with the songwriters, publishers, and promoters associated with the city’s Tin Pan Alley.  In Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era (Viking, 2005), historian Ken Emerson makes a strong case for the quintessentially New York sound that was composed, arranged, and produced by Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Neil Sedaka, Doc Pomus, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Mort Shuman, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Neil Diamond, Howard Greenfield, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and others who plied their trade in nondescript Manhattan office buildings.  Some songs they wrote for art’s sake, as the deep cuts on Dusty in Memphis will illustrate, but for the most part these were pop songwriters who, through talent, pluck, and the right connections made the music of American radio pop heaven in the years between Elvis and the Beatles.

alwaysmagic

Emerson gives primary significance to the musical and cultural fusions that New York City’s multiethnic population made possible.  Jazz, R&B, doo wop, mambo, blues: these were the sounds that a mostly Jewish, NYC-born cohort of songwriters grew up hearing on the streets and in the dancehalls. From such local styles and neighborhood pastimes came fresh, innovative sounds, as a chapter titled “It Was Just Jewish Latin” (pg. 124) recounts:

Everybody danced to Latin music,” recalled the boxer and writer José Torres. A newcomer noticed it right away.When Al Gorgoni, a session guitarist who played for Lieber and Stoller, Al Nevins, and many others, moved from Philadelphia to New York, he discovered a “completely different” music scene. “The exciting stuff was the Latin thing. The Puerto Ricans, the Cubans, and whoever — the whole culture — were permeating the vibe. In Philadelphia it was more like Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, and stuff like that.”

Charlie Thomas took it in stride when [Doc] Pomus said he had “a little cha-cha song” for Thomas to sing. “Brought up in Harlem, you’d be around a lot of Puerto Ricans, so the Latin feel is part of your life. So when they presented it to us, it was already in our heart. Weekends and all night long, that’s all you’d hear: the sound of Puerto Rican drums going through your head.” “Sweets for My Sweet,” on which [Mort] Shuman played piano and added his lusty baritone to the chorus, featured Latin percussion and paid unabashed homage to what Tito Puente was performing at the Palladium. According to Jerry Wexler, the song’s chord changes, appropriated from “Guantanamera,” inspired “Twist and Shout,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and many later rock songs with a Latin feel.

“Sweets for My Sweet,” which reached No. 16 in October 1961, was the Drifters’ most explicitly Afro-Cuban single to date and the last of seven hit songs that Pomus and Shuman wrote for the group. It was also the quintessence of the multicultural musical mix that prevailed at 1619 and 1650 Broadway: white writers producing black performers with a Latin beat.

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Emerson doesn’t push too hard on this angle, but episodes like these highlight cultural questions of authenticity, appropriation, and justice that seem not to have weighed heavily on Tin Pan Alley’s creatives.  Such questions have to be put in historical context: for the most part, they were still bubbling under in the concurrent civil rights and student movement, not to erupt until later in the decade.  It’s not clear that any white songwriters ever addressed them satisfactorily, if the embarrassed retreat into more ethnically ‘appropriate’ genres (from Carole King’s 70s singer-songwriter music to Shuman’s adaptations of Jacque Brel) are any evidence.

Questions of ethnic hierarchy and cultural privilege also surface, I think, in the geography of New York City that Emerson highlights.  In particular, I’m always struck by how the Brill Building songwriters he follows hailed overwhelmingly from four high schools in Brooklyn: Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Brooklyn Tech and Erasmus Hall. And of course, they weren’t the only young talent to originate from Brooklyn in the years just prior to the urban crisis.  The list of notable graduates from these schools is absolutely astonishing, as indicated by this unsystematic inventory culled from Wikipedia and student research the last time I taught Always Magic in the Air; musicians are listed first, with asterisks for individuals documented in Emerson’s book.

 

Abraham Lincoln High School LIncolnHS

•           Neil Diamond, class of 1958, singer/songwriter***
•           Howard Greenfield, songwriter***
•           Herbie Mann (né Herbert Jay Solomon), jazz flautist
•           Shelly Manne, jazz drummer
•           Hank Medress, singer in the group the Tokens, best known for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
•           Buddy Rich, jazz drummer and bandleader
•           Neil Sedaka, pop singer, pianist, and songwriter***
•           Mort Shuman, singer, pianist, and songwriter***
•           The Tokens, Neil Sedaka’s teen group (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)***
•           Marv Albert, class of 1959, television sportscaster
•           Ken Auletta, class of 1957, author
•           Richard Bellman, class of 1937, applied mathematician and control theorist who invented dynamic programming in 1953
•           Paul Berg, class of 1943, won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980
•           Mel Brooks (for one year), actor, writer, director, and comedy producer
•           Bernard Cornfeld, businessman and international financier
•           Millie Deegan, professional baseball player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
•           Nelson Figueroa, class of 1992, professional baseball player.
•           John Forsythe, class of 1934, actor
•           Sam Goldaper, class of 1940, sportswriter for The New York Times
•           Louis Gossett, class of 1954, actor
•           David S. Guzick, class of 1969. Dean, University of Rochester School of Medicine; President University of Florida Health System
•           Joseph Heller, class of 1941, author of Catch-22
•           Leona Helmsley (1920–2007), real-estate businesswoman, noted hotelier and “Queen of Mean”
•           Raul Hilberg, class of 1942, historian of genocide
•           Elizabeth Holtzman, class of 1958, Democratic congresswoman; the youngest woman elected to serve in the United States House of Representatives
•           Jerome Karle, class of 1933, won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985
•           Harvey Keitel, film actor
•           Arthur Kornberg, class of 1933, won Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1959
•           Wallace Markfield, class of 1943, comic novelist
•           Stephon Marbury, class of 1995, professional basketball player (NBA)
•           Lee Mazzilli, class of 1973, former professional baseball player, manager and coach
•           Paula Michaels, class of 1983, academic, author and educator at the University of Iowa
•           Arthur Miller, class of 1932, author and playwright, wrote Death of a Salesman and The Crucible
•           Larry Namer, class of 1966, Founder of E! Entertainment TV network
•           Ronald Ribman, class of 1950, author, poet, and playwright
•           Saul Rogovin, major league pitcher
•           Seymour Shapiro, Class of 1931, organic chemist, developed phenformin
•           Alex Steinweiss, class of 1934, graphic designer and inventor of the album cover
•           Sebastian Telfair, class of 2004, professional basketball player (NBA)
•           Arthur Tress, class of 1958, surrealist photographer
•           Sherry Turkle, class of 1965, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT
•           Meryl Vladimer, class of 1969, noted theatrical producer (David and Amy Sedaris; Blue Man Group)
•           Jack B. Weinstein, class of 1939, Brooklyn federal district court judge
•           Dallas Williams, major league baseball player and coach
•           Stephen Yagman, civil rights lawyer

 

James Madison High Schooljames_madison

•           Mimi Benzell, Opera Singer
•           Buddy Kaye, songwriter, musician, producer, author and publisher
•           Carole King (Klein),singer/songwriter***
•           Howie Klein, President of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records
•           Elaine Malbin (class of 1948), opera singer
•           Barry Mann, songwriter***
•           Janis Siegel, Singer
•           Cal Abrams, Major League Baseball Player
•           Maury Allen (class of 1949), sportswriter
•           Larry Baxter, Professional Basketball Player
•           Gary Becker, Nobel Prize Winner – Economics
•           Albert Blumenthal, New York State Assembly Leader
•           Carmela Seidel Bourcier, Executive Producer
•           Andrew Dice Clay, Comedian
•           Norm Coleman, US Senator (Minnesota)
•           Stanley Cohen, Nobel Prize winner, medicine
•           Norm Coleman (class of 1966), U.S. Senator (Republican of Minnesota)
•           Robert Dallek (class of 1952), historian
•           Roy DeMeo (class of 1959), mobster
•           Harry Eisenstat (class of 1935), Major League baseball player
•           Devale Ellis, professional football player
•           Sandra Feldman (class of 1956), president of the American Federation of Teachers
•           Sonny Fox, TV Personality
•           David Frye (born David Shapiro), comedian
•           Sid Ganis (class of 1957), motion picture executive
•           William Gaines, Publisher of Mad Magazine
•           Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice
•           Marty Glickman, Olympian, Sports Broadcaster
•           Ron Haigler, basketball player
•           Stanley Myron Handleman (class of 1947), comedian
•           Garson Kanin (class of 1927), writer and director of plays and films
•           Stanley Kaplan, Educational Testing Innovator
•           Stanley Karnow, Pulitzer Prize Author
•           Paul L. Krinsky (class of 1946), U.S. Navy rear admiral
•           Martin Landau, Actor
•           Rudy LaRusso, Professional Basketball Player
•           Mell Lazarus, cartoonist
•           Andrew Levane (class of 1940), professional basketball player
•           John William Malone, U.S Congressman
•           Bruce Morrow, “Cousin Brucie” of Radio
•           Herbert S. Okun (class of 1947), diplomat
•           Martin Lewis Perl (class of 1942), Nobel Prize winner, physics
•           Sylvia Porter, Financial Columnist
•           Deborah Poritz (class of 1954), N.J. Attorney General then Chief Justice, N.J. Supreme Court
•           Chris Rock, Comedian
•           Herb Rosenblum, Broadcast Journalist, Author
•           Norman Rosten, poet, playwright and novelist
•           Dmitriy Salita, Boxer, NABA Light-Welterweight Champion
•           Bernard Sanders, U.S. Senator (Vermont)
•           Charles Schumer, U.S. Senator (New York)
•           Ted Schreiber, Major League Baseball player
•           Irwin Shaw, Novelist (deceased)
•           Judy Blum Sheindlin, Judge/TV Personality
•           Claire Shulman Kantoff, Queens Borough President
•           Roger Shulman, Screenwriter ALF, Shrek
•           Robert Solow, Nobel Prize Winner-Economics
•           Frank Torre, Professional Baseball player
•           Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, University President
•           Thaddeus Boyd, an African American realist and actor (Tears of the Sun).

 

Brooklyn Technical High SchoolBrooklynTech

•           Richard Fariña, 1945 – Writer, folksinger
•           Gerry Goffin, songwriter***
•           Francis Grasso, 1967 – Early disco DJ
•           Vernon Reid, 1976 – Musician, Living Colour
•           Raymond Scott c. 1916 – Composer and inventor of the music sequencer
•           Gary Ackerman, 1960 – U.S. Congressman
•           Warren Adler, c. 1945 – Author, The War of the Roses
•           George L. Bing, 1941 – Tuskegee Airman and Photographer
•           Karol J. Bobko, 1954 – NASA astronaut
•           John Catsimatidis, 1966 – Chairman & CEO, Red Apple Group, Inc.; NYC mayoral candidate (2013)
•           Tom Chapin, 1962 – Entertainer, humanitarian
•           Lorenzo Charles 1981 – Professional basketball player
•           Frank A. Cipriani, Ph.D. 1951 – President, SUNY at Farmingdale
•           Adam J. Cirillo, 1929 – Educator, championship high-school football coach
•           Kim Coles, 1980 – Actor
•           Albert L. Colston, Ph.D. – Creator and founding principal, Brooklyn Tech
•           Joseph M. Colucci, 1954 – Executive director, General Motors, Research & Design Center
•           John Piña Craven, 1942 – former chief scientist of the US Navy’s Special Projects Office
•           Gen. James E. Dalton, 1949 – Four-star general, United States Air Force
•           Bernard Friedland, Ph.D., 1948 – Engineer, author
•           Lou Ferrigno, 1969 – Bodybuilder, actor
•           Warren Foster, (1923) – cartoon music composer for Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera
•           Geoff Fox, 1968 – WTNH meteorologist
•           Carl Gatto, 1955 – Alaska House of Representatives from 2003–2012
•           Bernard Gifford, Ph.D., 1961 – Scientist, Apple Computer vice president of education
•           David Groh, 1958 – Actor, television’s Rhoda
•           Gary Gruber, Ph.D. – 1958 – Author, physicist, testing expert
•           Meredith Gourdine, Ph.D., 1948 – Electrogasdynamics pioneer, 1952 Olympic silver medalist
•           Herbert L. Henkel, 1966 – Chairman, president & CEO, Ingersoll-Rand Company
•           Isaac “Ike” Heller, 1943 – Founder, Remco Toys and Heller Industrial Parks, Philanthropist
•           Tommy Holmes, 1935 – Major League Baseball player
•           Joseph J. Jacobs, Ph.D., 1934 – Author, engineer, humanitarian
•           Troy Johnson, 1980 – Founder, AALBC.com
•           Stuart Kessler, C.P.A., 1947 – Chairman, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants board of directors
•           Marvin Kitman, 1947 – Author, Newsday television critic
•           Donald L. Klein, Ph.D., 1949 – Inventor, silicon gate transistor
•           Joseph J. Kohn, Ph.D. 1950 – Mathematician
•           Richard LaMotta, 1960 – Founder of Chipwich, ice cream sandwich company
•           Ivan Lee, 1999 – Internationally ranked saber fencer
•           MSgt. Meyer S. Levin, 1934 – Decorated Army Air Force hero, World War II
•           Harvey Lichtenstein, 1947 – executive director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (1967-99)
•           Turk Lown, Major League Baseball player
•           William L. Mack, 1957 – Chairman, Mack-Cali Realty; philanthropist
•           Joseph “Tucker” Madawick, 1937 – President, Industrial Designers Society of America
•           Jack Maple, 1970 – Criminologist, author
•           Richard Matheson, 1943 – Author, I am Legend
•           Barry Mayo, 1970 – Radio executive
•           Matthew F. McHugh, (year?) – US Congressman (1975-1993)
•           Conrad McRae, 1989 – Professional basketball player
•           Saverio “Sonny” Morea, 1950 – NASA engineer
•           Ronnie Nunn, 1968 – NBA Director of Officials
•           Arno Allan Penzias, 1951 – Nobel laureate in physics
•           Frederick Pohl – Science fiction author (dropped out, received honorary diploma in 2009)
•           Sal Restivo, Ph.D. 1958 – Author, researcher
•           Leonard Riggio, 1958 – Chairman, Barnes & Noble
•           Werner Roth, 1966 – Professional soccer hall-of-famer
•           Albert Ruddy, 1948 – two-time Academy Award winning producer
•           Steven Sasson, 1968 – Inventor of Digital Camera
•           Russ Salzberg, 1969 – WWOR-TV sports anchor
•           Richard Schwartz, 1953 – Developer of the GPS Satellite
•           Irwin Shapiro, 1947 – Astrophysicist and Educator
•           Steven P. Shearing, M.D. 1952 – Ophthalmologic surgeon, inventor of shearing lens
•           Louis H. Siracusano, Sr., 1960 – Video and Broadcast Innovator
•           Erinn Smart, 1997 – Women’s fencing silver medalist, 2008 Olympics
•           Keeth Smart, 1996 – First American named #1 male saber fencer
•           George W. Sutton, 1945 – Author, editor, mechanical engineer who designed ablation head shield material for space re-entry
•           Paul C. Szasz, 1947 – Author, diplomat
•           George Wald, Ph.D. 1923 – Biologist, 1967 Nobel Laureate
•           Charles B. Wang, 1962 – Co-founder, Computer Associates International; principal owner, New York Islanders hockey team
•           Anthony Weiner, 1981 – U.S. Congressman
•           Josh S. Weston, 1946 – Chairman, Automatic Data Processing, philanthropist
•           Robert Anton Wilson, 1950 – Author, Playboy editor
•           Lee David Zlotoff, 1970 – Writer, creator of TV series MacGyver
•           Dr. Laurie C. Zephyrin MD, 1992 – Physician, Public Health Leader, Health Systems Innovator

 

Erasmus Hall High School (closed in 1994)erasmus

•           Jeff Barry (Joel Adelberg), (1955); songwriter/producer; Songwriters Hall of Fame member***
•           Artie Butler, (1960); composer, arranger, producer.
•           Clive Davis; Grammy Award winning record producer; Chairman & CEO BMG North America; founder of Arista Records
•           Neil Diamond, attended Erasmus as from 1954-1956; singer/songwriter***
•           Will Downing, (1981); singer
•           Larry LeVan, influential disco DJ at the Paradise Garage
•           Kedar Massenburg, (1981); former CEO/President of Motown Records
•           Stephanie Mills, (1977); actress/singer.
•           Gilbert Price (1960); singer/actor. Protege of Langston Hughes.
•           Marky Ramone (Marc Steven Bell), drummer of seminal New York punk band The Ramones
•           Don K. Reed, (1960): disc jockey, hosted “The Doo-Wop Shop” radio show on New York oldies station WCBS-FM
•           Alan Shulman (attended between 1928–1929); composer and cellist
•           Beverly Sills, (Belle Miriam Silverman) coloratura opera singer, attended Erasmus in the mid-1940s and transferred before graduating.
•           Special Ed (Edward Archer), rapper who mentions Erasmus Hall on his album Youngest in Charge
•           Barbara Stanwyck (Ruby Stevens), (c. 1925); actress
•           Barbra Streisand (Barbara Joan Streisand), (1959); actress, singer, director, producer
•           D. Train, (James Williams) (1980); singer/songwriter
•           Mary Anderson, silent film actress
•           Herbert Aptheker, historian
•           Bob Arum, boxing promoter
•           Joseph R. Barbera, (1928); artist; cartoonist; co-creator of Tom & Jerry cartoons.
•           Karen Bernod, singer
•           John M. Berrien, (1793); Attorney General of the United States and Senator
•           Sylvan Blier, (1937); World War II veteran, retailer and merchandiser of mid-Atlantic region
•           Carol Bruce, actress and singer
•           Phillip Brutus, Florida politician
•           Jeff Chandler (Ira Grossel), (1935); actor
•           Andrew Cheshire (1981); artist/musician
•           Al Cohn, tenor saxophonist
•           Betty Comden, (1933); playwright; Broadway musical songwriter with Adolph Green
•           Jane Cowl (1902); actress, playwright (original name Grace Bailey)
•           Billy Cunningham, (1961); player and coach, Philadelphia ’76ers basketball team
•           Jon Cypher, (1949); actor (Hill Street Blues)
•           Al Davis; Oakland Raiders owner, Pro Football Hall of Fame member
•           Elaine de Kooning; painter
•           Norm Drucker, professional basketball official.
•           Bobby Fischer, dropped out in 1960; chess champion
•           Jim Florio (1964); former Governor of New Jersey
•           Jonah Goldman, major league baseball player
•           Deborah Grabien (c. 1971); novelist/essayist
•           Earl G. Graves (1952); publisher of Black Enterprise magazine
•           Arno Gruen, psychoanalyst, psychologist and writer
•           Susan Hayward (Edythe Marrenner), Hollywood actress.
•           Eleanor Holm, (1932); Olympic swimmer
•           Moe Howard, (Moses Harry Horwitz), (dropped out after two months, 1915) member of the Three Stooges comedy team
•           Waite Hoyt; Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Yankees and long-time broadcaster for the Cincinnati Reds
•           John W. Hunter, (1824); New York State Senator, Congressman, and mayor of Brooklyn
•           Stanley Edgar Hyman (c. 1933); literary critic; husband of Shirley Jackson
•           Marty Ingels, comedian; husband of Shirley Jones.
•           Ned Irish; Founder of the New York Knicks, member of the Basketball Hall of Fame
•           Roger Kahn, (1945); sportswriter, author of several books including The Boys of Summer
•           Tom Kahn (1956); leader of the civil-rights, social-democratic, and labor movements
•           Dr. Eric Kandel, (1944); winner of Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, 2000
•           Lainie Kazan (Lainie Levine), (1956); Broadway, film and TV actress and singer
•           Dorothy Kilgallen, (1932); journalist and TV celebrity.
•           Bernie Kopell, (1953); actor, “Doc” on TV series The Love Boat
•           Harold Kushner (1951); rabbi and author
•           Samuel LeFrak, (1936); real estate developer
•           Abby Lippman, Women’s Health Activist and Professor of Epidemiology, McGill University.
•           Sid Luckman, (1935); football champion with the Chicago Bears
•           Daniel Mann, attended in 1920s, transferred before graduating; film and television director
•           Bernard Malamud, (1932); author and educator; Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer, 1967, Magic Barrel, 1958
•           Dr. Barbara McClintock, (1919); winner of Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 1983
•           Aline MacMahon, actress
•           Don McMahon, major league baseball player
•           James Meissner (1914); World War I Flying Ace
•           Morris Smith Miller, (1794); congressman and First Judge of Oneida County.
•           Don Most, (1970); actor, TV series, Happy Days.
•           Michael Rapaport, TV actor, attended Erasmus in the 1980s
•           Lynn Pressman Raymond (c. 1912–2009), toy and game innovator who was president of the Pressman Toy Corporation
•           Jerry Reinsdorf, (1953); owner of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox
•           Lewis Rolland, MD, (1942); expert on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease)
•           Mike Rosen (1960); Denver radio talk show host
•           Robert Rosen (1970); author of the best-selling biography Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon
•           Alvin Roth (1948); college basketball player
•           Sam Rutigliano, former NFL head coach
•           Arthur M. Sackler, MD (1931); art historian and collector; Collection of African and Ancient Art is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
•           Brigadier General Guy Sands-Pingot, (1974); U.S. Army Officer
•           Sheldan Segal (c. 1943), contraceptive developer
•           Robert Silverberg, (1952); novelist
•           Melodee M. Spevack (1970); actress, writer, anime voice performer
•           Mickey Spillane (Morrison Spillane), (1936); author of detective and mystery fiction
•           Bern Nadette Stanis (Bernadette Stanislaus) (1972); actress
•           Norma Talmadge, (c. 1911), silent film star
•           Cheryl Toussaint, (1970); athlete; Olympic gold medalist, 1972.
•           George M. Troup, (1792); Governor of Georgia
•           Kenny Vance, musician, who calls out Erasmus Hall in the first line of “Looking for an Echo”
•           Eli Wallach, (1932); actor
•           Mae West (Mary Jane West) (1911); actress, comedienne, playwright
•           Paula Wolfert (1955), award-winning cookbook author and Mediterranean cuisines specialist

 

What to make of this remarkable concentration of human talent in four schools that were admittedly large but still not out of line with other urban schools?  It highlights, first, the broader gravity on ‘human capital’ that New York City exerted at this time.  Yet the years documented by Emerson’s book was hardly an era for creative-class migration as we might associate with the present day. (Recall that New York City’s population actually dropped by more than 100,000 people between 1950 and 1960.) Instead, this is an earlier era of ethnic segmentation and segregation, which highlights a second fact: this list of notable alumni is overwhelmingly “white ethnic” and heavily Jewish, as we might expect given the ethnic and class composition of Brooklyn at this time.  With some exceptions, the appearance of African-American and Latin graduates on this list corresponds to native-born Jewish Brooklynites’ ‘graduation’ into the white mainstream — and into the white flight that changed the demographics of Brooklyn significantly.

Needless to say, these were politically fraught years of racial and ethnic transition in New York City.  The silence of the Brill Building canon on these issues is as telling as the multicultural origins of its sounds.