This will be the last ‘I Write the Songs’ column in the current run. I’m taking a break for the summer period but it will be back in the Autumn with a whole new bunch of songwriters to celebrate.
As this is the last one for a while, I thought we’d close by celebrating a truly great songwriter who recently passed away after a long and illustrious career. Cynthia Weil died at the beginning of this month, at the age of 82. Along with her husband, Barry Mann, she was one of the great husband and wife songwriting teams of the golden age of the Brill Building, working alongside Carole King and then-husband Gerry Goffin, and Barry and Ellie Greenwich .
While Cynthia Weil was really a mainstream pop writer, Mann & Weil songs have been covered by many Americana artists and Cynthia Weil is one of the great lyricists of the modern era. Songs like ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’, ‘We Gotta Get Outta This Place’, and ‘I Just Can’t Help Believing’ are just three examples. Unlike other husband and wife teams like Goffin & King or Felice & Boudreaux Bryant, where the roles were sometimes shared, Mann & Weil separated out the music and the lyrics and to often devastating effect. Barry Mann was a dab hand with a good melody, but Cynthia Weil was a lyricist of real creativity and imagination and the stories she told through their songs are mini masterpieces.
Weil was born into a conservative Jewish family in New York City on October 18, 1940. Her parents were Morris Weil, a furniture store owner and the son of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, and Dorothy Mendez, who grew up in a Sephardic Jewish family in Brooklyn. Weil herself initially trained as an actress and dancer, studying theater at Sarah Lawrence College, but it was her songwriting ability that started to catch attention. She began her songwriting career under the guidance of Tin Pan Alley songwriter Frank Loesser and relatively quickly signed a contract with Al Nevins and Don Kirsher’s Aldon Music. This was a pivotal period in the history of popular music, marking the transition from Tin Pan Alley to rock n’ roll. As one of the young writers at Aldon Music she was in a position to significantly influence the rock n’ roll music emerging at the time and songs she worked on came to monopolize the pop charts.
Her success as a lyricist resulted in a collaboration with Barry Mann. Their first song working together was written and released in 1961 and ‘Bless You’ would give Tony Orlando a major American hit, staying in the charts for 12 weeks and peaking at number 15. Mann would become her main collaborator as well as her husband and they would go on to become shining stars of the Brill Building songwriting factory.
While she would write the majority of her songs with her husband, Weil would often be asked to help with lyrics for other writers and, as a result, her career as a songwriter extended way beyond her 60s heyday. Unlike a lot of their Brill Building contemporaries, who started to lose ground once leading artists started writing much of their own material, Weil & Mann were able to adapt and continue to provide songs that artists wanted to cover. In 1977 it was their song, ‘Here You Come Again’, that gave emerging country star Dolly Parton the big crossover hit that took her career to new levels. Ten years later, ‘Somewhere Out There’, which Weil co-wrote with James Horner, would win two Grammys and be nominated for an Oscar, move on another ten years and Weil is back in the American Top 10 with Hanson’s ‘I Will Come To You’. It shows the endurance of a songwriter who moved with the times to keep her work relevant and always interesting. Significantly, Weil’s lyrics have always been meaningful and, as a result, often controversial; ‘Only In America’ tackled racism and segregation, ‘On Broadway’ was about the very real difficulties of succeeding in the big city, ‘We Gotta Get Out of this Place’ became an anthem for Vietnam anti-war protesters, and they wrote one of the earliest anti-drug songs ‘Kicks’, a hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders back in 1966 – “Kicks just keep gettin’ harder to find/ And all your kicks ain’t bringin’ you peace of mind/ Before you find out it’s too late, girl/ You better get straight”.
In 1987, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2004, Mann and Weil’s ‘They Wrote That?’, a musical revue based on their songs, opened in New York. It only enjoyed a short run but, with a certain amount of irony, the songwriters are also characters in ‘Beautiful’, the musical based on Carol King’s career, which includes the intense friendship, and rivalry, between the musical partnerships of Goffin and King and Mann and Weil.
In 2010, Cynthia Weil, along with Barry Mann, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech, Weil said, “From the bottom of my heart and with the greatest humility; I thought you guys would never ask”. She always did have a way with words.