In the early 1960s, the husband and wife duo of Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil were establishing themselves as one of the hottest songwriting teams in the music business. Between 1960 and 1963, the pair had penned Top 40 hits for Tony Orlando, The Crystals, James Darren, Shelley Fabares, and Paul Petersen. Barry & Cynthia were inspired by many of the veteran writers before them, particularly Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, known in the industry as Leiber and Stoller.
Leiber and Stoller wrote several timeless classics, such as “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” that were huge #1 crossover hits for Elvis Presley, along with “Kansas City” which was a #1 crossover pop hit for Wilbert Harrison, and a number of successful singles for The Coasters in the 1950s.
Leiber and Stoller enlist Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
In 1963, Leiber and Stoller were working in a studio in New York City with the doo-wop R&B band The Drifters and needed one more song to complete the recording session they had reserved for the group. The duo contacted record mogul Don Kirshner to see if he had any ideas for another song, and Kirshner then reached out to Barry and Cynthia, asking them to submit one of their songs to Leiber & Stoller. Barry and Cynthia sent them a tune they had written called “On Broadway.” It was a song originally given to the all-female act The Cookies, who were primarily used as back-up singers, supporting marquis artists such as Ray Charles, Mel Torme, and Neil Sedaka.
“On Broadway” about Dreaming Big
“On Broadway” is a motivational tune about having the courage to follow your dreams, no matter how improbable they may be to make a reality, without relenting to the skeptics and challenges that can deflate your ambition. A relentless spirit truly resonates throughout the song, especially with the lyric “And I won’t quit ‘til I’m a star- on Broadway.”
Leiber and Stoller really liked “On Broadway,” but didn’t think it was quite right for The Drifters. They likely formed that opinion because the song was initially intended to be sung from a female perspective, and The Drifters were an all-male outfit. The four all-star composers discussed and collectively decided that if they made a slight revision on the lyric, and gave the song a rock groove, it could be a strong candidate for a single.
Phil Spector adds a Rock Grove to The Drifters “On Broadway”
The rock groove in the recording of The Drifters version of “On Broadway” was provided by the guitar playing of a young studio apprentice named Phil Spector, who was learning the ropes on his way to creating a revolutionary production formula called the Wall of Sound. Spector became a Hall of Fame record producer, and one of the most mercurial figures of the rock era.
The Instrumental arrangement for The Drifters version was created by Garry Sherman, who became a highly respected film composer, scoring music for exalted movies like Midnight Cowboy. Alice’s Restaurant, and the original Heartbreak Kid.
Rudy Lewis Sings Lead “On Broadway”
Lead vocals for The Drifters were performed by Rudy Lewis, who was anointed as the front man for the group when Ben E. King left the band to pursue a solo career in late 1960.
Rudy sang lead on four of The Drifters biggest hits, “Please Stay,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof,” and “On Broadway.” Tragically, Rudy’s career ended in 1964 when he was found dead in his hotel room in Harlem. He was only 27 years old.
The Drifters, featuring Rudy’s soulful vocal scored their fourth Top 10 pop single, when “On Broadway” peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963.
George Benson’s R&B take of “On Broadway”
George Benson’s jazzy rendition of “On Broadway” climbed even higher in 1978, rising to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #2 on the Billboard R&B chart. Barry & Cynthia were extremely grateful for Benson’s remake, because his fresh interpretation of their composition gave the song a new life, inspiring more artists to cover the song, including luminaries Johnny Mathis, James Taylor, and Neil Young.
Benson won a Grammy Award for ‘Best Male R&B Vocal Performance’ for his version of “On Broadway” in 1979. His version was featured in a pivotal scene in the highly acclaimed movie ‘All That Jazz,’ which Barry called one of the “biggest thrills” of their career, to have one of their songs so prominently used in a major motion picture.