Famed songwriter Jeff Barry, a longtime local, celebrates 50th anniversary of his hit “Sugar, Sugar.”
It was 50 years ago today, give or take, that the “virtual” animated group known as the Archies gave the world a major and seemingly immortal earworm. The song? “Sugar Sugar.” The earworm creators? Andy Kim and much heralded veteran songwriter Jeff Barry, who has called Santa Barbara home for many years.
Mr. Barry, a native New Yorker whose hit song book includes “Chapel of Love,” “River Deep – Mountain High,” are “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” seemed a bit surprised when contacted by the News-Press on the occasion of the 50th birthday of his mega-hit “Sugar, Sugar,” in 2019.
“I hadn’t thought about that,” he said in a recent interview, “but that sounds about right. It’s amazing, though, how a half a century can flash by in a couple of months.”
Thinking back on the subject of “Sugar, Sugar,” Mr. Barry commented that “one of the most amazing things, to me — and not to short-change it, but let me put it this way — here was a Record of the year by an act that didn’t exist. It was the Record of the Year. It sold more than any other record, by an animated group.”
He recalls that the Archies were part of “an animated show that was on Saturday mornings, for pre-schoolers. At the time, I had pre-schoolers — a 3- and a 4-year old, my daughter Lisa and my son Jon. It’s funny. My son Jon is now writing for animation today. He’s a big guy. He did ‘Phineas and Firby’ and Warner Bros. gave him the ‘Scooby-Doo’ franchise to redo, which he did.”
When he was called upon to write a song for the show, the higher-ups, he says, “weren’t thinking of radio hits. I was very well-aware that 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t going to be going out the record store, so the parents had to like it, enough to want to buy it for their kids.
“Back in the day, someone was saying to me ‘Gee, Jeff, you’re a smart guy, and you’re writing all these hits, like “Sugar, Suga”’ and “Doo Wah Diddy” and “Chapel of Love” and “Be My Baby.” You should be doing some heavier stuff.’ I was doing what I was doing. When they were poking fun at me for writing songs for kids, I said ‘You know, you’re right. I was reading a Rod McKuen poem the other day. It said something about ‘the loveliness of loving you.’ They said ‘yeah, see, that’s the kind of stuff you should be writing.’ I saidm ‘Really? How about this: that’s from ‘Sugar, Sugar.’ ”
Analyzing the song, in retrospect, its co-writer notes that “The chorus is ‘You are my candy girl.’ It’s all cute and funny, but sincere, at the same time, and fun. It’s a pretty good record. When I hear it, I like the way it gets big at the end and doesn’t go out with the usual chorus.”
The Archies version of “Sugar, Sugar” hung out in the chart-topping spot for four weeks in 1969, and won the Record of the Year Grammy award, and the song returned to the public ear when Wilson Pickett cut it in 1971, a link to the soul legend of which the songwriter was proud.
“I get a call from Atlantic Records,” he remembers. Mr. Pickett “cut the record and they wanted me to listen and see if I had any ideas, and I did. I wanted to put a girls’ group behind it, with a different arrangement. Then they decided they were going to put something else on it, and they put that on the B-side of the record. Radio, just out of curiosity, turned it over. I forgot what chart position it reached, but I know it made some noise.
“I always wondered — if that record was finished with a girls’ group behind it, doing some cute little stuff, if it was a completed record and the A-side and it was a hit, I wonder if it could have been considered an R&B classic today, as opposed to a bubblegum classic. There are some songs that could be done in different renditions. Bob Marley cut it, too,” he laughs.
Mr. Barry, 80, scored many hits as a busy New York-based songwriter on the Brill Building scene, many of those songs written with co-writing partner — and, for a spell, wife — Ellie Greenwich, and Phil “wall of sound” Spector during the ’60s. In 1991, he and Greenwich, who died in 2009, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Among other high-profile ’60s work, Mr. Barry launched the career of Neil Diamond in its early stage, “with his really big hits,” he says, including “I’m a Believer,” “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon,” “Solitary Man,” and “Cherry, Cherry.” “At the end of the first year,” Mr. Barry explains, “He was the No. 1 up-and-coming male artist on Billboard. In the second year, he was the biggest male artist in the world.”
But it wasn’t long after his career high water mark of “Sugar, Sugar,” that the songwriter’s impulses led him out West. He jests that “The first time I came out to L.A. in the mid-60s or so, it was like ‘Oh, what’s this stuff called? Oh, it’s called sunshine. What are those weird trees? It’s called a palm tree. What is that blank area over there? It’s called a parking space. How come all the buildings are so short? Well, Jeff, it just hasn’t gotten around to the place of the airspace being more valuable than the land.’ ”
He added that “First of all, I loved cars. It was time. Honestly, I never really got New York. To be succinct, I came out of the streets of Brooklyn and moved to a penthouse in Manhattan, if you want to be colorful about it. Even though I was certainly living well in Manhattan, I never really enjoyed the city the way many people do. It was always dark and hard to get around, and slightly dangerous. I certainly wasn’t a foodie, so I didn’t really appreciate the restaurants, nor was a big show guy. Frankly, I didn’t have much time to do things other than what I was doing, anyway.
“So I never really fell in love with the city. When I came out to California, I loved the lifestyle. It was relaxed and cool and slow. I can do what I do anywhere, so I moved my whole operation out here in the ’70s, with my family.”
Living in Los Angeles and stirring in more film and television work into his creative output, he also raised two children there, Lisa and Jon (currently collaborating with his father in his work in the upper echelon of the animation world). But in the ’90s, the time came to settle in Santa Barbara where he raised twins, Clayton and Jessica, now both 23.
Over the years, Mr. Barry has been involved in various community projects and benefits and has been the subject of tributes, such as one which earned him a permanent name on a Lobero Theatre seat. He was a speaker at the theater’s “Hat’s Off” fundraiser event last year.
He also became involved at UCSB. Mr. Barry explained that he worked with panel discussions on creativity with noted music figures, and also embarked on a personal project he is still passionate about seeing come to fruition: He wrote an alma mater/anthem for the school, called “We Will.” He plans to present the song to the university, with the hopes of it being adopted as an official school anthem.
One of the more artistically respected titles, if not a major commercial hit, in Mr. Barry’s voluminous songbook is his song “Walking in the Sun,” which has been cut by many artists, including Rufus with Chaka Khan, Glen Campbell and Percy Sledge. On a local note, the song was also a favorite in the repertoire of former local hero, soulful singer Barbara Wood, who brought a soulful power to the song in Santa Barbara nightclubs in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Citing the song as one of his favorites, Mr. Barry’s points to it as a prime example of a tune adaptable to different genres and artists artistic predilections. In that vein, he says, “We’ve got ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies, a cartoon group, and Wilson Pickett. The other (example) is ‘Walking in the Sun.’
“If you turn over the Glen Campbell coin, the diametric opposite of Glen Campbell has to be Percy Sledge. Glen Campbell is like the whitest guy in the world. He’s got the straightest blonde haired, blue-eyed, little nosed guy and his name is Glen Campbell. You can’t make that up. And then there is Percy Sledge — ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ — and they both cut the same song. When I first heard the Percy Sledge version a few years ago, I thought ‘jeez, how did a kid from Brooklyn write that.’
“It’s one of my favorites, and I wrote it myself. It was inspired by an event with my father (who was virtually blind) that I didn’t even realize until after I wrote the song. When I was a teenager walking with him in Manhattan, in the fall on a chilly day, with the sun at an angle. He said ‘Is the sun out across the street?’ I didn’t think of that. So we walked to the subway on the other side of the street. It’s one of those songs that just came out.”
These days, Mr. Barry’s creative life and energies are still in motion, in various directions and media. Aside from working on animation projects with his son Jon, he is producing a young singer, Kathy London, and is developing his own projects for film and television, and just recently secured representation with the Gersh Agency. “I’ve never had representation,” he says. “It’s a nice feeling.”
And yes, songs and pieces thereof keep coming. As he comments, “I constantly come up with titles and melodies and things, which I put on my phone and keep them for when I need something. I’ve never said that before, by the way, but that’s a pretty great description. Things can be done so many different ways. If you have the title and melody and idea of the song, then you can develop it from scratch, in any direction you want to.”
Meanwhile, songs from his illustrious return to haunt him, in the sweetest way, as is the case with his hit “Sugar, Sugar.”
“That certainly stuck,” he comments, in understatement. “The funny thing is, I can go anywhere in the world and go (he sings the recognizable riff from the chorus) and they’ll sing ‘Sugar, Sugar.’ It’s kind of fun to test that out.”