On Broadway is both one of the seminal Drifters recordings as it is one of Leiber & Stoller's most well written songs. Not yet quite Soul, "On Broadway" stems from the Black Pop era. A time where R&B was turning increasingly sophisticated as record producers started to discover their cross over success. Penned in the time when the Freedom Riders were testing segregation in the deep South, "On Broadway" was social commentary at his finest yet most subtle.
The song was recorded by the second Drifters, with Rudy Lewis on vocals. Lewis replaced Ben E. King in 1960 when the latter went on to pursue a solo career. Although Rudy Lewis now thrives in the R&B limbo of obscurity, it was the combination of his voice and Leiber & Stoller's songwriting and arranging craft that gave the Drifters their golden age. The Drifters with Lewis on lead scored some of their biggest and memorable hits with "Some Kind of Wonderful", "Up On The Roof" and "Sweets For My Sweet". Lewis died of a heart attack in 1964, "On Broadway" would prove to be his final shining moment, peaking at #9 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. Phil Spector played guitar on the sessions and would later put his experience with Leiber & Stoller to good use as a legendary producer in his own right.
Although the early to mid sixties would prove to be the golden age for the civil rights movement as well, social commentary in Pop lyrics was very uncommon indeed. As I mentioned in "Platters That Matter: Dancing In The Streets", it was more common for Black entertainers to signify protest. Outspoken portrayals of the Black experience in America were still very uncommon. Buried under lush string arrangements and sweet harmonies, "On Broadway" allowed a peek in the lives of disenfranchised Blacks that was very rare at the time. Making it one of Soul's key tracks. It wouldn't be until the late sixties, early seventies when social commentary became common with highly confrontational songs like James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud) or Syl Johnson's "Is It Because I'm Black". The bluesy yet sugarcoated "On Broadway" was a necessary transition to that era.
Leiber & Stoller captured the black experience in the intercity perfectly with stark and descriptive lyrics:
"They say the neon lights are bright
They say there's always magic in the air
But when you're walking down the street
And you ain't had enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off, and you're nowhere
Jerry Leiber, as the son of a Polish Jewish immigrant, and Mike Stoller, born and raised in Queens may seem like unlikely vessels to write about the Black experience in America today, but at the time it made perfect sense. Many of the immigrants from Eastern Europe and their children had escaped poverty and bigotry not so long ago. From that cultural heritage Leiber & Stoller had a deep understanding of poverty. A youth in which both gentlemen got drenched in Black culture gave them the sensibility needed to write about the Black experience. Leiber & Stoller gave African-Americans a voice at a time when that community was still largely trying to find a way to spreak out without getting lynched, especially in the South. It is no surprise than that the first more outspoken R&B came from the Northern cities, such as Chicago or New York. With Broadway and Harlem just around the corner of the Atlantic studios the song found its habitat effortlessly. The glitter of Broadway and the grim reality of Harlem collided in that bittersweet wall of sound.
A bittersweetness that was reflected in the lyrics:
"They say that I won't last too long
I'll catch a Greyhound bus for home, they all say
But no, no they're wrong, I know they are
'Cause I can play this here guitar
And I won't quit till I'm a star
"On Broadway" reflected the harsh reality of the African-American experience while infusing it with the most coveted dream of African-Americans at the time, making it big. Music and sports were at that time the only outlet Black Americans had for that dream. Even though the social economical position of Black Americans was looking up through out the sixties, the gap between their position and that of the average White was still as wide as the cliffs of the Grand Canyon. Many of the fine jobs and houses still remained out of reach, so with growing cross over success in the charts, music was one of the few means by which Black men could become a part of the American Dream. Tapping into that hope many African-Americans had allowed "On Broadway" to transcend the mediocrity of the charts, allowed the song to stand the test of time. "On Broadway" is one of those songs still relevant today because it taps in to a form of despair that is universal for all those living in the inner city ghettos today, while still offering a dream to cling on to.