Legendary Songwriter Jeff Barry Talks About His Classic Hits “I Honestly Love You,” “Sugar, Sugar,” “Be My Baby” And “River Deep – Mountain High”

Jeff Barry
Jeff Barry
(photo courtesy of Jeff Barry/Steed Records)

With a career spanning over six decades, Jeff Barry is a legendary songwriter who is known for co-writing & producing many classic hit songs, particularly from the ‘60s & ‘70s. Collaborating with a wide range of top songwriters and producers, he has written seven #1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, plus many other hits. Impressively, he has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Barry first had success in the early ‘60s, when he became writing partners with Ellie Greenwich (whom he was married to). They wrote many big hits—five with legendary producer Phil Spector and one with producer Shadow Morton. With Spector, Barry & Greenwich wrote the classic hits “Da Doo Ron Ron” (for the Crystals, and later a hit for Shaun Cassidy), “Then He Kissed Me” (the Crystals), “Be My Baby” (the Ronettes, and later a hit for Andy Kim), “Chapel of Love” (the Dixie Cups) and “River Deep – Mountain High” (Ike & Tina Turner). With Morton, the duo wrote the hit “Leader of the Pack” (the Shangri-Las). Also, Barry & Greenwich wrote the hits “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (Manfred Mann), “Hanky Panky” (Tommy James & the Shondells), and “I Wanna Love Him So Bad” (the Jelly Beans).

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Jeff Barry, who tells how he wrote Tina Turner’s hit “River Deep – Mountain High” with Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector.


Barry is also known for co-writing two other memorable #1 hits. In 1969, he wrote (with Andy Kim) & produced the single “Sugar, Sugar” for The Archies, which was a fictional band that was portrayed in the popular cartoon series, The Archies. The actual music tracks were sung and performed by studio musicians. Then in 1974, Barry wrote (with Peter Allen) the heartfelt ballad, “I Honestly Love You,” for Olivia Newton-John.

Currently, Barry will be appearing and performing at a special event in Los Angeles. On September 13, he will join musician/producer Paul Shaffer for Doo Wah Ditties For Doggies, a benefit evening for Pup Culture, a Los Angeles-based dog rescue organization that Shaffer’s daughter, Victoria, started. The event will be held at The Write-Off Room, and will feature hit songs, stories and sing-alongs. Shaffer is known for being the longtime musical director & keyboard player on the Late Night with David Letterman show.

Jeff Barry and Paul Shaffer
Jeff Barry and Paul Shaffer will be playing a special concert in Los Angeles on September 13 at The Write-Off Room.

In addition to writing hit songs, Barry is known for writing theme songs for several hit TV shows. He wrote the theme songs for The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time and Family Ties. Notably, Barry’s song “Movin’ On Up” (for The Jeffersons), was named The Greatest Theme Song Of All Time by a panel of music critics in Rolling Stone magazine.

Barry, who is now 85, grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and he started his music career as an artist. He recorded several singles for RCA Records, before focusing on a career as a hit songwriter & producer. Early on, he wrote an R&B hit for Sam Cooke called “Teenage Sonata,” and then he wrote his first Top 10 pop hit, “Tell Laura I Love Her,” for singer Ray Peterson. He has also co-written the hits “Montego Bay” (Bobby Bloom), “Jingle Jangle” (The Archies), “Take Me Home Tonight” (Eddie Money), “Chip Chip” (Gene McDaniels), “Baby, I Love You (Andy Kim), “People Say” (the Dixie Cups), “Maybe I Know” (Lesley Gore) and “Leader of the Laundromat (the Detergents).

In the ‘70s & ‘80s, Barry also co-wrote country hit songs for Gary Stewart, Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius, the Bellamy Brothers and Glen Campbell.

Jeff Barry Interview
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Jeff Barry. He talks about his great career and how he wrote several of his classic hit songs.

DK: You and Paul Shaffer will be hosting an event on September 13 called “Do Wah Ditties For Doggies” to raise money for a dog rescue organization. Can you talk about this event?

Jeff Barry: The name of the dog rescue organization is called Pup Culture, and it really belongs to his daughter, Victoria. I’ve now known Paul for over a half century. We were chatting about some project, and he mentioned his daughter’s organization. And I said, “Hey next time you’re in town, why don’t we do a little fundraiser for Victoria? You play, I’ll sing my songs, and we’ll chat about life and experience in showbiz,. We’ll raise a little money and save some puppies.” So that’s the origin of it, and it’s booked for a fairly new and renovated club called The Write-Off in Studio City. It should be fun. We will have a little time to rehearse; not a whole lot, but I think that’s gonna be part of the fun of the evening. It’s a one-off, fun fest. The songs are the songs, and we’ll talk about adventures and incidents and experiences we’ve had in showbiz. You know, Paul was with Dave Letterman for it seems a couple hundred years (laughs), so it should be a fun evening. There’ll be a lot of friends and associates as well as people we’ve never met. It’s a fairly intimate space, and I’m looking forward to it.

Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich
Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich
(photo courtesy of Jeff Barry/Steed Records)

DK: Will you be performing and singing your songs?

Barry: Oh yeah, that’s the whole idea. I’ll be singing the usual suspects—“Be My Baby,” “Do Wah Diddy,” “Chapel of Love,” “I Honestly Love You” and “Leader of the Pack.” And Paul will be accompanying me on keyboard. It’ll be interesting and fun.

I think (singer/songwriter/producer) Ron Dante is gonna come. He sang the lead vocal on “Sugar, Sugar,” which I wrote and produced. It was by the Archies, an animated group that didn’t exist. But Ron Dante has been singing “Sugar, Sugar” since then.

DK: I want to ask you about your great career and songs. I read that you grew up in Brooklyn. How did you get into music and start writing songs?

Barry: Well I’ve always done it, since I was 8 years old, when I wrote a little song about cowboys and girls. And my mother wrote it down. So I’ve always been creating, making up stories and singing. But it wasn’t anything I’d considered as a future career. You know growing up in Brooklyn, you want to have a career. I graduated from high school in the mid-‘50s when things were totally different. But I still was always drawn to it, and I wanted to be an entertainer. I thought that would be a great thing to do, as opposed to songwriting, which wasn’t on the list of job titles.

Here’s another excerpt of our interview with Jeff Barry, who tells how he met his legendary songwriting partner (and wife), Ellie Greenwich.


I finally got in front of somebody in the business, and he happened to be a music publisher who was doing a favor for a friend of my cousin. He said he would listen to me, and if he thought I could sing, he would introduce me to some record people. So he said, “Yeah, you sing fine.” But I was playing him songs I wrote because I couldn’t play anybody else’s. But being a music publisher, he was more interested in the songs than the singer at the time. Eventually, he signed me as a writer. And I quit college; I was studying to be an industrial designer. Then I made a couple records for RCA with producers by the name of Hugo (Peretti) & Luigi (Creatore). I had my first big hit when they called the publisher to see if I had any songs for one of their artists, named Ray Peterson. I had just finished “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and that was my first big hit. I also had the first Sam Cooke record, when he was signed by RCA and Hugo & Luigi were producing him. I had written a very slow ballad called “Teenage Sonata,” and I played it live in their offices for Sam Cooke and his people. It ended up being the first single that he did for RCA.

DK: As a songwriter, is your strength writing the lyrics and melody, or is it the music and chords?

Here’s a video of The Ronettes performing the hit “Be My Baby,”
which was co-written by Jeff Barry.

Barry: Oh absolutely, the lyrics, titles first, stories first. And I don’t write ‘em down, I sing ‘em. So melody is a close second. And then chords a distant third. Most of the hits I had were all co-written. I love the process of co-writing, and when I do co-write it would be with someone who knows all the chords and know how to play them.

DK: So when you wrote with Ellie Greenwich, she wrote the music and you wrote the lyrics?

Barry: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m a lyricist first.

DK: Since many of the hits you wrote were for young female artists, you had to write from their perspective, and know what they were thinking.

Barry: Well yeah, but people are people pretty much. I guess it’s because I’m a romantic at heart, and a diehard at that. And I think most of my hits have been by females, and it doesn’t seem odd to me that I can write for the female mind as well as the guy’s perspective, because all the songs are about love and romance. I think basically the feelings are pretty much the same, You know, a guy in love, a girl in love, being hurt by love, a broken heart…I don’t how much is gender reliant. You know, guys cry too (laughs).

DK: You’re known for your great songwriting partnership with Ellie Greenwich. How did you meet Ellie and start writing with her?

Barry: I actually met Ellie when I was four years old and she was three years old. Her first cousin married my first cousin, and we were both at the wedding. Then much later on, I was in the music business and I had a couple of hits already, and she was graduating from Hofstra College. And then we met at our mutual cousin’s house. We hadn’t seen each other since we were three and four. But they were telling me that, “You’ve gotta meet Ellie again. She’s graduating from college, she’s a homecoming queen, and she’s a music major. I’m sure you guys would hit it off.” So we met and we did hit it off. And it wasn’t a decision on my part…it was just life happening. There we were and we got married and wrote a bunch of good stuff (laughs). I guess in a way, it was almost an arranged marriage.

Here’s a video of Olivia Newton-John performing the hit, “I
Honestly Love You,” which was co-written by Jeff Barry.

DK: You and Ellie wrote several big hits with Phil Spector, such as “Da Doo Ron Ron, “Be My Baby,” “Chapel of Love” and “River Deep – Mountain High.” When you and Ellie were writing with Phil Spector, how did the three of you work together?

Barry: Well, my recollection is that Phil would be at the piano, playing in his style, which leads to the records he made in his style and format, and I would be tapping on stuff and coming up with lyrics and melody, with Ellie contributing her musical and lyrical thoughts. Then the three of us would usually have an enjoyable time.

DK: With “Be My Baby,” how long did it take the three of you to write that song?

Barry: I doubt if it took more than two sittings. You know there’s the getting together, the working on it, and then there’s polishing the details. So I have found that after three or four hours of writing, you’re drained of whatever it takes to do that. It’s mentally exhausting in a way. So I would assume it was over a two-day period.

DK: I’ve always liked your song, “River Deep – Mountain High.” How did you, Ellie & Phil Spector write that song, and then connect with Tina Turner and have her sing it?

Barry: Well, Tina was already signed to Phil’s label. So we were excited about writing for her. That was the first song the three of us wrote that was for a specific artist on his label. Usually, whatever the next song we wrote would go to the next artist that needed a song. But with “River Deep,” we could write a more expansive range, and perhaps a little more adult. It was a great opportunity to write for a star, as opposed to somebody we were trying to make a star.

DK: Later in the ‘60s, you wrote with Andy Kim the big hit, “Sugar, Sugar,” for the Archies, which was the fictional group for the cartoon TV series. Can you tell the story of how you and Andy wrote that song, and how you produced it?

Here’s a video of Tina Turner performing her hit “River Deep –
Mountain High,” which was co-written by Jeff Barry.

Barry: I had done work with (TV & music exec) Don Kirshner, on The Monkees TV show. I produced “I’m A Believer” which was RIAA Record of the Year for selling the most, as was “Sugar, Sugar.” Then Kirshner called me about the Archies, and me and Andy wrote that song in my office. Andy played the guitar, with me bangin’ on the desk. We wrote “Sugar, Sugar.” And it’s as simple as that…there’s no drama or real story there. But I was very aware that we were writing for an animated group for a Saturday morning TV show. I had at the time my own kids who were preschoolers. I had a three and a four-year old at the time, so that made it easier. I was very aware that we were trying to have a radio hit with an animated group, but we knew that the parents had to like the song as well as the kids, because the kids who watch Saturday morning animated shows aren’t able and don’t have the money to go to the store and buy the record. So I think the lyric reflects very adult emotions about love. There were lines like, “I can’t believe the loveliness of loving you,” which is not exactly preschool (laughs).

DK: Then in 1974, you and Peter Allen wrote the big ballad hit, “I Honestly Love You.” How did you and Peter write this song and place it with Olivia Newton-John?

Barry: At the time, I had my office at the A&M Records lot, and I was doing some producing and writing there. A&M was interested in Peter Allen as an artist, and I wrote “I Honestly Love You” with Peter, for him to record. I never thought of it as a girl song at all. The chords are very complicated, more so than the average ditty. And we made a simple demo with vocal and piano, with him playing and singing. Then somebody in the publishing department took the demo to Olivia (Newton-John) and she loved the song. My first instinct was, No…I’m going to record that Peter. But Peter and I discussed it…Olivia was maybe the hottest female artist at the time. And I said, “Peter, I’ll leave it to you. You know if you have a hit with it, you’re established in the business. And if she records it and it doesn’t come out or isn’t a hit, you can always record it.” Then he decided and said, “Let’s go with her,” and it turned out to be song of the year.

Here’s the video of The Archies’ hit, “Sugar, Sugar,” which was
co-written by Jeff Barry.

DK: Also during that time, you worked on music for the TV shows The Monkees and The Archies, and you also wrote TV theme songs for The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time and Family Ties. How did you write these theme songs?

Barry: I got a call from (TV producer) Norman Lear about writing for these shows. I did three shows for him. Interestingly, Rolling Stone magazine recently came out with their opinion of the Top 100 TV Theme Songs of All Time, and “One Day at a Time” finished at #30 and “Movin’ On Up” (for The Jeffersons) was number one. I got a real kick out of that.

DK: “Movin’ On Up” was a great theme song. How did you write that song?

Barry: For all the shows I did for Norman (Lear), he would send the script over. I had created the title for One Day at a Time because Norman wasn’t thrilled with the previous title. For “Movin’ On Up,” Norman sent the script, and then I went to the filming of the pilot, so I had a really good feel of the show. I wrote it with (actress/singer) Ja’Net DuBois who was on one of his other shows. We sat and wrote it, and as we were doing that, I got her to sing the lead on the song. And she never sang before or after. But she sounded to me like how the lead woman in The Jeffersons would look if she sang. So I convinced her to do it, and she did such a marvelous job singing it. It was exuberant the way she sang it.

DK: You’ve written many hit songs over the years. Are there two or three that stand out as your favorites?

Barry: Well as far as craftsmanship goes, I think “I Honestly Love You” is a cool song. Lyrically, no one ever said that in a song before, because basically, it’s a song about a couple that can’t be together…the last verse says that clearly. But even so, people get married to the song. I guess they don’t listen to the last verse (laughs). But no one ever said, “I’m not trying to sleep with you…I just want you to know that honestly I love you.” As a lyricist, it’s hard to find a new angle when writing about love. It’s well-written, and obviously well-performed by Olivia who loved that song.

Another one would be “River Deep – Mountain High.” I think it’s a strong song. And of course “Be My Baby” seems to be everybody’s favorite, so there’s much affection for that. But craft-wise, I would say “I Honestly Love You” comes in first for me.

Here’s the link to Jeff Barry’s site: https://www.jeffbarry.com/

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima