The Drifters version of “On Broadway” was a Top 10 single in 1963, and half a century later, it’s become one of those songs that has so permeated the culture as an idea, it’s hard to imagine that there was an actual source for that idea.
Written in tandem by two teams of song doctors — Cynthia Mann & Barry Weil and Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller — “On Broadway” is one of those records where every single element is stunning by itself, and every element adds up to a transcendent whole.
I mean, just check the rhythm guitar, stabbing like like bare feet walking on a hot sidewalk. Or the endless modulations, echoing the desperation of someone who just wants to needs to has to make it on Broadway.
And naturally, there’s the call-and-response between lead singer Rudy Lewis and the rest of The Drifters, as the backing vocals become yet another rhythmic element of the songs, whether they’re singing backing ahhhhhs, or chanting “walk, walk, walk” or endlessly providing the title hook. I mean, if you don’t know anything else about this song, you know the melody they’re singing when they sing “On Broadway.”
Over the years, the aspirational elements of the lyrics of “On Broadway” have kinda drowned out the hint of despair in the lyrics. It ain’t clear whether the guy in the song is going to make it. So far he hasn’t:
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there’s always magic in the air
But when you’re walkin’ down that street
And you ain’t had enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere
Sure, dude can play the guitar. But not even the guy who played guitar in Neil Young’s version 25 years later was going to make it. And he could play guitar like Neil Young!!
And speaking of guitar: the weird, out-of-place solo that battles with the strings, voices and horns during the instrumental break was provided none other than Phil Spector, a fact that I didn’t learn until I started researching this piece.
Fan-made video for “On Broadway”
Certain Songs on Spotify