Society's Child

George "Shadow" Morton established himself very quickly in the record business in 1964. After visiting his friend Ellie Greenwich, staff songwriter at the Brill Building in Manhattan, and convincing her he had what it took to create a hit record, she helped him get a job with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's newly-formed Red Bird Records, and in a matter of weeks he had written a major hit for The Shangri-Las, "Remember (Walking in the Sand)." By early '66, after less than two years of successfully writing for and producing the hot girl group, he was sick of it all, ready to quit the industry. Until, that is, a certain 14-year-old folk singer-songwriter came along and gave him a reason to stick with it.

Born in New York City in 1951, Janis Eddy Fink spent her early years on a chicken farm in south New Jersey, learning to play piano and later expanding to other instruments including organ, flute and guitar. Between school years, she spent time at a summer camp run by her parents and began writing songs in her free time. Around 1963 her first effort, "Hair Spun of Gold," was published in Broadside, a folk music magazine, leading to an opportunity to be in one of a number of Greenwich Village shows the magazine sponsored, performing at first as Janis Fink but later changing her stage name to Janis Ian (assuming her brother's first name as her last).

By the time she enrolled in high school, her family had moved to East Orange, New Jersey. A mostly-black neighborhood, she observed that many of the kids' parents didn't want them dating their black schoolmates, and vice versa - but the teenagers themselves sometimes rebelled against this attitude. With the civil rights movement in full swing, Janis began working on a song during her bus rides to and from school, basing it on what she saw going on around her, calling it "Baby I've Been Thinking" (though that line didn't appear in the song). It wasn't about any personal experience she'd had, and though aware of the chance that its lyrics about a mom disapproving of her daughter's interracial romance might make her own mother appear in a questionable light, she wrote it anyway; she was an artist, albiet a 13-year-old one, but the need was there to express herself through music.

In the mid-1960s, Reverend Gary Davis was well into his sixites and appearing regularly in the Village at the Gaslight Cafe. Davis became friends with Janis and gave her an opportunity to open his shows, an incredible break for someone her age. This exposure led to a meeting with Shadow Morton just as his association with the Shangri-Las was winding down (they left Red Bird, signing with Mercury Records later in the year). Shadow was disillusioned with the record business, planning to quit altogether, so he was really not in the mood to audition any new singers the day that 14-year-old Janis showed up at "Phantom Productions," the company name on his office door. Morton and Ian have both told the story of how he sat with his boots up on his desk, reading a newspaper and completely ignoring her singing, so as she began to leave, she grabbed a cigarette lighter and set fire to the newspaper! That got him to pay attention, and he liked what he heard. "Baby I've Been Thinking," in particular, had an impact not unlike some of the songs Morton had produced for the Shangri-Las, as they had gradually moved into more sensitive topics such as the group's last top ten hit "I Can Never Go Home Anymore," about a teenage girl running away from her mother. Ian's song took the essence of that act's music to the next level, a more politically daring place than they had heretofore inhabited.

Janis Ian

Morton suggested changing the title to "Society's Child" from the song's final stanza, and Atlantic Records agreed to finance the session with Shadow producing in April 1966. Janis had just turned 15. Producing the record was difficult, but the end result was a song musically like no other: organ and harpsichord playing off one another, tempo changes, dramatic pauses, and a passionate vocal from a young singer who believed every word. Many folk singers had little desire to go after top 40 radio play, but young Janis heard Bob Dylan getting a lot of exposure starting in 1965 and liked the idea of having a hit record. But getting it on the radio turned out to be the hardest part. First, Atlantic heads Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler got cold feet and passed on the recording they had put their money into. More than twenty record companies rejected the song before jazz label Verve gave it a shot, but the subject was a hard sell in 1966. During the writing process, the line 'face is clean and shining black as night' was where the song had come into focus for Janis, but it caused radio programmers to fear public reaction.

Verve reps began promoting the song that summer, getting it played in New York, but struggling to get a foothold anywhere else. In the fall they increased their efforts, sending her in person to radio stations. The record was shifted at some point to the Verve Forecast label (a new name for the older subsidiary Verve Folkways), still facing resistance, the few stations playing it receiving complaints as Janis started getting hate mail and even death threats. A huge break came when an associate of classical conductor-composer (and rock music fan) Leonard Bernstein caught a performance of the song at the Gaslight and recommended her to Bernstein. On April 27, 1967, a CBS news special called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution was aired with Bernstein as host, speaking in depth as a member of the older generation (he hadn't yet turned 50), citing examples of the rock and roll music he hoped other "old-timers" would not dismiss. He brought Janis out to perform "Society's Child" and pointed out reasons why, musically as well as lyrically, this 15-year-old singer had created something exciting and unique.

That did the trick. The song took off after the show aired, in fact it hit number one in Los Angeles by the end of May, but broke more slowly in midwest cities, making it to the top 20 nationally in July. Her self-titled album was well received and picked up a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Performance. The song chosen as the second single was "Insanity Comes Quietly to the Structured Mind," brilliantly conceived but receiving far less radio play than the first 45 (its lyrics alluding to suicide, among other dysfunctions). She and Shadow Morton continued working together for the next few years, though there were no hits during that time.

Janis Ian has continued to work and grow as an artist. She composed "Jesse," a hit in 1973 for Roberta Flack, and was at her commercial peak in 1975 with another song she'd drawn from her personal teenage struggles, "At Seventeen." The single went top ten, its accompanying album Between the Lines hit number one, she performed the song on the very first episode of NBC's Saturday Night Live and topped it all off by taking home the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Janis continues to release her music and has written many articles on a number of subjects, in addition to her well-reviewed autiobiography and even science fiction! Expect more to come from this particularly gifted child of our society.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Society's Child