Michael Brown was a 16-year-old classically trained music prodigy in New York in 1965 when he became smitten with the girlfriend of bassist Tom Finn, his band mate in the nascent rock group the Left Banke.
Knowing there was nothing he could do about his infatuation with Renee Fladen without torpedoing a friendship and possibly their band, Brown took the only path left to an anguished musician: He wrote a song about her.
"Walk Away Renee," which Brown wrote with Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone, became the Left Banke's first and biggest hit, topping out at No. 5 on the Billboard charts, and was an important early example of what came to be known as "baroque pop" for its ornate orchestrations, melancholy emotion and classical instrumentation.
Brown, who played harpsichord and Clavinet for the Left Banke, died of heart failure Thursday in Englewood, N.J. He was 65.
His death was confirmed by family friend Marge Finn to the Associated Press.
"That's a real special song for me in the whole pop music canon," Linda Ronstadt told The Times last year when she released a compilation of her duets with various singers, including her version of "Walk Away Renee" with Cajun musician Ann Savoy.
"When it first came on the radio, I didn't have any idea what the words were," Ronstadt said. "It just sounded like 'La la la.' I didn't know any of the words, I couldn't understand them, and yet, in a second, it became just one of those haunting songs you can't forget. I don't know what it is. There's the feeling when you give up on somebody, and you just let it go. That song nailed that arc of emotion and the arc of how it works. I love that song."
Brown followed "Walk Away Renee" with "Pretty Ballerina," another sweeping, emotionally wrenching ode to unrequited love that the Left Banke took to No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967. But almost as quickly as the group's star began to ascend, the band splintered and fell apart.
"Even with just those two hits to his name," UK writer Bob Stanley said in the Guardian, "Michael Brown was a songwriter of the very highest order."
Brown, born Michael David Lookofsky on April 25, 1949, in New York, was interested in doing what Beach Boys creative leader Brian Wilson had done: giving up live performance to concentrate on exploiting the new musical and sonic possibilities that technology was bringing to recording studios.
The Left Banke had been managed by Brown's father, jazz musician and session violinist Harry Lookofsky. That led to dissension within the group — which also featured singer Steve Martin, guitarist Rick Brand and drummer George Cameron — over Lookofsky's stewardship.
Brown left and became involved with other bands including Montage and the Beckies, neither of which had much commercial success, and Stories, another New York ensemble with singer-bassist Ian Lloyd that scored a No. 1 hit, "Brother Louie, " in 1973 — right after Brown had left.
He subsequently spent time in the music business doing talent scouting and development, but largely remained on the fringes of the music scene. A latter version of the Left Banke has performed periodically, and Brown joined them occasionally.
The Left Banke's sound influenced new generations of musicians and has been felt in the styles of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, Scottish indie pop band Belle & Sebastian and Swedish pop musician Jens Lekman, among others.
"I've been touched by a lot of music in my life, but only a handful of artists did I ever want to collaborate or perform with," songwriter and producer Andrew Sandoval, who contributed liner notes to a reissue of the Left Banke's debut album, wrote on his Facebook page shortly after news of Brown's death surfaced.
"Michael Brown was one of those rare people who I could imagine producing an amazing album. It is with regret that I mourn his passing and his brilliance not just as one of the finest writers of my favorite era, but as someone I wished I could have shared a song with."
Brown is survived by his wife, Yvonne, and twin sons Skylar and Adrian, according to the Associated Press.