Music is immortal. Once written a piece of music or a song lives forever like a Bach concerto or a Steven Foster song. Unfortunately while the songs may live on the person behind the creation of the music is not immortal. That became evident this past week when two men who made their legands in writing some the most popular music during the second half of the 20th century passed away as fate would have it on the the same day. Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford. For many, especially in their 20’s, the names may not ring the proverbial bell. Heck even some of my age and I am…. well that is unimportant but anyway even some of my generation the names mentioned may not be familier. The music left behind by these two however is.
We will start by looking back at the career of Jerry Leiber. Born in Baltimore in 1933 Leiber would move to Los Angeles where in 1950 he would meet and team up with Mike Stoller. Both had a love for Blues as well as Rhythm and Blues. As a result they were influenced by many of the African-American singers of the day. Their first composition hit was in 1952 with “Hard Times” recorded by R&B singer Charles Brown. The next year they write a song for “Big Momma” Thornton. That song was “Hound Dog” and it was a big hit for her. Three years later Elvis Presley would record “Hound Dog” and make it an even bigger hit. When Jerry Leiber told Mike Stoller that “Hound Dog” had become a hit for Presley Stoller replied, “Elvis who?” Leiber and Stoller would go on to write more songs for Elvis including “Love Me” and “Jailhouse Rock” among others. It was at this point while R&B music was still their main interest their music would also become more “pop” influencing a phenomenon in the music industry that would be know as “crossover” where a recording artist of one genre of music scores a hit with their song on the charts of an opposite genre of music.
Some of Leiber and Stoller’s greatest success as song writers would come with Ben E King. In 1961 King’s first hit song as a solo artist, he was a former lead singer with The Drifters, was “Spanish Harlem” that was written for Ben E King by Leiber and Stoller. Later that year King would team up with Leiber and Stoller and help co-write “Stand By Me” which would become King’s biggest hit. It would become a top 10 hit for King twice. In 1961 and again in 1986 when the movie of the same title was released.
As their fame rose Leiber and Stoller wrote songs for many of the top acts into the 1960’s. Along with The Drifters they also had some of their biggest hits writing for The Coasters and The Clovers. Some of those hit songs included “Love Potion #9”, “Searching”, “Yakety Yak” and “On Broadway”. Their last hit would come in 1972 with Stealers Wheel and their song “Stuck In The Middle”. There were many other hits that they would compose together but these are the biggest of the big. Most of the songs that would be recorded would go on to have an impact on pop and rock music and their music still sounds as good today as all those many years ago. In 1985 Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Two years later both of them were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Jerry Leiber passed away on August 22nd at the age of 78.
On the same day as Leibers death another important figure in songwriting would also pass away. Nick Ashford of Ashford and Simpson fame. Husband and wife team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson not only wrote some of the biggest songs of the 60’s,70’s and into the 80’s but also had success as performers themselves. They started out in the mid 1960’s writing songs for people like The 5th Dimension, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles among others. The married pair would go on to become a part of Motown in 1966 where they were introduced to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Ashford and Simpson would write some of Gaye’s and Terrell’s biggest hits including “Ain’T No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”.
In the 1970’s Ashford and Simpson would produce and write just about all of the songs for three albums for Diana Ross including her first solo album after leaving The Supremes. The duo would also write hits for other Motown greats like Gladys Knight and The Pips, Smokey Robinson and The Marvelettes. After leaving Motown Ashford and Simpson would continue churning out hit songs for other performers. Their biggest hit probably being “I’m Every Woman” that they wrote for Chaka Khan.
Ashford and Simpson had some success as performers as well. They had first met at a baptist church in Harlem in 1963. Their recording career started as part of the gospel group The Followers. During their time with Motown Ashford and Simpson would record albums both individually as wall as a duo with some success. None of it would equal to their success as songwriters. After leaving Motown They would resume their own recording career after marrying in 1974 and started having their own hit records from the late 70’s through the early 80’s. Their biggest hit would be the 1984 recording “Solid”. They would continue to write for other singers all the while. Most recently in 2007 they were given writing credit for the song “Tears Dry On Their Own” from the Amy Winehouse album “Back To Black”. Due to their success as songwriters Ashford and Simpson were elected into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2002. Nick Ashford was 70 when he died.
So how many of these songs that I mentioned do you remember? At least a couple I bet. Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford as parts of successful writng teams help to shape and influence the sound of pop,rock,blues and rhythm and blues. And while they are now gone and we will no longer have their creative genius writing some great music for us the body of work they leave behind is more then enough to keep us entertained.