Is That All There Is?: Two Classic Songwriting Teams Lose Their Partners

A few days late, but I want to say a few things about the passing of Jerry Leiber, half of Leiber & Stoller (with Mike Stoller), and of Nick Ashford, half of Ashford & Simpson with his wife Valerie Simpson.

NICKOLAS ASHFORD (May 4, 1941 – August 22, 2011)

Ashford left us, and his partner Valerie, on Monday after succumbing to throat cancer. He was 70 years old. His legacy had been cemented since the sixties and seventies, for co-writing (with Simpson) the iconic and epic love songs “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and the couple’s rare own recording of “Solid” which was one of the most played songs of 1984-5:

I have a short personal story about “Solid”. When that single came out, I was working at an office job where we had the radio on all day. I was even more of a music snob back in the day, so after fighting to have the “alternative” channel on, against the protestations of the accounting department, it was very difficult for me (and some of co-workers, Ken and Kevin) to give the local, smooth Lite FM channel a chance. There was some pretty dismal drivel on that station, despite the fact that the signal was smooth and clear, like filtered water. But here’s where my “snob” met up with my “songwriter”.

When “Solid” came on, I think I already knew who Ashford & Simpson were, I mean, I knew they’d written “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” which had been the signature tune for the short-lived but legendary team of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel:

Also, Ashford & Simpson’s song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was not only another hit for Gaye & Terrel

but the song was  later resurrected by Diana Ross (Nick & Valerie provided the backups on that one):

And of course, they wrote “I’m Every Woman”, a classic Chaka Khan single  (later covered whole cloth by Whitney Houston).

But “Solid” won me over, instantly. It was as slick as anything, and yet, the impassioned delivery and true love in the grooves reached out across the Lite FM channel, and made a human connection. How could you not love this song? Very few of the 80s classic R&B hits feel this way to me, especially some of the over-produced ones of the same year. But “Solid” remains special for me.

Nick Ashford made this world a better place, as he wrote in “Reach Out (and Touch Somebody’s Hand)”

And then there was one of the original R&B songwriting greats…

JERRY LEIBER (April 25, 1933 – August 22, 2011)

Last year, I read Ken Emerson’s Always Magic In The Air: The Bomp And Brilliance of The Brill Building Era, which chronicles the golden era of New York songwriting teams in the Brill Building and Aldon Music Building. The book shows the clear lineage from Jazz and Blues to the classic R&B and pop songs that Tin Pan Alley wrote for America, and by extension the world. The book talks about the great teams, The subtitle for the book is . [I wrote about that book in the second half of this entry (click through).]   Within that book’s richly researched historical account of a pivotal time in the history of American song, we start to see how the great song teams – Bacharach & David, Goffin & King, Sedaka & Greenfield,  Barry & Greenwich – were driven by the influence of one of the first teams, Leiber & Stoller (who were in turn influenced by Pomus & Shuman)

Leiber and Stoller’s go-get-em, instinct driven sense of fun and danger was one of  Elvis Presley’s secret weapons, and his version of “Hound Dog” (cribbed from the Big Mama Thornton original recording) is the best known:

Leiber died of cardiopulmonary failure on Monday, at age 78, and had 61-year songwriting and producing career, mostly with Mike Stoller.

They wrote Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock”

Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” covered here by John Lennon:

Bad Company had a great rock version of their song for The Coasters “Young Blood”:

Originally from Baltimore, young Jerry moved to Los Angeles where he met Stoller at schooll. They were both fans of R&B and soon began writing songs of their own. Stoller brought the tunes, while Leiber was the wordsmith, redefining what pop songs could be about. They even produced Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”:

I didn’t realize until yesterday that Leiber, in a rare co-write without Stoller, wrote “Jackson” (with Billy Edd Wheeler). The Johnny Cash & June Carter version is the definitive, but I have a soft spot for the Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood version, I recall from some corny TV show:

In 2009, Leiber & Stoller wrote a memoir, with David Ritz, entitled Hound Dog.

I feel like the last word should be from their 1969 hit for Peggy Lee (with lovely orchestral arrangements by Randy Newman):

“Is That All There Is?”


6 Responses to “Is That All There Is?: Two Classic Songwriting Teams Lose Their Partners”

  1. Michele Rundgren Says:

    Thanks Paul,
    I am sitting here in MY office and you inspired me to open up iTunes, load up a bunch of Ashford & Simpson and Leiber & Stohler,
    and cheek dance in my chair till quitting time. Mahalo


  2. I always imagined that Nick Ashford was the inspiration for the “Randy” character Eddie Murphy came up with in Coming To America….the soul singer with the hair product sponsorship who always encouraged people to “let their soul glo”…

  3. Really nice tribute, thanks! I didn’t realize Leiber had co-written Jackson (and I’d never seen that Lee & Nancy vid!), or that he had been involved with that Stealers Wheel production. Great info.

    I always had a soft spot for Ashford & Simpson, mostly as a writing team, so I was kinda digging ‘Solid’ even though I was far into the alt/indie scene at that time as well. It’s funny how that works….

  4. Wow, didn’t know there was a video for Stuck in the middle with you. I think I still have the 7″.

  5. 2 likes

    Is That All There Is?: Two Classic Songwriting Teams Lose Their Partners | The Pulmyears Music Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: