The sad coincidence of songwriting greats Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford passing away on the same day certainly won't be recalled years from now like, say, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both dying on July 4, 1826. But these two founding fathers of modern pop songwriting will both be remembered for a shared legacy of bringing R&B-infused tunes to the masses, helping provide the soundtrack for many lives.
There are, of course, obviously differences in the duo’s backgrounds and their overlapping careers peaked a few years apart. But there’s plenty of common ground, as befitting two powerful musical crossover forces.
Both men were part of incredible, close songwriting teams – Leiber spinning years of hits with his teenage buddy Mike Stoller, Ashford penning classics with his wife, Valerie Simpson.
Both co-wrote great songs for the great artists of their time – including women, during an era when sexism pervaded much of the music world. Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog," after all, started out as a Big Mama Thornton blues growl before hip-swiveling Elvis Presley gave it his own country-and-blues twist on his way to becoming The King. The songwriting team would go on to pen "I'm a Woman" and “Is That All There is?” for Peggy Lee, and produce girl groups such as the Shangri-las and the Dixie Cups.
Some of Ashford and Simpson's best songs – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need to Get by” – rose on the soaring voices of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Perhaps Ashford-Simpson’s most famous tune, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," another Gaye-Terrell hit, later became a solo blockbuster for Diana Ross, who also put an indelible mark on the songwriting couple’s "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand).”
Both perhaps most significantly, the Leiber-Stoller and Ashford-Simpson teams excelled at creating popular songs that became a common, melodic language for Baby Boomers during times of great cultural change – songs, thanks to memorable lyrics, expertly crafted melodies, strong production values and brilliant performances, endure.
Leiber and Stoller got an early start in igniting the rock revolution, writing in the 1950s for acts as varied as Presley ("Jailhouse Rock," “Kid Creole”) and The Coasters ("Yakety-Yak," "Charlie Brown"), whose ingenious vocals elevated what would have been novelty hits in lesser hands to pop genius.
As Leiber and Stoller segued into the 1960s, capitalizing on the Phil Spector sound they helped inspire, Ashford and Simpson began writing for Ray Charles ("Let's Go Get Stoned," “I Don’t Need No Doctor”). They later took their talent to the most successful crossover label of them all, Motown, where they turned out songs for Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Gladys Knight and The Pips, along with Ross, Gaye and Terrell, among others.
Leiber and Ashford both thrived for years, thanks to versatility that included becoming successful record producers. That sense of versatility is ingrained in their songwriting. Leiber’s lyrics for The Coasters’ many hits brimmed with humor (“Why is everybody always picking on me?” Charlie Brown asked), while he could pluck heartstrings of romantic idealization for sentimentalists of all ages (“Stand By Me,” written with Ben E. King) and produce straight-out pulse-pounding rock (“Jailhouse Rock”).
Ashford and Simpson brought drama and urgency in equal measures to their lyrics and melodies in songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” without crossing the line into musical melodrama. They pumped soul into what critics called the soulless genre of disco with the late 1970s Chaka Khan hit “I’m Every Woman,” which was later covered by Whitney Houston. Ashford and Simpson’s magic, of course, extended to performing, most memorably with the early 1980s smash, “Solid,” which laid some of the same groundwork for pop’s next phase as their fellow Motown alum Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
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It’s been more than a quarter-century since “Solid,” and even longer since Leiber and Stoller’s last hit. But the music and influence of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford, two great songwriters who leave legacies worth celebrating, will continue to reach out and touch us.
Editor's Note: The "In Memoriam" gallery has been corrected from a previous version that mistakenly showed Mike Stoller. We apologize for the error.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.