Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Double Farewell

This week on August 22nd, the music world unfortunately lost TWO American songwriters: Jerry Leiber and Nickolas Ashford (discussed later in this post). Lyricist Leiber was the second half of the songwriting/record producing team with Mike Stoller (shown here with Elvis), and together, they created several ground-breaking hits that helped shape rock and roll history. Beginning their partnership in the early 1950s, their most popular songs include "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Kansas City," "Yakety Yak," "On Broadway" (with Mann & Weil), "Leader of the Pack" (discussed here), "Chapel of Love," and even "Stuck in the Middle With You." Smokey Joe's Cafe was a great Broadway musical revue from the mid-1990s that featured 39 pop standards written by Leiber & Stoller. Leiber passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 78 from cardiopulmonary failure. Thank you for the music, Jerry Leiber!

Here are some other hits by Leiber & Stoller during the 1960s. Co-written together with Ben E. King (co-principal singer with The Drifters), "Stand By Me" is one of the most-performed songs in history with over 7 million performances, and there are over 400 recorded versions by other artists. Released in May of 1961, this soul song went straight to #1 on the R&B charts and was a Top-10 hit on the U.S. charts twice. Among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, here's Ben E. King's TV performance of a true American classic (although I think it could do without the 'background dancers').

Another popular tune by Leiber & Stoller was "Love Potion No. 9," originally performed by The Clovers in 1959. The lyrics describe a man who goes to a gypsy for help in finding love, and she gives him a bottle of "love potion #9," which causes him to kiss everything he sees. This song was actually banned by some radio stations because of the line about "kissing a cop." The most popular version of this tune was performed by the Merseybeat/British Invasion group, The Searchers, who scored #3 on the U.S. charts with this song in 1965.

And I'll throw in one more Leiber & Stoller, just because I like this song. Originally performed by The Drifters (resulting in a major R&B hit in 1956), "Ruby Baby" later became a #2 hit on the Billboard charts when Dion released his version in 1962. Here's a TV performance of Dion's classic remake.

Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were a husband and wife songwriting/production team, as well as successful recording artists later in their career. First meeting at a Baptist church in 1963, the Ashford & Simpson partnership started out writing songs in the mid-1960s for artists like The 5th Dimension, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles, as well as joining the Motown staff in 1966. They wrote/produced most of the singles by vocal duo Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (featured on this past post). Including styles like R&B, soul, pop, disco, and gospel, they went on to create several songs into the 1970s and '80s. Throughout his career, Ashford played tambourine and percussion on hundreds of recording sessions, including dozens of Motown classics, like Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On." Ashford was 70 years old and passed away in New York this past Monday of complications from throat cancer.

Here are two tunes by the Ashford & Simpson team. Released in March of 1968, "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" was first of two #1 hits on the soul singles charts for popular Motown duo Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. Written and produced by Ashford & Simpson, they also provided background vocals for this song. Unfortunately, there are no live performances of these timeless love song on YouTube.

On his own, Ashford (and Frank Wilson) produced the mega hit "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," which was recorded by Diana Ross & The Supremes with The Temptations in 1968. Quite a production including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, this version hit #2 on both the U.S. Billboard charts and R&B charts in January 1969. Since there were no live performances by Diana Ross & The Supremes together with The Temptations, here is a duet performance by Ross with Stevie Wonder The Hollywood Palace around 1970.

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