Ashford and Lieber: Songwriting legends leave magical mark

August 24, 2011

By Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune

The songwriting world lost two titans Monday when Nickolas Ashford and Jerry Leiber died within hours of each other.

Ashford, 70, co-wrote a trove of hits with his wife, Valerie Simpson, that helped define soul, R&B and funk in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Leiber, 78, teamed with Mike Stoller to establish the hip vocabulary of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s. They leave a wealth of classic recordings. Here are 10 of the best from each, in chronological order.

—Nickolas Ashford (all co-written with Valerie Simpson):

1. “Cry Like a Baby,” Aretha Franklin (1964): Before blasting onto the pop charts a few years later on Atlantic Records, the future Queen of Soul provides a glimpse of the greatness to come by lifting this gospeltinged piano ballad from agony to ecstasy.

2. “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” Ray Charles (1966): “Ain’t no harm to have a little taste,” Charles sings after being released from rehab. The risque subject matter and Charles’ sly delivery gave him his first No. 1 pop hit.

3. “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1968): Ashford-Simpson were the in-house writing team for one of the most successful vocal duos of all time, and this song transcended even Motown’s signature upbeat sound with a soaring gospel feel. In 1995 it inspired a superb collaboration between Method Man and Mary J. Blige on another keeper, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.”

4. “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime),” Gladys Knight and the Pips (1969): Somehow this wasn’t a hit, but it’s one of Knight’s finest vocal performances, brimming with grit and anguish while the Pips strive mightily to cushion her fall.

5. “California Soul,” Marlena Shaw (1969): Originally a single by pop quintet the Fifth Dimension in 1968, jazz vocalist Shaw delivered the definitive version of this upbeat slice of West Coast optimism. So cool it was sampled decades later by DJ Shadowand later remixed by Diplo.

6. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Diana Ross (1970): Gaye and Terrell scored a hit with this song in 1967, but Ross topped it with this dramatically orchestrated version, including a spoken-word interlude that Motown chief Berry Gordy initially hated. Now it’s hard to imagine the song without it.

7. “Over and Over,” Sylvester (1977): The flamboyant singer/drag queen saw Ashford and Simpson perform this song on Soul Train and adopted it for the disco era, with surging gospel-style backing vocals from the future Weather Girls, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes.

8. “Ride-O-Rocket,” Brothers Johnson (1978): Horn-spackled funk at the crossroads of big-band sophistication.

9. “I’m Every Woman,” Chaka Khan (1978): A manifesto that established the singer’s solo career outside Rufus, with a soul-deep groove and sweeping Arif Mardin strings. It charted again in 1993 when it was covered by Whitney Houston.

10. “Is it Still Good to Ya?” Teddy Pendergrass (1980): The Philly soul crooner puts a twist on the quiet-storm era with this increasingly frenzied slow jam.

—Jerry Leiber (most co-written with Mike Stoller):

1. “Hound Dog,” Big Mama Thornton (1953): Elvis Presley’s hit version of this kiss-off song is kind of a goof (he crooned it to a basset hound on “The Steve Allen Show”), but Leiber and Stoller always preferred the slower, saltier version by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.

2. “Down in Mexico,” Coasters (1956): Trouble was always just around in the corner in Coasters songs, as social decorum and moral standards were put to the test, never more ominously than in this chaotic wrong-side-ofthe-tracks narrative.

3. “Jailhouse Rock,” Elvis Presley (1957): “Everybody, let’s rock!” Centerpiece of a classic Elvis movie and an ahead-of-its time video.

4. “Kansas City,” Wilbert Harrison (1959): Hewing closely to the shuffle groove of the original “K.C. Loving” by Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, Harrison’s version finally cuts loose with an unhinged guitar solo that later inspires a faithful Beatles cover.

5. “Love Potion No. 9,” Clovers (1959): Loaded with sly references to alternative sex and street drugs, the exuberantly wiggy narrative presages the Summer of Love by eight years.

6. “Spanish Harlem,” Ben E. King (1960): Leiber cowrote the song with Phil Spector, with a distinctive Latin flair in the seductive arrangement.

7. “Stand by Me,” Ben E. King (1961): A prayer that becomes a dramatic plea, co-written by King with Leiber and Stoller. It inspired hundreds of covers by everyone from Muhammad Ali to John Lennon.

8. “Ruby Baby,” Dion (1962): Dion DiMucci swaggers through the Drifters’ 1956 hit.

9. “On Broadway,” Drifters (1963): A meeting of great songwriting teams, with Leiber and Stoller collaborating with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil on a tale of big-city aspiration and desperation.

10. “Is That All There Is?” Peggy Lee (1969): Innocence lost in this Berlin cabaret-style ballad, via Thomas Mann’s 19th century short story “Disillusionment.”
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