On Monday, pop music lost two very strong songwriters. Jerry Leiber died of cardiac arrest at 78, and Nick Ashford passed away from complications from throat cancer at 70. Both men were one half of successful songwriting duos.
Jerry Leiber first partnered with Mike Stoller in 1950, when both were just 17, and it’s no overstatement to say they helped birth rock ‘n roll, bringing blues traditions into mainstream pop. Classic Leiber and Stoller titles from that golden-oldie era include “Kansas City,” “Hound Dog” (in raunchier form for Big Mama Thornton, pre-Elvis), “Jailhouse Rock,” “There Goes By Baby,” “Spanish Harlem,” and “Stand By Me” (with Ben E. King), to name just six.
Leiber and Stoller were also prolific producers, behind the boards during a long run with Atlantic Records for The Drifters (memorably adding strings to “There Goes By Baby”) and The Coasters. The duo continued to rack up production credits well into the ’70s, from The Exciters (“Tell Him”) and The Clovers (“Love Potion No. 9,” which they also wrote) to Stealers Wheel (“Stuck In The Middle With You”). These guys were giants.
My favorite Leiber and Stoller song (and production) isn’t any of the ones I’ve mentioned, but The Coasters’ “Searchin’.” As kids do, I was transfixed by this one song for a stretch. I was already familiar with the “fun” side of The Coasters, songs like “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Along Came Jones” (all Leiber and Stoller works), but “Searchin’” was new to me and not like the others. This was R&B, gritty and desperate, but still had me singing along.
“Searchin’” was The Coasters’ first big hit, reaching #3 in 1957. This live TV performance doesn’t begin to approach the recording I remember from the 45, but it’s the best I could dig up:
Purchase The Coasters – “Searchin’” via iTunes.
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were more than musical soulmates, they were married partners, meeting in a New York City church in 1964. After their own recording career didn’t take off, Ashford & Simpson moved behind the scenes, writing and producing songs for others.
Mainstream success came with a move to Motown in 1966, where Ashford & Simpson made a kindred pair for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, writing a string of hits for the duet partners that included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.” Their hitmaking prowess established, Ashford and Simpson wrote and produced for other Motown artists, including much of Diana Ross’ solo work in the 1970s. The duo famously revamped “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for the former Supreme, giving Ross her first solo #1 in 1970.
With the goal of breaking through as artists in their own right, Ashford & Simpson left the Motown family after two solo albums by Valerie were poorly promoted by the label, which also passed on releasing an album from the duo. Signed to Warner Bros. Records (writing “I’m Every Woman” for Chaka Khan), and then to Capitol Records in the 1980s, Ashford & Simpson finally scaled the upper reaches of the Hot 100 together with the release of “Solid” in 1984. It’s fitting that their most successful song recorded together was a testament to their relationship, a personal and professional partnership that would last nearly 50 years.
1984 was a particularly solid, ahem, year for pop, and Ashford & Simpson’s single was near the top of a stack of 45s that got played a lot that fall and winter. Nearly 27 years later, the thrill is still hot-hot-hot-hot-hot-hot-hot-hot…
Purchase Ashford & Simpson – “Solid” via iTunes.