Reach Out and Touch

Sep 16 2011

Hope everyone had a great summer. I wound it up with a nice break at the end of August, and am just now starting to get back in touch with that Music Weasel lurking deep inside of me. Have to say though, it was a rough end to the summer for the songwriting community, who lost two giant figures in the month of August with the deaths of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford.

I’ve never before used this space to pay tribute to a particular songwriter or executive, but sometimes this business is so focused on tomorrow’s hits that we pay only momentary attention to the passing of people who quite literally created the industry of which we’re a part. The lyrics of Jerry Leiber, equalled only by Chuck Berry, established the mythical, iconic imagery of rock ‘n’ roll– they captured teen spirit long before Kurt Cobain, with humor and energy and an attitude of rebellion that runs through all of popular music from the Fifties onward. Nick Ashford, along with his wife and collaborator Valerie Simpson, brought the passion and power, and also the innovative chord progressions, of gospel music to Motown, and carried it all the way through the modern r&b era, from Ray Charles (“Lets Get Stoned”) to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”) to Diana Ross to Chaka Khan to Mary J. Blige. Ashford & Simpson’s music is a common thread that runs from soul to disco to R&B to house music to hip-hop and ties it all together as one type of music– the kind that inspires you, lifts you up and makes you move.

Beyond momentary introductions at industry events, I never had the opportunity to know personally either Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford. That’s actually okay. The beauty of music is that I didn’t really need to. Some of the first songs I ever learned to play on guitar were the classic Leiber & Stoller Elvis hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock”.  In college, one of my first arrangements to be performed (I was an arranging major, back when that was an actual job) was of Ashford & Simpson’s “You’re All I Need (To Get By)”. One of my biggest hits as a songwriter, Martha Wash’s “Carry  On”, was very much inspired by “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.  I danced at Sound Factory to Danny D’s remix of “I’m Every Woman” (the greatest dance song ever) when Junior Vasquez played it for twenty minutes at 6 in the morning. Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber felt like friends to me– as they do to millions of other people around the world.

Interestingly, both men were innovators not only in their music, but also in the music business. Leiber and Stoller were some of the first songwriters to become producers and publishers as well. They were the original modern writing/production team, and also co-publishers of their work, a rarity in those days. In fact, they essentially pioneered the “production deal” with a label (they had a long and successful relationship with Atlantic Records), working as freelancers, rather than employees of the company.  Ashford & Simpson were writers and producers as well, but broke new ground by then parlaying their success behind the scenes into long careers as performing artists, with hits like “Solid” and “Found a Cure”. Where most songwriters seem to start as artists and then move into writing songs for others, Ashford and Simpson flipped the script and went the other way, not unlike what writer/artists like Sean Garrett and others have done today.

It’s always risky to try to divine lessons from careers like Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford–  the creative genius of songwriters at that level is not particularly transferable.  If you’re as talented as those two, you can do a lot of things that might not work for other people. Nevertheless, there are a couple of obvious truths that are common to both men, even though they came from different backgrounds and eras, and had very different musical gifts. It’s worth noting:

1. There’s strength in numbers. And two is a very good number.

Granted, everyone has their own way of working. But you can’t argue with certain patterns, and one of those is that songwriting just seems to work better in two-person teams. Leiber & Stoller followed Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Fields and McHugh, Waller & Razaf and the list goes on. Leiber and Stoller were followed by Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Bacharach & David, Elton John & Bernie Taupin and of course, Ashford and Simpson.  Certainly there are dozens of legendary songwriters who worked entirely on their own. And while I’m not a big fan of today’s “song by committee” writing method, with five or six writers all chipping in bits and pieces, I can’t deny that it has yielded some successful records. But in the end,  the songwriting duo seems to be the most consistent hit-producing machine ever devised. If you’re working solo and not getting to where you want to be, either professionally or creatively, it might mean that you need to find your other half.

2. The best American popular songs are almost inevitably rooted in black music forms.

If there’s one enduring formula in American popular music, it’s this: trends and forms originate in the culture of black America, and then are developed, refined, sometimes diluted and often homogenized into mainstream pop music. Jazz became show tunes and popular standards; funk became disco; hip-hop became urban pop. Thanks largely to Leiber & Stoller, the blues became rock ‘n’ roll, leading not only to Elvis, but to The Coasters, the Drifters, Ben E. King, and ultimately everyone from the Beatles and Stones to Zeppelin. At the same time, the music of the black church was transformed into soul music, and Ashford and Simpson turned it into Motown, into disco, into pop.  It doesn’t matter what race the creators come from– they’re all drawing water from the same well.  Even today, we see forms like dub-step reshaping pop music once again. The musical tradition that is an integral part of black culture is a seemingly unending source of inspiration and innovation.

3. Songwriting is not merely expression. It’s communication.

At a meeting not too long ago, a songwriter matter-of-factly informed me that she wrote music primarily for herself– to express her feelings and ideas.  It’s something I seem to hear increasingly often, usually as an explanation of why the song has no chorus, why the lyric makes no sense, why the song appears to fit no known sector of the market. To Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford, I’m sure the idea of music solely as a means of personal expression would have been inconceivable.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford’s personality in their music. It’s rather to say that they aimed to communicate their point of view to the listener. They weren’t aiming at something personal and introspective, but rather something celebratory, engaging and compelling. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “Stand By Me” are about connecting with the audience. That’s why they’re hits for generation after generation.

This is the legacy of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford. They built a business around entertainment in the best sense of the word, finding a raw emotional connection, an  interaction, a shared, visceral energy between writer, performer and audience. Too often now, it’s become a business of cool detachment, of artistic statements, “vibe”, and marketing concepts. Listening instead of dancing. The distant wave of a hand, rather than a human touch. Every songwriter reaches inward to some degree or another. But the greatest songwriters also reach out.