On Monday, we lost two titans of songwriting: Jerry Leiber, best known for writing with his longtime collaborator, Mike Stoller; and Nick Ashford, who co-wrote with his wife Valerie Simpson. Paul Shaffer once said, “Leiber and Stoller? There would be no rock and rock without them.” That’s a bit hyperbolic, but only a little.
The music of Leiber and Ashford broke down color barriers during the ‘50s and the ‘60s. Their music united people at a time when so many other things divided us.
Below are my essential eight songs that either Leiber or Ashford co-wrote. These aren’t all necessarily their best works (for example, I left off “Spanish Harlem” and “Kansas City”), but they are the ones that I go back to time and time again. Many of the songs were hits before I and many of you were born, but they are now simply part of our collective DNA. I provided links to versions of the songs as well in case you're not familiar with some of them.
There’s a theme here in that these songs have all been covered time and time again because that’s what happens with a great tune. There may be versions that are superior to others or better known, but they reach out and grab you by the throat no matter who records them because the song is greater than any one particular singer.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Ashford & Simpson): Simply one of the best songs ever written about unconditional love, whether it's romantic or platonic. Nothing can keep me from you. The Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell version is the definitive one given the way their voices wrap around each other, but I also love the production on the Diana Ross solo cover, cheesy as the talking is, and Michael McDonald’s more recent rendition. Ross’s version features Ashford & Simpson on backing vocals. There is never a wrong time to hear this song, no matter who’s performing it. Even Amy Winehouse knew that: her “Tears Dry On Their Own” draws upon the song, so much so that Ashford & Simpson got a songwriting credit.
“Hound Dog” (Leiber & Stoller) Elvis Presley’s version is fine, but the King has nothing on Big Mama Thornton, who recorded it first. She dresses this man down one side and up the other until his tail disappears between his legs. Her voice takes every word that Lieber & Stoller wrote and breathes life into it. Thornton’s version is said to be Leiber’s favorite rendition of any song he wrote.
“I’m Every Woman” (Ashford & Simpson): More than dated, ‘70s anthem, “I Am Woman” (and a far superior song), “I’m Every Woman,” first delivered fiercely by Chaka Khan and then Whitney Houston, encompasses all that is feminine. The “oh, oh, ohs” and the confident lyrics (Anything you want done baby, I can do it naturally”...), plus the promise (threat?) of being able to read your thoughts “every one from A-Z.” Khan’s bouncy, yet muscular, version embodied the end of the feminist movement and the disco era in a way that makes you want to twirl and twirl with your best gal pals.
“Jackson” (Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler): I’ve been fixated anew on this song about the fire going out of a marriage since hearing it in “The Help” a few weeks ago.There are several great versions, particularly the Johnny and June Carter Cash one. I have a soft spot for the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood rendition simply because of my dad’s crush on Nancy Sinatra. “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.” I don’t really know what a pepper sprout is, but I know EXACTLY what they mean in that line.
“Jailhouse Rock” (Leiber & Stoller): The title track from the best Elvis Presley movie ever made. Plus, the performance segment in the movie remains one of the first, and greatest, music videos. This is everything a great pop song sound be: recognizable from the opening notes, memorable chorus, great verses, a sweet bridge, and under three minutes. The musicianship is awesome too; that’s Stoller pounding away on the piano like he’s Jerry Lee Lewis. Rock, Rock, Rock.
“Stand By Me” (Leiber & Stoller, Ben E. King): Produced, as well as written, by Leiber & Stoller, the ode to loyalty based on the 46th Psalm, set the standard for a sound that came to symbolize much of the music of the era with its low-key, yet lush production and great bass line. The song has reportedly been recorded by more than 400 artists. Though John Lennon’s version is beloved as well, this one is still my favorite. According to BMI, it is the fourth most-performed song of the 20th century. Best use of a shaker in a song, ever.
"There Goes My Baby" (Leiber, Stoller, Ben E. King, Lover Patterson, George Treadwell): The Drifters’ version was recorded long before I was a glint in my mama and daddy’s eyes, but this is THE version. Growing up in the South, this classic became part of the Beach Music canon. Just listen to those strings, backing vocals, and drum. Perfection. We'll never know why she left him "so all alone, all alone," but can't help but be glad she did if this doo-wop heartbreak on a platter was the result.
“Your Precious Love” (Ashford & Simpson): An unabashed, uncynical look at lasting love with a breezy, swaying beat. Marvin & Tammi’s version is the finger-snapping best, but there’s something very cool and sweet about D’Angelo and Erykah Badu’s faithful re-make.