Appreciation: My Eight Essential Tracks from Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford
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.
1996 | Crime | RSummary: Jerry, a small-town Minnesota car salesman is bursting at the seams with debt... but he's got a plan. He's going to hire two thugs to kidnap his wife in a scheme to collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. It's going to be a snap and nobody's going to get hurt... until people start ...Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare
2008 | Science Fiction | PGSummary: Animated series continues the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as they battle the Emperor Palpatine, Count Dooku and General Grievous, but also takes time to explore other smaller characters in the Star Wars universe.Director: George Lucas (creator)
Cast: Tom Kane, Dee Bradley Baker, Matt Lanter
1997 | Crime | RSummary: Quentin Tarantino adaptats an Elmore Leonard novel into this story of a few increasingly desperate people scraping to get by. It has deep soul, a wicked sense of humor, and Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Pam Grier, and Robert Forster.Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
2013 | Drama | RSummary: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill have boundless energy in the story of a real-life commodities crook who earned millions through scummy small-time stock trades.Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
1995 | Mystery | NRSummary: Denzel Washington plays an out of work WWII vet who takes the wrong job and is soon neck-deep in a mess of politics, murder, and jazz in '40s Los Angeles.Director: Carl Franklin
Cast: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals
2013 | Thriller | RSummary: Based on the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) a Miami bodybuilder who wants to live the American dream. He would like to have the money that other people have. So he enlists the help of fellow bodybuilder Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-convict, Christian bodybuilder Paul Doyle (D...Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub
2013 | Comedy | NRSummary: Insanely funny comedy show created by Amy Schumer, who stars in brilliantly funny sketches about sex, city living, dating, and friendship.Director: Daniel Powell, Amy Schumer (creators)
Cast: Amy Schumer, Kevin Kane, Mike Houston
1993 | Sports | PGSummary: Emotionally powerful sports classic featuring Sean Astin as a skinny high school kid with big football dreams and the determination to make his way towards his dream team at Notre Dame.Director: David Anspaugh
Cast: Sean Astin, Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty
2007 | Comedy | PGSummary: Newlyweds Nick (Ice Cube) and Suzanne (Long) decide to move to the suburbs to provide a better life for their two kids. But their idea of a dream home is disturbed by a contractor (McGinley) with a bizarre approach to business.Director: Steve Carr
Cast: John C. McGinley, Ice Cube, Nia Long, Aleisha Allen
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