In a strangely poetic bit of coincidence, the world lost two songwriting legends Monday, men whose tunes defined modern pop and whose collaborations have become classics.
In his lengthy partnership with composer Mike Stoller, lyricist Jerry Leiber helped invent the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll sound, penning the bluesy hits “Kansas City” and “Hound Dog.” The duo went on to write exuberant smashes like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak” and “Love Potion #9,” among others, amassing a catalog of hits that’s still one of the recording industry’s most successful. Yet Leiber’s sound was far from brash. You can hear his style all over the achingly lovely “Stand By Me,” which he and Stoller co-wrote with Ben E. King; in the melancholy and determined collaboration “On Broadway”; and in the great Peggy Lee anthem to disillusionment, “Is That All There Is?” He and Stoller were also prolific producers, the masterminds behind the sweeping sounds of hits as diverse as the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” and Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
A Leiber and Stoller song may have a variety of melodic guises, but it’s Leiber’s intelligent, powerful writerly voice that distinguishes them. His songs don’t cower; they don’t mope. They shrug off the losers who ain’t never caught a rabbit, and the glitter that rubs right off your feet. They stand bare before you, defying you to accept the abundant riches of the singer’s love, in songs like “I’m a Woman” and “I Who Have Nothing.” In a musical landscape rife with knee-buckling heartbreak, a Leiber and Stoller song somehow always manages to stand supremely tall.
And that same kind of confidence can be heard in the majestic hits of Nick Ashford, who with his wife, Valerie Simpson, penned some of Motown’s most anthemic love songs. They were, most famously, a natural fit for the muscular vocals of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, bringing a world-rockingly spiritual element to romance in songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
Maybe it was the strength of their own enduring marriage that inspired them. It certainly inspired their biggest hit as performers, the campy, sweet 1980s hit “Solid.” Maybe it was just a natural songwriting inclination and an ear for hits. Whatever the case, their music didn’t pussyfoot around the terrain of conflicted desire or jilted lovers. An Ashford and Simpson song is a song that knows goddamn well exactly where it stands emotionally, and considers no metaphor too grand to describe it. And when Gaye and Terrell swoon that “No other sound is quite the same as your name; no touch can do half as much,” their music can incite chills. These were the writers who insisted that “no wind, no rain, no winter’s cold can stop me,” who wrote that they didn’t just have love, but “determination.”
With Simpson, Nick Ashford created songs that had the melodic resonance of pop with a bold swagger that would permeate rap and hip-hop. You can hear it all over Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” a statement of exhilarating competence. “I ain’t bragging,” she sings, “but I’m the one,” delighting that she’s “got it got it got it.”
Both Leiber and Ashford’s songs retain contemporary relevance. You can hear bits of Leiber and Stoller’s “Stand By Me” in Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” and Ashford and Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry on Their Own.” One of the show-stopping moments of the current “American Idol” tour is Jacob Lusk’s soaring “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” It’s a testament to the enduring allure of their messages.
The canon is full of songwriting teams who knew how to conjure up a heavy heart. But few could speak eloquently about strength. And maybe because they so knew much about collaboration, both Leiber and Simpson helped make classics of songs about being unafraid, about standing by one another, standing by you “like a tree.” In music and in life, there’s pain in love. But as both men proved, with a prolific legacy for generations of listeners who can hear a tune on the radio and say, “That’s our song,” there’s stunning power in togetherness.
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.