Both Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford were part of songwriting teams responsible for countless intricate pop hits across the second half of the 20th Century, and arguably anyone in the business of writing songs owes a great debt to them. Losing both on Monday -- Leiber, 78, died of cardiopulmonary failure
in Los Angeles, and Ashford, 69, passed after complications from throat cancer in New York City -- was a catastrophic blow to any music fan from the baby boomer era on. For those of us born after the mid-'70s, these records were the ones that our parents held onto for us to hear.
Wordsmith Leiber and his melodic foil Mike Stoller were best-known as just Leiber & Stoller, whose songs defined the careers of Elvis Presley and the Coasters. Similarly, it's impossible to think of Ashford without his creative and life partner, Valerie Simpson, and the work they did as Ashford & Simpson, writing hits for Motown and later as a performing team. In either case, many of the songs that came out of these partnerships have become documents of America's rich cultural history and the jumping-off point for some personal anecdotes that follow.
It's impossible (and not necessary) to choose a favorite Leiber & Stoller moment; many of us will go back to "Stand by Me" easily. While "Down in Mexico," "Kansas City," and "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" all showed the snarl, flexibility, and cleverness of the duo's work, "Stand by Me" (written with Ben E. King) proved to be the type of song that resonated just as deeply with the many artists who covered it as it did with the listening public.
Now a 50-year-old track, there are hundreds of recorded versions of "Stand by Me," a very solid Rob Reiner film, and thousands of tender moments at family functions, school dances, and, in my own case, a high school orchestra performance that will be inextricably linked to a deceivingly simple, three-chord gem.
Since then, John Lennon and Sean Kingston (with "Beautiful Girls") are notable among the many who have updated "Stand by Me." Both of their wildly different approaches to this song turned out to be career-defining moments. Lennon's version also has become a favorite in my wedding DJ sets.
Narrowing down to a single Ashford & Simpson composition is equally harrowing. The stops along the way are unbelievable: Ray Charles' "Let's Go Get Stoned," Marlena Shaw's "California Soul," and their own hits, "Solid" and "I'm Every Woman." In this case, though, it's the gifts Ashford gave Marvin Gaye (and Simpson gave Tammi Terrell) in the mid-'60s that linger here. As it turns out, these duets proved to be among my parents' favorites to replicate in my house during my childhood. Similar to "Stand by Me," there are few songs expressing devotion deeper than "You're All I Need to Get By."
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Most strikingly -- much like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" -- this is a song about a shared love, and the harmonies and traded stanzas between Gaye and Terrell (and Ashford & Simpson on backing vocals) echo the sentiments expressed. Unsurprisingly, this later became an Aretha Franklin classic, and Method Man and Mary J. Blige's take on the track "You're All I Need" further shows the song's resilience.
What has already been said, and will continue on, is that the legacy of great songwriters like Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford is easy to quantify. Look no further than the number-one hits, the Grammys, and the Songwriter's Hall of Fame distinctions. But keep in mind that neither of their songwriting partnerships had any true template for what they ended up accomplishing. What will always set apart Lieber & Stoller and Ashford & Simpson will be that their lyrics and melodies filled a need that listeners had no idea existed and that songwriters have tried to emulate ever since.