Two Popular Musical Masters Pass Away

Nick Ashford and Jerry Lieber have died.  Each was a musical master–one part of a songwriting duo–though neither was ever as famous as the musical giants for whom each penned classics.

Along with his wife, Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashford wrote and produced for Motown beginning in the 1960s.  Their legendary career began when producer Harvey Fuqua gave the two a chance to write some songs for his protégé Marvin Gaye.  Fuqua had decided to pair Gaye with Tammi Terrell, who had sang backup unsuccessfully for the Godfather of Soul.  Ashford and Simpson (he the lyricist and she the composer) came back with “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”  They followed that with a string of chart toppers for the soon-to-be legendary duo of Gaye and Terrell, hits such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I need to Get By.”

Ashford and Simpson would write R&B and pop hits for the next 25 years, from “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” to “I’m Every Woman” to their own “Solid as a Rock,” a chart topper for them in the 80s.

They were part of a particular moment in popular music, when the dynamics undergirding Motown’s commodification of Black musical culture was just beginning to undergo something of a change.  The label, which had made a factory of success out of its deliberate strategy to make “Black music” appealing and marketable to “White America” began to shift to a more “authentic” representation of Black culture without such a concern for palatability.  Ashford and Simpson didn’t lead that charge, but when Motown finally let up a bit, they were part of it.

Jerry Lieber was a Baltimore-born, LA-raised, white Jewish kid who–along with his writing partner Mike Stoller–became known in the 1950s as the writers of a cache of hits representing the birth of popular rock ‘n roll music.  “Hound Dog” (first performed by Big Mama Thorton and later Elvis), kicked off their professional career, which included some of Elvis’ most enduring songs: “Jailhouse Rock,” “Trouble,” “Loving You,” and “Treat Me Nice.”

But they didn’t stop there.  Lieber and Stoller wrote hits for the Coasters like “Charlie Brown,” “Poison Ivy,” and “Yakety Yak.”  They wrote for the Drifters, songs like “On Broadway” and “Stand By Me.”  Jerry Lieber also wrote “Spanish Harlem” with Phil Spector, and “Youngblood” with Doc Pomus.

Here’s Leon Russell doing “Youngblood” as part of a medley he performed at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.

Lieber and Stoller took a lot of heat in later decades for being two white guys writing some of the most indelible “Black” rhythm and blues standards.  As the mainstream public waned in their willingness to ignore their own unchecked white supremacy–a condition which fomented years of white musicians, writers, and producers stealing the creative work of Black artists and never paying them royalties–artists like them became associated with the unsavory past of our popular culture.

The negative attention was not deserved for these two men, however.  As the most successful non-Black writers in popular blues and soul it was not surprising they had to bear that burden, as did Elvis (though he only had to suffer to a small extent in his lifetime).  It was, and remains, a distraction from the real and insidious practices which robbed Black musicians and writers of what was really theirs.

Lieber and Stoller often joked how they were “honorary Black men” for their creative legacy. While the notion is certainly complicated beyond its casual use, their self-assessment (however light-hearted) reflects the sense of love which guided their combined careers–the love Black performers had for their talents, as well as the love these two white kids had for blues music.

Both Jerry Lieber and Nick Simpson were part of the birth of popular rhythm and blues music, a period in US history when non-white cultural production became so ubiquitous as to become known as just “American” culture.  As they witnessed and participated in this special time in our culture’s history, they gave us some of the sounds that will forever make up the soundtrack of daily life.

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