Today was a bad day for great songwriting teams.
Nick Ashford died. With his wife, Valerie Simpson, he wrote such hits as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
As if that wasn’t sad enough, Jerry Leiber died also. With his writing partner Mike Stoller, he wrote such enduring classics as “On Broadway,” and “Hound Dog.”
I got to work with both of these extraordinary talents when I worked at A and R Studios, in New York in the 1970’s.
Now, I’m a psychotherapist. I work with a certain group of people who for one reason or another have a hard time believing in love. If there is anything I do believe in, it is love. Last night, my wife and I were having a discussion about how we came to have this fundamental trust in relationship, while so many of our clients do not.
When my clients say that they do not believe that it is possible to have a good, healthy, enduring relationship, I ask them if they can think of anyone they knew, or heard about, who had a great relationship. All too often, they say no.
One thing I have learned through my work is that we often find what we are looking for. Something may be right in front of our nose, but if it doesn’t fit into our world-view we simply don’t see it. So maybe for these folks love is all around and they just don’t recognize it.
But how did they come to the place where they can’t see love, even if it does exist? In most cases, these folks didn’t see good relationships in their own home. That is where we learn much about what the world is like.
But we can also can learn about love through the other relationships we get to witness.
And that winds us back to Ashford and Simpson, and Leiber and Stoller. Both of these couples, at least from what I got to observe, had great relationships. I got to see that at a tender and important age. They taught me, both in their partnerships, and through their songs, that love can be true.
When I met Nick and Valerie, they had had tremendous success as songwriters, having written some of the best hits of all time for top artists like Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross, but they were just starting out as a performing act. As a result, they did not have the inflated egos that turned so many of the stars I worked with into jerks. Nick and Val were, if anything, real. They were genuinely nice, funny, smart people, which was rare in the music biz. Oh. And mind-boggingly brilliant.
The name of their production company was Hopsack and Silk, and that told you a great deal about who they were in their relationship. The funny thing is, when I think about it now, I’m not sure which was which.
Valerie was all professional. She was the taskmaster of the duo. Nick was a bit more of a rapscallion. Nick would sneak cigarettes and beg us not to tell Valerie. This is an especially sad memory, since Nick died at 70 from throat cancer.
I forgot to mention they were both exceedingly attractive looking people, as well. And as anyone who saw them perform would tell you, Valerie was beautiful but Nick had that sexy thing. Valerie had the silkier, more polished voice, while in the vocal department, Nick was rougher.
But as different as they were, they were most definitely a couple, and deeply in love. They had a great relationship that worked and endured for decades. Though there was the playful friction that made for heat between them, they always had the best vibe between them when I worked with them in the studio.
When you saw them singing their classic love duets looking in each other’s eyes, you knew that it was “the real thing.” Ain’t nothing like it!
Because Nick and Valerie had so much love between them, they had extra to give to others. They gave their hearts to the audiences they played for, and to all that came in their sphere. As a young, up and coming engineer, they gave me opportunities to record the acts they were working with. They taught me the motown style of production and exposed me to some of the heaviest cats in the biz. They always made themselves accessible.
They were a joy to be around, and my heartfelt condolences go out to Valerie, their family, and all their wonderful friends and associates.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller weren’t lovers, but they also had a great, enduring partnership that lasted a lifetime.
There were few thrills to match having the opportunity to work with, and hang out with, Leiber and Stoller, who wrote some of the greatest songs of the 1950’s and ’60’s.
They too, were a study in contrasts. They fit together in a synergistic whole, where the sum was exponential from the parts.
Mike Stoller was the trained musician of the outfit. He was elegant, cultured, studied, and a worthy craftsman.
Jerry Leiber, the lyric guy, was all street. He was fast, kooky, and wild. Leiber was all about the feel. It didn’t matter if the recording was technically perfect. What mattered was if it had that groove, that spark that made you move and say, “yeah.”
This combo of culture and street resulted in some of the most memorable, resounding, enduring hits from the rock era’s golden peak. They made history with Elvis’s “Hound Dog,” could move you deep with a song like Ben E. King‘s “Stand by Me” and do one of the hardest things to do in music, make you laugh, with a tune like The Coasters, “Yakety Yak.”
It was one of the greatest realizations of my rock and roll fantasies to hang out with this duo in the studio. Watching them work, they had a perfectly smooth balance. They appreciated each other, and gave space to their partner to be who they were and bring themselves to the collaboration. That’s a lot of what a good relationship is all about.
(One of my favorite moments was going out to dinner with these fascinating raconteurs, and having the graceful Mike Stoller teach this 18-year-old boy from Brooklyn how to bone a fish. I’m still requested by all I know to perform this surgery.)
I’ m not a religious man. If I have any religion at all, it was the one I learned in the great church of Rock and Roll from folks like Jerry and Mike when they said,
“No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid/ just as long as you stand, stand by me.”
And when Nick and Valerie told us,
“Cause baby, there ain’t no mountain high enough/ ain’t no valley low enough/ ain’t no river wide enough/ to keep me from gettin’ to you, baby.”
I was lucky. I had parents who loved one another. I learned that love was real from them. But it didn’t hurt to see that some of my heroes not only wrote the music and lyrics, but sang the tune in their own lives. I learned that love could be trusted from the great songwriting teams of Leiber and Stoller, and Ashford and Simpson.
Thanks Jerry. Thanks Nick.
I see these two departed music men in that great control room in the sky. Nick, with his leonine head and big smile has his feet up on the producer’s desk. Jerry is running around the control room, hitting the talk back, and screaming, “That’s it! That’s the take! Playback!” They’re making hit records for the heavenly choir, with Marvin and Elvis singing lead. And everyone up there is just moving a little funkier, and feelin’ the love a little more, for these two guys having shown up.
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