The Songwriters – The last verse

Well, it’s got to end somewhere, so this is it.

When I started this series, the aim of which was to celebrate writers whose material was suitable for others as well as themselves, it was not my intention to concentrate on the 1960s (it started, after all, with Sandy Linzer, whose best known work was with Odyssey in the late 70s), but as the names came and I wrote them up, that’s just the way it went. Whatever it was about that decade that made songwriters so important, they just were.

There are, no doubt, deserving cases who I’ve missed (in the 60s Mob, Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, for instance), but if I could go to a desert island with the songs of the writers in this series available to me, I would be a happy man. By all means let me know the people you would have included, remembering the criteria, as explained months ago in the second post of the series:

“When someone told Ian Dury he had written some great songs, his reaction was that he didn’t agree. To him, a great song was something that could be successful when other people sang it, and his material was very reliant on his voice and persona for its effect. This series is dedicated to writers who do or did that, whether or not they had hits in their own right.”

Admittedly the Sixties is the era I know most about, and although there is plenty of variety in my music collection, a quick analysis of my iTunes will show that that’s what I keep coming back to.

For me, discovering new music doesn’t necessarily mean finding people who have only started working recently. As great as it is to hear something brand new that is as good as anything, ever, I also find a thrill in stumbling across something for the first time that has been around since I was a boy but has somehow escaped me until now.

One of the first songs I downloaded when the iTunes era began was Our Day Will Come, a teen longing number with cheesy organ backing, by Ruby and the Romantics, and included here just because I like it. It was written by the little-known Mort Garson and lyricist Bob Hilliard, whose other credits include the words for Tower of Strength and Seven Little Girls (sitting in the back seat). Our Day Will Come may well have brushed past me in 1963 but only hit me in the face around 40 years later, just before Amy Winehouse brought it to the attention of a new generation. Similarly, Patti and the Emblems’ Mixed Up Shook Up Girl from 1964 was an exciting surprise when it finally found me in 2012, particularly as I had known a completely different song of the same title by Mink de Ville in 1978.

Anyway, what with half a dozen Motown writers, plus Bacharach and David, Lennon and McCartney and all the rest, the early years of the second half of the 20th century emerged as the key era of the pop song, and as much as the following decades might have been full of songs written by people for other people, it was difficult to find deserving candidates after about 1980.

Even such thrusting British contenders as Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, whose names were all over the British charts in the late 80s and early 90s, don’t really fall into this category, because their success was due as much to their magic touch with production as to the tunes and the lyrics.

Body Talk and Music and Lights by Imagination kept chart music alive for me when many of my friends wouldn’t be seen dead buying a single, and even Bananarama were given a certain credibility by Jolley and Swain’s Cruel Summer and Robert de Niro’s Waiting – but again, take away the production and give the songs to somebody else and they don’t cry out for new treatments. Even Michael Buble (who, to borrow a saying from a different area, would shag anything) wouldn’t be interested.

It was the same thing for Stock Aitken and Waterman, who churned out some great stuff. You might not like I Should Be So Lucky, but who can dismiss You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)? But the songs on their own, naked and unadorned? Not so much.

As for the songs featured in this post, there’s one by Paul Simon, whose songs have been covered by plenty of people, but not necessarily done as well as he and Art Garfunkel did them.

I looked for a great version of a Don McLean song and found one by Joanna Wang, a new name to me.

As different versions go, there is nothing quite so subtle or amusing as Vic Reeves’s treatment of Born Free. Written by John Barry and lyricist Don Black, it was an early 60s hit for Matt Monro, and Reeves’s version shows, I think, that he loves the song. But he’s a comedian, so he does this thing with it, in an affectionate way. And there’s a nice little sample from Strawberry Letter 23 by the Brothers Johnson thrown in – that  plink plonky keyboard riff that keeps cropping up.

And finally – a little self-indulgent, I admit –  a song from the relatively small but precious box of jewels that is the work of one of my obscure favourites, Pete Dello. He wrote and sang I Can’t Let Maggie Go, a hit for his band Honeybus in 1968, and they also did the original version of Do I Still Figure In Your Life, one of the pillars of Joe Cocker’s debut album, which also included covers of  With A Little Help From My Friends by the Beatles and two by Bob Dylan. That’s pretty exalted company. You may also remember I’m A Gambler by Lace (1969) – that was him. He’s a music teacher now, apparently.

And even more finally, here is a song written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway with bassist Herbie Flowers (whose name comes first on the record label, so maybe the basic idea was his) that should have appeared in The 60s English Mob a couple of posts ago. As fine a love song as was ever written, featuring top British session musicians and vocals by Madeline Bell, a sublime singer who did a lot of session work but never quite cracked it as a solo act. Last I heard she was living in Spain and singing jazz.

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The Songwriters – Diane Warren

The 1990s. An eerie, all-pervading shadow descends on the earth. The synthesisers and sequencers and samplers have taken over. Technical advances allow bad singers to have their false notes corrected by computers. Producers and entrepreneurs are the new superstars. Songwriters are banished into the past, where their old-fashioned skills are still valued, but they are now an underground movement.

Talent is revealed as an abstract notion, a gift conferred on the naive but grasping, the desperately ambitious, by the new elite; the Technocrats. Panels of TV “experts” guide a gullible public in what should be considered good.

A bleak, barren, shiny, antiseptic world masquerades as the entertainment industry. And at the same time, oddly, technology allows small-time individuals to create and make available their own little creations.

And then, out of the deafening darkness of high-tech production, there emerges a latter-day Aladdin’s Lamp of song who has been there all along: Diane Warren.

She’s a strange woman, by all accounts. Writers of pop songs inevitably plough the fields of love and romance, but Warren’s life appears to have been notably short of those things. Even her mother has been quoted as saying she should stop writing for a while and get out more.

Let’s start with Because You Loved Me by Celine Dion. The French-Canadian beanpole has a tremendously strong voice, but it’s nothing without killer material, and Warren specializes in that. Everybody goes to her when they need a hit. Even reformed rock bad boys Aerosmith, who no longer needed the money to buy cocaine and booze because they had given it up. They took I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing into the dainty but lucrative environs of the pop charts.

The man with the huge voice and matching hair (apart from a drastically receding front half), Michael Bolton, was furnished by Warren with How Can We Be Lovers (If We Can’t Be Friends). Incidentally, on a personal note I am very grateful for the intro, in which he sings the title, tipping me off so I have time to hit the off button before the song really gets going.

Cher has always provided work for writers, and contributed to Warren’s bulging retirement plan with If I Could Turn Back Time.

A relatively early hit for Warren was Rhythm Of The Night, a cheerful latiny hit for DeBarge in the days when Gloria Estefan ruled.

If I haven’t said anything complimentary about Warren’s songs so far it’s because by and large I find them efficient rather than affecting. But they can’t all be like that, and sure enough there’s Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart, which can take on a suitably noble, sob-worthy aspect after a few Merlots.

Even better is country gal Leann Rimes with How Do I Live, which brandishes some real emotion amid the clever chord changes.

So, we may not be able to think of any straight off, but there are hundreds of this woman’s songs in existence. Johnny Mathis, Tony Hadley, Jody Watley, Jimmy Barnes, Gary Barlow, Chicago, MeatLoaf, Deniece Williams, Joan Jett…  The bountiful catalogue of Diane Warren is all around us.

 

 

The Songwriters – The 60s English mob

 

We stray now into territory that is not cool, except to those who simply like the songs and don’t acknowledge the difference between natural sugar and artificial sweeteners.

The pop charts of the 60s – in the UK, at least – required liberal supplies of songs that are sometimes referred to as “disposable”. The writers were never going to be given much credit by the cognoscenti, but they would sell millions of singles and make sums of money that “serious” artistes could only dream of as they drove their Ford Transits up and down the country in search of a place in history.

I’m talking here about people like Roger Cook & Roger Greenaway, Tony Macaulay, Geoff Stephens, Les Reed & Barry Mason –people with a big house in the country but who, when you deliver a pizza to them and they tell you they made their pile as songwriters, are hurt but not surprised when you say you’ve never heard of them.

Take Cook and Greenaway: You’ve Got Your Troubles by The Fortunes, I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman by Whistling Jack Smith, Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart (Gene Pitney), Melting Pot (Blue Mink) and I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (New Seekers) are just five of dozens of songs that blared through transistor radios and put singers’ faces on bedroom walls while everyone was officially  worshiping The Beatles and The Stones.

Macaulay gave us Baby Make It Soon (Marmalade), Build Me Up Buttercup (The Foundations), Don’t Give Up On Us and Silver Lady (David Soul), Lights Of Cincinatti (co-written with Stephens, sung by Scott Walker) and Sorry Suzanne (The Hollies).

Geoff Stephens created  The Crying Game (Dave Berry, Boy George and a film), Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast (Elvis Presley), There’s A Kind Of Hush (Herman’s Hermits, The Carpenters), Winchester Cathedral (The New Vaudeville Band) and You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me (with Macaulay, sung by The New Seekers)

Reed and Mason came up with Delilah (Tom Jones, Alex Harvey Band), Here It Comes Again (The Fortunes), Les Bicyclettes De Belsize (Engelbert Humperdinck), Supergirl (Graham Bonney) and Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes (Edison Lighthouse).

Masterpieces? Compared with Yesterday or Ruby Tuesday, perhaps not. But Winchester Cathedral demonstrated considerable imagination and the courage to attempt a chart hit from a very different direction, while Melting Pot was pretty cool, with a bit of social commentary (and Cook was a member of Blue Mink). Delilah is a great one for any clown with a guitar to bash out at a party (I’ve done it myself, hungover one Boxing Day in Venezuela – they all knew it and loved it).  I’d Like to Teach The World To Sing was enormously successful in the advertising world in its guise as I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke.

It doesn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination to see any of these as footnotes in the Paul McCartney songbook.

Some of these guys have a further claim to fame: Cook had a lot of success as a writer and singer on the US country scene and Macaulay made his mark in American musical theatre, for instance.

I thought long and hard before lumping them all into one post and a slightly different category from those more commonly regarded as greats, but no disrespect: I wouldn’t mind having their track record  – and a fraction of their royalties.

The Songwriters – Bert Berns

“Live fast, die young” is the sort of motto that appeals to young people, but the image it conjures up is of hedonism: drink, drugs, sex and rebellion. In the case of Bert Berns, the fact that he crammed a lot of songs into his short life (he died at 38) may have had something to do with his knowing he didn’t have long in the first place.

People who contract rheumatic fever as a child know their heart has been weakened and that it is likely to give out relatively young, and such was the case with Bertrand Russell Berns, author of immortal pop/rock songs like Twist and Shout and Hang on Sloopy.

Those two songs alone make Berns the king of the three-chord trick, the holy grail of the aspiring guitarist. You’re aged 12, say, and you’ve just persuaded your parents to buy you a guitar. It’s a terrible thing with a heavy action and a tone devoid of any beauty, and it doesn’t stay in tune. But it’s a guitar and you are now a guitarist. All you need is a song you can knock off in five minutes, because the fancy stuff can wait – you just want to be able to bash something out and show the world you’ve got the gift.

Without wishing to get any 11-year-olds too excited, you should be able to master three simple chords quite quickly. By the time your fingertips have hardened enough to hold the strings down for three minutes you should be able to go – slowly and clumsily – from D to G to A, and if you can, that’s Twist And Shout in the bag.

Learn how to play the chord of C and you’ve got Hang On Sloopy, which is G, C and D. And Bob’s your uncle: you’re a star in the making.

For the rest of the world, those are just great little songs. The Isley Brothers had a hit with Twist and Shout before the Beatles took it on. John Lennon recorded the lead vocal at the end of a long day in the studio, his voice tired and ragged, and had to be cajoled to go through with it when he would have preferred to leave it for another day when he would be more in control. He didn’t like the result – strained, imprecise and as rough as a bear’s armpit – but for us, the consumers, it’s kind of thrilling. And the song itself is just one of those rabble-rousing things that gets people dancing and singing almost in spite of themselves.

Its durability can be seen by its success in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Matthew Broderick as the charismatic Ferris gatecrashes a carnival float and mimes the entire song. That’s a song more than 20 years old, sounding as fresh as yesterday.

Sloopy was recorded by The McCoys and easily makes it into my top ten raucous, good-time songs.

And then from Berns’s pen came Here Comes The Night, a hit for a young Belfast band, Them, featuring Van Morrison before he  became  a “serious artiste”. The chords have upped the ante a little, but any young guitarist worth his salt and with six months’ experience should be able to negotiate it. Speaking of guitars, Jimmy Page played on the track, even though Them had their own guitarist in Billy Harrison.

It’s another irresistibly singable song and has been covered many times, including early versions by Lulu and David Bowie and a more recent one by Rod Stewart. Lulu’s version actually came out before Them’s, but tanked, failing to make the top twenty – much to Them’s delight.

Lyrically it’s quite gloomy, a tale of lost love and seeing your girlfriend with someone new and wondering what is wrong with you and why you can’t accept the situation: Morrison’s voice and character are perfect for it.

Another success for Berns was Tell Him, a hit in the US for The Exciters (as Tell Her – it works either way) and in the UK for Billie Davis, sometime girlfriend of Shadows bass player Jet Harris.

Other early 60s hits included Cry Baby and Piece Of My Heart, both revamped later in the decade by Janis Joplin.

Berns also had a successful career as a record producer, working with people such as The Drifters.

His damaged heart duly packed up in 1967 when he was just 38, and that was the end of Bert Berns. Such was his knack for creating a hit song out of very little, he could have extended his career and reputation for many more years. Think what might have happened if he had still been around in the punk era. Three chords and a catchy chorus – there was no one better.

 

 

The Songwriters – Graham Gouldman

The firmament of 1960s British pop music wasn’t all Beatles and Motown; there were hundreds of singers and bands hoping for a crack at this wacky new world where they could be an unknown, selling nail varnish in Woolies’ or suits in Burtons one day and appearing on Ready Steady Go the next. It hadn’t yet become a case of writing your own stuff, not for most people, anyway, so there was a market for songwriters, and one who burst through was Graham Gouldman.

Later to become famous as one quarter of 10cc, Gouldman was a Jewish lad from Manchester who just happened to have tunes popping into his head, and he found himself ploughing two distinct furrows at the same time. While he was providing the sort of out-and-out pop that the chart-oriented acts needed, he was also having his sleeve pulled by The Yardbirds, an altogether more rootsy outfit, brought up on blues and soon to branch out into psychedelia, and boasting future legendary guitarists, not one but three, in their ranks.

That Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page should all pass through this British combo is little short of miraculous, but even so, the way of things at the time was that they needed hit singles. Gouldman gave them For Your Love, later covered by plenty of people, including a version by Fleetwood Mac in between the Peter Green and Lindsey Buckingham eras. He gave them Heart Full of Soul, which was edging towards that strange psychedelic sound, and Evil Hearted You, a tougher, darker thing that American alternative rockers The Pixies would, much later, sing in Spanish, for some reason.

Of the mainstream pop material he was generating, Gouldman assisted the Hollies’ soaring 60s trajectory with Look Through Any Window and Bus Stop, both evocative as well as tuneful, but the one that has always fascinated me is Herman’s Hermits’ No Milk Today, in which an empty milk bottle on a backstreet doorstep symbolises the singer’s lost love. Pretentious? Nah. It’s just a nice image:

But all that’s left is a place dark and lonely
A terraced house in a mean street back of town
Becomes a shrine when I think of you only
Just two up two down

Another one with a bit of character, a bit of uniqueness, is Tallyman, a minor hit for Jeff Beck, which tells the story of a family paying for goods “on tick”, whereby the housewife is given the clothes or whatever by the salesman and is then visited once a week for repayments.

The early and mid 60s are famous for their gritty, kitchen-sink novels and films, and Tallyman and No Milk Today are cut from the same cloth: little slices of life that paint as much of a picture as going down the dancehall to check out the girls and the beat groups.

Once 10cc had got together in the 1970s, Gouldman started concentrating on his own song needs, and that’s what brought us  I’m Not In Love, sometimes voted as the greatest love song of all time. And there was the melodramatic, oddly gripping I’m Mandy Fly Me and the cheeky swipe at the Caribbean, Dreadlock Holiday.

If songs are handed out by God – or however you believe it happens – Graham Gouldman certainly received, and passed on, more than his fair share.

 

 

The Songwriters – Leiber and Stoller

So far in this series we’ve seen some pretty impressive catalogues in terms of numbers, but Leiber and Stoller make everyone else look like slackers. To mention every hit they have written would amount to a list, rather than an article, so you will find some notable ones missing and the ones I mention might be included because I like them, not because they’re more important.

They got their big break through Elvis Presley with Hound Dog, followed by Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, King Creole, Trouble and more.

For other people there was Poison Ivy (The Paramounts, including future Procol Harum members), Yakety Yak, Kansas City, Along Came Jones, Love Potion No. 9 and Charlie Brown – and that was all before the end of the 1950s. At that point many of us might have  pushed off to the Bahamas to live off the royalties for the rest of our lives, but whatever was driving Leiber and Stoller just kept them turning up at the coalface every day. And so to the 60s and Stand By Me (Ben E. King and everyone from Cassius Clay in 1964 to John Lennon in 1975). On Broadway by The Drifters, Some Other Guy (Beatles album track) and I Who Have Nothing (Ben E. King again, and in the UK Shirley Bassey).

The sheer coverability of these songs was illustrated to me in 2013 in a bar on the Caribbean island of Tobago, when a 20-something local guy did a karaoke reggae version of I Who Have Nothing. We were the only two singers – the only two customers – and I was trying to choose material that didn’t age me too much, but he blithely came up with that wizened old thing.

In 1968 a Leiber and Stoller song called Is That All There Is was a US hit for Leslie Uggams, a one-hit wonder whose  existence has eluded me until now. The song was also recorded by singing sex bomb Peggy Lee and crooner Tony Bennett, and it is interesting lyrically, being the bored, seen-it-all reminiscences of someone too cool for school. In the light of that, it’s hard to understand what Bennett saw in it, but there was a much more satisfying take on it in 1980 by a sneering American rich kid called Cristina, who added a masochistic verse about being beaten up by a man. Leiber and Stoller were not amused, sued her and had her version banned for several years. I like it.

On a completely different note there is Pearl’s a Singer, a 1977 hit for Elkie Brooks (Dino and Sembello in the US) and then the divine I Keep Forgetting, sung by the exceedingly earnest-sounding Michael McDonald.

The tune cropped up again in 1994 when rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg used it to tell a sordid tale of gangs and sex. For those who maintain that in rap the c is silent, it’s melodic refrains such as this that make the motherf***ing things bearable, and indeed Regulate is quite nice as long as you don’t listen too closely.

Now, what Leiber and Stoller gems have we missed? They wrote Spanish Harlem, a fabulous tune that makes the setting sound more romantic than it perhaps is, and Jackson, the stomping, riotously funny argument between a frustrated man and his cynically realistic wife. Johnny Cash and June Carter did it, but in my opinion Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood did it better.

And Leiber had a hand in Past Present and Future, a heartbreakingly wistful song based on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The singer seems to be carrying some terrible secret, possibly more than the emotional distress of a broken relationship and even having been sexually assaulted. It’s hardly conventional pop  material, and the lyrics don’t make it clear, but it’s haunting and thought-provoking.

The song was originally recorded by the Shangri-Las and there was a version in the late 80s but I’m damned if I can find it. It was  just about note-for-note like the original, but sung less theatrically, I seem to recall. Not Agnetha Faltskog of Abba – that was 2004. If you happen to know it, please let me know. In the meantime, here’s the Shangri-las.

The Songwriters – Gerry Goffin and Carole King

When Carole King emerged as a solo star in 1971 and the album Tapestry made itself such a fixture in a generation’s record collections, many people didn’t make the connection between the curly-haired queen of hippie-lite and a run of hits 10 years earlier in which she had starred as both writer and performer.

Even the presence on Tapestry of the Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow  failed to convince us that this woman had a past in the very different world of top twentyism.

Despite the hit singles such as It’s Too Late, Carole King was a serious  artist and we were too cool and albumy to acknowledge that she was an oak tree that had grown from a pretty substantial acorn. Or too ignorant, in my case.

But back in the days just before the Beatles, Carole King and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin had written not just that Shirelles number one but a cluster of other indelible songs including Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee) and Halfway to Paradise, a hit in the UK for Billy Fury and in the USA for Tony Orlando, who wasn’t to become a household name across the water until the mid Sixties.

Then there was Chains, a US hit for The Cookies but better known on Planet Brit as a Beatles album track.

The following year brought The Loco-motion, sung by Little Eva, who may or may not have been Goffin and King’s babysitter, and revived many years later by Kylie Minogue. Kylie wasn’t much respected at that stage, but I remember thinking she sang the song better than the original, so she couldn’t be that bad.

There was also, from the Goffin and King factory, Go Away Little Girl, and as was common at the time there were two versions vying for our  5/4d (five shillings and fourpence, youngsters – about 26p), one by the American Steve Lawrence and a UK version by Mark Wynter.

The Drifters did the honours on Up On The Roof, an undulating melody overlaid with Goffin’s image of city dwellers escaping the noise of reality by fleeing to the top of the building to enjoy some fresh air and look at the stars.

The production line also found room for King to have a hit of her own in 1962 with It Might As Well Rain Until September. I can still hear it coming out of the Sunday teatime family radio on Pick of the Pops as we made our way through the ham salad and on to the pineapple chunks and custard.

Carole King was not destined to be an early 60s pop star. Her real celebrity lay further down the road in a cooler time, but her loss was other artists’ gain, as is the case with The Chiffons and One Fine Day, an oddly uplifting tale of rejection and optimism.

British minor stars The Rockin’ Berries wrapped their high-pitched tonsils around the rather disturbing He’s In Town before the Beat Boom bands got their teeth into the G&K catalogue. Manfred Mann’s Oh No Not My Baby demonstrated that you could have a hit without a Lennon/McCartney composition, while The Animals gave Don’t Bring Me Down a rough edge that the composers perhaps didn’t envisage.

That’s exactly what this series on songwriters is all about: the musicians, singers and producers do the wiring, plumbing and decorating, but it’s mainly down to the house the writers built.

Dusty Springfield, searching in vain for a cache of material that would propel her out of mere stardom and into the stratosphere, had a hit with Goin’ Back, which has been covered countless times, including, improbably, by The Byrds, who were more often to be found in possession of Bob Dylan songs.

And here’s an unusually jazzy take on it by Nils Lofgren.

Talking of covers, Will You Love Me Tomorrow has also been tackled by Helen Shapiro, Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt, Melanie, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Bryan Ferry and Amy Winehouse – among many others including versions in Cantonese and Mandarin. Now that’s a song that fits the Ian Dury definition of great as being doable by other people.

The importance of Gerry Goffin in the partnership is demonstrated by his successes without King, from The Hollies’ Yes I Will (with Russ Titelman) to  a stream of hits much later with music by Michael Masser, such as Miss You Like Crazy (Natalie Cole), Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You (Glenn Medeiros)and Saving All My Love For You (Whitney Houston).

King on her own didn’t exactly supply songs for others. Her songs just attracted people’s attention, to the extent that James Taylor had greater success than she did with You’ve Got A Friend, and the supreme talent that is Aretha Franklin ensured that in some quarters Natural Woman is regarded as one of hers.

 

The Songwriters – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder has had plenty of hits in his own right, but he has also provided dozens of songs for other artists. Not all of them were successful, and even of those that were, they are not necessarily  known as being written by him.

Sometimes, though, you hear a song and feel it has a touch of genius that you can’t pin down, but then you look at the credits and think, “Of course…”

A prime example of that is Tell Me Something Good by Rufus, the funk group fronted by a young Chaka Khan. It’s a strange song when you analyse it (not that analyzing pop songs is a very rewarding business). Take away the funky instrumentation and it positively plods. A recording that seems full of life and energy is based on a melody too full of holes to work on its own.

No doubt when he was writing it, Stevie was hearing the backing and he was able to pass on his ideas  and deliver what was in his head because  he produced the record.

Another early 70s Wonder composition that propelled a different act up the charts is The Spinners’ It’s A Shame, which is simply catchy from start to finish. Known in the UK as the Detroit Spinners, to distinguish them from the folk group of that name, The Spinners had been around since the 1950s with fluctuating degrees of success, but it took a Wonder song to get their name inscribed on the honours board of pop immortality.

One of Wonder’s co-writers on It’s  A Shame was soon to benefit from his patronage with a stellar career of her own. Syreeta Wright had started at Motown as a receptionist. Many hopefuls blagged their way into the company  in minor jobs simply trying to wheedle their way in and get noticed, and Wright certainly accomplished that, singing her way around the building until people noticed and gave her little assignments singing backup and demos for established artists. She also attracted the attention of Stevie Wonder in her capacity as woman, and they were married in 1970.

Initially writing together for other people, they eventually managed to get Syreeta  a record deal for herself and a trio of hits made her a serious name in the Motown roster. The mesmerizing Spinnin’ and Spinnin’ was followed by the cod-reggae of Your Kiss Is Sweet (dismissed as corny by early purists but a fine tune all the same). Harmour Love made an impression on the charts too, and the Wonder/Wright partnership was established for posterity.

In 1974 the faltering career of soul goddess Aretha Franklin was revived by a Stevie Wonder song. Even the woman widely regarded as having the ultimate female voice relied on finding great material, and when Wonder presented her with Until You Come Back To Me, she breezed through it with the insouciance of an expert interpreting a genius.

Roberta Flack was in a  similar situation in 1980, with a sensational track record built on great songs apparently running out of steam before Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long got her back in the UK charts. It wasn’t a smash in the great pop-buying consciousness, but it was a minor masterpiece in my humble opinion. Fellow music lovers  will know the warm feeling you get when someone else shares your feelings about an unrecognized gem.

I was working in a wine shop in south west London when this song came out, and spent long periods sitting by the till, listening to the radio and watching the world go by until the traffic was stopped by red lights at the junction of Putney High Street and the South Circular.

One morning Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long was on as the lights asserted their authority and a van with the driver’s sliding door retracted pulled up alongside a saloon, whose occupants watched, bemused, as the driver of the van performed to them the middle section of the song, a half-spoken sort of rap, complete with hand gestures and pleading arms spread wide. He loved it, he was listening to the same station and a magical piece of unscripted theatre made my day.

 

The Songwriters – Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

 

The way this series is eating up the hits it almost seems like there’ll be none left soon, and here we go again with a sizeable chunk of the 60s treasure trove in one fell swoop.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were another of those early 60s partnerships that spawned great songs seemingly at the drop of a hat. Both New Yorkers, they formed a writing partnership, fell in love and got married.

They started at the tail end of the 50s, when rock’n’roll had lost its way and the square world thought it had ridden out the storm. It would take The Beatles to drive the stake right through the heart of sensible-sweatered adulthood, but American pop writers were doing their bit to decorate the present and point to the future.

One of the “squares”, if you like, was Eydie Gorme, a croony sort of conventional type your mother would have liked as much as you did and who worked with her husband, Steve Lawrence.

With Brazilian music jamming its foot in the post-Elvis door, Eydie had a solo hit with Mann and Weil’s Blame it on the Bossa Nova, issued around the same time as the team’s Don’t Be Afraid Little Darlin’ with Lawrence.

This was Drifters time, too, and they loved a nice Mann/Weil song, with a list including On Broadway (with help from  fellow songwriting legends Leiber & Stoller) and Saturday Night At The Movies.

The Ronettes were the lucky recipients of Walking In The Rain, and then M&W came up with one of the real titans of the era, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, with the Righteous Brothers giving it some serious lung and Phil Spector pumping it full of steroids.

Cilla Black and Dionne Warwicke covered it in the same era, and it’s one of those songs that people keep fancying as the years go by, with notable versions by Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway and Hall & Oates. Elvis had a go in 1970 during a period when he was hard-up for good material, and as recently as 2003 it was tackled by British synth-pop duo Erasure.

And of course it’s a karaoke favourite for any guy who thinks he’s got a Bill Medley-style boom in his chest and can find a higher-singing sidekick.

Back on planet Earth in 1964, Mann and Weil provided Looking Through the Eyes Of Love for Gene Pitney and, in a slightly odd collaboration, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place for the Animals. It is easy to think of Eric Burdon and co. singing about wanting to leave the grim (at the time) industrial north-east of England, but the song was about Mann and Weil’s neck of the woods. It was originally intended for the Righteous Brothers, before Mann began his own singing career and his record company wanted it for him. In the meantime, Animals producer Mickie Most was on the case, somehow snapped it up and released it before he could be gazumped.

Monkees fans will be grateful to Mann and Weil for Shades of Grey, and Cass Elliott brought her own touch of class to Make Your Own Kind Of Music in 1968.

Mann and Weil have never stopped writing and although their time in the spotlight ended with the passing of the writer-hungry 60s, they did resurface in 1977 with Here You Come Again, a hit for both B. J. Thomas and  Dolly Parton.

Mann and Weil, ladies and gentlemen: man and wife. And not only are they still working – by gum, they’re still married.

The Songwriters – Gamble and Huff

“What you gon’ write about us, smart guy?”  Leon Huff (left) and Kenny Gamble

Sometimes you don’t know just how prolific a songwriter was until you look into it, because their names are not associated with the records as the artists’ names are. The Gamble and Huff partnership that flourished in the 1970s is pretty well known, but the volume of hits they wrote is astonishing.

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff pioneered the Philadelphia Sound that became like a successor to Motown once the Detroit outfit had started to run out of steam.

Me and Mrs Jones brought them to our attention in 1972, Billy Paul doing a sterling job of singing it, and then it was on to the O’Jays. Love Train was a jolly little thing, but the preceding Backstabbers (no Gamble in the writing credits, but Huff, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead) gave a quick indication that they weren’t going to serve us up chocolate box stuff all the time.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, when Gamble and Huff’s igniting of the Three Degrees’ already long but uneventful career brought us Year of Decision, which wasn’t about making your mind up about love, but more serious, political matters. Somehow the nature of the subject matter was smuggled into the charts by a tune and production that smelled of perfume and wore long, glittery dresses.

Subsequent Three Degrees hits such as When Will I See You Again, Get Your Love Back and Take Good Care of Yourself were on more familiar pop/soul territory.

The cumbersomely named Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes benefited from G&F’s purple patch with  The Love I Lost and another thinker, Wake Up Everybody, plus If You Don’t Know Me By Now, which would be resurrected  in 1990 by Simply Red, while the O’Jays continued with Now That We’ve Found Love, which was also a hit for Third World.

In 1974 the largely instrumental TSOP (the sound of Philadelphia) featured vocals by the Three Degrees and in 1976 came something of a masterpiece: soul legend Lou Rawls’s smash You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.

Eventually, though, the Seventies sweet soul boom petered out in the face of, among other things,  cleaned-up rock bands with their pompous ballads, and  Gamble and Huff had a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labours, but they weren’t quite finished and 1979 saw the release of Ain’t No Stopping Us Now by McFadden and Whitehead, names you no doubt recognized earlier.

So, if the Motown guys  were the mass  confectioners of the Sixties (and we’ll get to them in a week or two), Gamble and Huff took over the chocolate factory with some style.