The Songwriters – Graham Lyle

Graham Lyle (left) with Benny Gallagher

No, I’m no forgetting Benny Gallagher, his long-time partner from the early days, but Graham Lyle’s career extended beyond the Gallagher and Lyle brand and into heady chart territory in the US.

But first, the first bit. He’s Scottish, Graham Lyle. Part of a general group of musicians and singers who, it seemed almost reluctantly, insinuated themselves into the British music scene in the 60s and 70s – Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly et al. Gallagher and Lyle had gone the usual route of local bands before getting down to London in the mid-late Sixties, being spotted by The Beatles’ Apple Corps and doing some writing for Mary Hopkin.

Then they found themselves part of McGuinness Flint, named after bass player Tom McGuinness (Manfred Mann) and drummer Hughie Flint (John Mayall). The Scots songsmiths provided the hit singles When I’m Dead and Gone and Malt And Barley Blues.

In the mid Seventies Gallagher and Lyle went duo and sold plenty of copies of I Wanna Stay With You and Heart On My Sleeve. They were mining a seam on the very border where rock and folk met middle of the road, so leftover neo-hippies (such as myself) found their stuff acceptably cool while Radio Two and your Mum thought they were quite pleasant too.

The album that contained those hits was Breakaway, the title track of which became a hit for Art Garfunkel, while Bryan Ferry enjoyed success with Heart On My Sleeve.

Just as the world seemed to be opening up for the duo as writers, while Lyle embraced the US music scene, Gallagher faded from the scene and was missing in action during the 80s, before reemerging with The Manfreds in the 90s. When his tenure with them came to an end he became a fixture on the Scottish  folk club circuit as a singer-songwriter, and there he has remained, also playing at festivals, teaching songwriting and being instrumental in a charitable organization aimed at helping songwriters to gain their due share of royalties.

Lyle, though, took a very different path. Often writing with fellow Brit Terry Britten, he became one of the most sought-after writers in the US. What’s Love Got To Do With It was a major factor in Tina Turner’s 80s rebirth, and he also co-wrote I Don’t Wanna Lose You and We Don’t Need Another Hero for her. He had a song on a Michael Jackson album and has been recorded by Ray Charles (Rock’n’roll Shoes), Diana Ross (Change of Heart), Etta James (Hold Me Just A Little Longer Tonight), Patti Labelle, Anita Baker and Joe Cocker. It’s not all hit singles and famous songs, but ask a vintage musician in L.A. who Graham Lyle is and chances are they will know.

And that is success. Hits are the icing on the cake.

Country music number ones also appear on his CV, with Don Williams, The Judds and Crystal Gayle among the beneficiaries, and in the UK he found late success with Conner Reeves (My Father’s Son and Earthbound, both 1997).

In recent years Lyle has teamed up again with Gallagher, revisiting the material that shaped both of their lives.

The Songwriters – Ashford and Simpson

Prolific but with a career as uncelebrated as some of their songs, Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were a husband-and-wife duo, unsuccessful as performers at first and then enjoying a renaissance after their Motown writing heyday had passed.

They had a few early hits with songs for stars such as Aretha Franklin (Cry Like A Baby) and Ray Charles (Let’s Go Get Stoned, I Don’t Need No Doctor), which is an achievement most writers would be happy with, but it is a measure of the exalted standards we’re dealing with in this series that this part of their career doesn’t invite real celebration in its own right.

Eventually their work with Charles attracted the attention of Berry Gordy, and Ashford & Simpson were enlisted on the Motown roster, with a special brief to provide material for Marvin Gaye in his second partnership, Kim Weston having been replaced by Tammi Terrell.

There is a heartwarming quality about the team’s big hits, The Onion Song, You Ain’t Livin’ Until You’re Lovin’ and You’re All I Need To Get By that owes much to Terrell’s vulnerable delivery of an Ashford and Simpson trademark. While the Motown catalogue is full of love songs, something about this writing duo gave an extra mellow feel to the recordings.

There was also the original version of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough with Gaye and Terrell which would later be eclipsed by Diana Ross’s more dramatic version, and the drama element continued in the early 70s with Ross’s Ashford & Simpson collaborations on Remember Me and Surrender. It was a more grown-up style for Ross as she moved on from the teen angst (high class though it was) of the Supremes, and Ashford and Simpson knew exactly how to do it.

A splendid combination of the mellow and the dramatic sides of Ashford and Simpson is the surprisingly low-profile I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You, which they co-wrote with Eddie Holland and which shifted a few units for Syreeta Wright (billed as Rita on that occasion). Dusty Springfield and Diana Ross both covered it, as have a host of others over the years, including Vikki Carr, but in my opinion nothing rivals the Syreeta version. Meanwhile, British guitar hero Jeff Beck thought enough of it to do an instrumental version, blustering (vainly, I’m sorry to say) to wring out every drop of emotion without the help of words. Nice try – it just doesn’t quite work.

The Seventies knocked the stuffing out of many Motown writers, who managed only sporadic hits, and Ashford and Simpson were no exception, their sporadic one being Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman.

And they had their belated singing career too, building slowly before culminating with Solid in 1984.

After that they got out and about, opened a restaurant/music bar, worked with the poet Maya Angelou and adapted Solid for Barack Obama (Solid as Barack). Nik Ashford died at the age of 70 of throat cancer in 2011 just days before Simpson’s 65th birthday. Is it ever less than insensitive to observe that someone “had a good innings”? Ashford and Simpson didn’t do too badly for themselves.

The wisdom of pop songs – Can happiness be cool?

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Happy album title, Elvis, but do you really practise what you preach?

For some reason it is more natural to write a song about being unhappy than it is to celebrate good events. ‘This is broken-hearted me with my guitar’ is far more popular than ‘Guess what? I’m feeling good today, like I usually do’.

Yes, people write about being in love, but not so much about being happy for any other reason.

Is that because it’s cool to be miserable? The standard rock group photo shoot isn’t full of grins and teeth, but moody expressions.

Seventies soul-style elation

So let’s look at the expressions of joy that have slipped through the net since Elvis Presley popularized the snarl.

Starting almost bang up to date, Pharrell Williams, who is as talented as he is energetic and seems to be aware of how fortunate he is, followed his Daft Punk-collaboration worldwide smash Get Lucky, with a song called Happy – and he got away with it. It is still being sung in halls and clubs all over the world by people more accustomed to whingeing along with their heroes’ tales of sadness, alienation and how generally unfair life is.

Stevie Wonder reminds us of the joy behind the tragedy of Martin Luther King

The undisputed king of pop happiness, though, is Stevie Wonder. Vivacity leaps from the grooves of his early work, from the virtuoso harmonica-playing 12-year-old of Fingertips to taking the smoochy For Once In My Life and turning it into an ecstatic song of love and thanks.

Wonder can do unhappy as well as anybody, but when the light of life is upon him, the joy pours out. I Was Made to Love Her, Sir Duke, Signed Sealed Delivered, You Are the Sunshine of my Life, Isn’t She Lovely… His brain is such a goldmine of good vibes that he even has material to give to other people: Syreeta’s Spinning and Spinning is pure exhilaration, and when George Michael and Mary J. Blige took on As (I’ll be loving you always) they were simply jumping on a fairground ride.

Giving happiness a bad name, one for the 60s hippies’ grandparents

As an indication of how happy stuff is considered uncool, 1960s goody-goodies The Seekers turned out smiling fluff such as A World of Our Own and Morningtown Ride while The Rolling Stones were busy challenging moral codes and The Beatles were taking us down cos they were going to Strawberry Fields.

On the other hand, that was mainly John Lennon, while Paul McCartney’s career is bejeweled with the likes of Penny Lane, Hello Goodbye, Helen Wheels, Junior’s Farm and even the much-maligned children’s song, We All Stand Together (a mega-catchy tune that could have been given any number of treatments). All You Need Is Love notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine Lennon coming up with the equivalent of Wonderful Christmastime, although he would give in occasionally to sentiment, as in the paean to his son Sean, Beautiful Boy.

ray charles
On the other hand…

Those of us with a tendency towards introspection and a love of insightful music that takes us down rather than up should, perhaps, treat ourselves occasionally to a happy session. It might take a bit of work and head-scratching to find feelgood stuff in the murky depths of a Metallica collection or the bombastic sobbing of 1980s power ballads, but… look… there’s Bryan Adams’s Summer of 69. There’s Queen with You’re My Best Friend, here’s Aretha and George Michael with I Knew You Were Waiting. And here’s Stevie with I Love Every Little Thing About You.

The world is not all bad, and we’ve got the music to prove it.