There have been many great pop songwriters over the years. Cole Porter, Hank Williams, Irving Berlin, Kris Kristofferson and Stephen Sondheim are a few notable ones. Many of them also worked in pairs. George & Ira Gershwin, Rogers & Hammerstein, Goffen & King, Ray & Dave Davies and Lennon & McCartney come to mind.
With the exception of the latter two and a half duos (Carole King, the Davies’ with the Kinks and Lennon & McCartney with the Beatles) many of their songs were sung by other artists. Have you ever considered that quite a few of the most popular songs of all time were written by someone other than the singer?
Frank Sinatra, who many think is one of the greatest crooners of all time, wrote very few of his own songs. The same goes for Elvis Presley and Rod Stewart. So who wrote them?
The Lyricist Behind the Scenes
Rod Temperton grew up in England listening to the radio at night. His father would put a transistor in his crib rather than read him bedtime stories. Temperton wrote Give Me the Night for George Benson, Always and Forever for Heatwave and Yah Mo B There for James Ingraham and Michael McDonald. His work with Heatwave attracted the attention of Quincy Jones. Temperton, along with Jones and Lionel Richie, collaborated on the song Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister) for The Color Purple. The song was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar.
But Temperton’s biggest claim to fame is that he wrote songs for Michael Jackson. He wrote three songs, including the title track, for Jackson’s album, Thriller, the best-selling record of all time. He also won a Grammy Award for his work on Birdland, a track on Jones’ album entitled Back on the Block.
From Bach to Rock
In 2011, readers of Rolling Stone picked their Top 10 songwriters of all time. Bob Dylan, who came in first, wrote over 600 songs. Neil Young was also on the list – at number six. Paul Simon was #8. What many people don’t realize about Simon is the melody to American Tune was taken from a Bach chorale.
Similarly, Procol Harum’s song, Whiter Shade of Pale, attributed to Gary Brooker and Keith Reid, was inspired by Air on a G-String, once again by Johann Sebastian Bach. Or, so we thought. Forty years after the song was released, we found out that the band’s organist, Matthew Fisher, went to court to claim a share in the royalties. He insisted he was at least partly responsible for the melody.
Surprisingly, he too admitted that the song was inspired by Bach. Only he said he based the song on Bach’s cantata Sleepers, Awake! In 2009, the House of Lords ruled in Fisher’s favor, allowing him to collect royalties from the long enduring song.
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Many famous musicians had writers behind the scenes making them famous. Boyce and Hart wrote for The Monkees – as did Neil Diamond and the Goffin/King team. Paul Anka wrote for Frank Sinatra. And Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics for Elton John. We are told that Elton and Bernie were never in the same room during the process.
Hip-Hop Gets Into the Act
Several years ago, Forbes had an article about rap and the writers behind the voices. Here it is. It may or may not surprise you.
Noisey/Vice contributor Dan Wilkinson, in 2013, wrote “Ghostwriting is and has always been an integral part of hip-hop. It the hip-hop apprenticeship, a way for young talent to learn their craft and bring new life to fading stars. And when Dre finally releases Detoxin 2019, I’m fine with the fact he might not have scribbled all the lyrics himself.”
Which, based on the timeline referenced, to me says that sometimes the writing just doesn’t come. Sometimes it gets in the way of the brand or the productivity/creativity. Writers block happens. Writing takes time. And, rather than letting things slow to a crawl and losing momentum, it’s better to ship. When you ship, you are moving forward – although perhaps not quite as creatively as you would like.
Very few people can do it all themselves. You are putting product out there that the market may or may not like. You are putting a stake in the ground as if to say “This is what I do. And I plan to keep doing it. I need your help to sustain me.” And the more they like what it is you do, the more you can continue to do it. They benefit because they can keep listening to your songs.
Time is money and if you let things come to a standstill, you may as well look for another line of work.
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