No shortage of words as music world loses Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber

The history of rock 'n' soul was not born in the hips or the heart; it was born in the head. It commenced with a screaming idea that boogied down the medulla oblongata, ventured out through a talented writer's hand and then was given loud, rambunctious life through guitars and pianos and, finally and supernaturally, Elvis Presley and Marvin Gaye.

It's no hyperbole to say that Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford are two of the most vital pop songwriters of all time. Without their heads, without their ideas, the rest of us are dancing a whole lot less, that's for sure. Leiber, who died Monday at age 78, helped pen Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog. Ashford, who died Monday at age 70, helped pen Ain't No Mountain High Enough and You're All I Need to Get By.

Leiber (cardiopulmonary failure) and Ashford (throat cancer) had already been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Rest assured there's now a place for them in the Great Juke Joint in the Sky, too. And you better believe Presley and Gaye will be first in line to thank Leiber and Ashford for their word power.

At first glance, the late songwriters may seem entirely different: Leiber was a white musician selling the blues; Ashford was a black musician working for the Motown label. And yet both leave highly influential, and tolerant, writing partners behind.

While Mike Stoller composed the music, Leiber provided the lyrics. In the '50s and '60s, the Leiber & Stoller stamp was widespread and hit-powered: Stand by Me, Yakety Yak, Charlie Brown, Love Potion No. 9, Is That All There Is? Fifteen No. 1s in all.

Ashford loved his writing partner so much, he married her: With Valerie Simpson, he also wrote Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand), Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing and I'm Every Woman, helping make a star out of Diana Ross, Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston. In 1984, Ashford & Simpson stepped in front of the mic and had a No. 1 hit with Solid, whose video is one of the cheesiest, and sweetest, things MTV has aired.

From Lennon-McCartney to Simon & Garfunkel to Disney's Sherman Brothers to the sparring Gallagher goons in Oasis, the music industry is rife with once-productive partnerships that eventually shattered. But Leiber & Stoller and Ashford & Simpson stayed together for a long, fruitful time, and there's something to be said for that.

Not surprisingly, the outpouring of condolence for both has been torrential. Terry Stewart, president of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, said, "[Leiber] not only wrote the words that everyone was singing, he led the way in how we verbalized our feelings about the societal changes … in post-World War II life."

Everyone from Alicia Keys to Spike Lee has tweeted about Ashford's passing, with Lenny Kravitz writing: "Left rehearsal. Heard Nick Ashford passed. A legend. My heart goes out to Valerie. My Lord, ain't no mountain high enough. Solid as a rock."

The Associated Press and MTV contributed to this report. Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com and (727) 893-8467.

No shortage of words as music world loses Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber 08/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 10:39pm]

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