Thursday, August 25, 2011

Let's argue about the greatest songwriting team

Jerry Leiber recently passed away, and The Music's Over opened its post on the topic as follows:

Jerry Leiber along with partner, Mike Stoller was arguably the greatest pop songwriting team of the second half of the 20th century if not all time.

As I read those words, the first thought that popped into my mind was "Lennon/McCartney." Obviously Lennon and McCartney had the benefit of performing their own songs, but both Leiber/Stoller and Lennon/McCartney were responsible for hits by multiple artists (and yes, certain Lennon/McCartney songs were given directly to other artists, such as Cilla Black).

Why are Leiber and Stoller so important? The Music's Over cites Leiber/Stoller's song catalog:

The list of their early hit songs includes “Hard Times” by Charles Brown, “Kansas City” by Little Willie Littlefield, and “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley by way of Big Mama Thornton. They also penned “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Searchin,’” to name just a few.

Clearly an impressive list. But The Music's Over also cites one other thing in Leiber/Stoller's favor:

Leiber and Stoller are largely credited for taking rhythm and blues music out of the black clubs and spreading it to white America and beyond.

To put it another way - if there never was a Leiber and a Stoller, would there have been a Lennon and a McCartney? Perhaps - Elvis Presley was not 100% dependent upon Leiber and Stoller - but maybe the young Lennon and McCartney would have had fewer inspirations.

I will certainly grant that Leiber and Stoller tremendously influenced popular music in the last half of the 20th century. But I'd argue that Lennon and McCartney were just as influential, if not more so.

What did John and Paul do that Jerry and Mike didn't?
  • First off, John and Paul absorbed multiple influences. While they were not (at least initially) influenced by the true rhythm and blues artists that inspired Leiber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney were initially open to American country music, as well as traditional English popular music. As time passed, they were influenced by the Motown sound, a variety of sounds from California (beach boys to hippie girls), and an assortment of classical and avant garde composers.

  • Second off, John and Paul wrote songs that were performed in multiple styles, by themselves and others. My favorite album of all time is the 1968 album The Beatles (a/k/a The White Album), which zooms between a few of the aforementioned styles (Beach Boys rock in "Back in the U.S.S.R.," traditional English music with the non-wild "Honey Pie," avant garde with "Revolution #9," country with "Rocky Raccoon") and throws in a half dozen other styles besides. Even if you ignore Harrison's and Starr's songwriting contributions, Lennon and McCartney alone provide three album side's worth of musical adventures. And that's just one album.

  • Third off, Lennon and McCartney have yielded more interesting cover versions. "Hound Dog" is going to be "Hound Dog," unless it's covered by Daniel Miller or something. But you can rest assured that a "Yesterday" cover by Ray Charles and a "Yesterday" cover by Frank Sinatra are going to sound a little different. And when Joe Cocker records with his friends, he doesn't sound like Ringo.

  • Fourth, in a related way, Lennon and McCartney have been more inspiring to others. Obviously this is because Lennon and McCartney were also famous for performing their songs, and not just writing them. However, it cannot be argued that there are millions of people who have said to themselves, "I want to be in music, just like Lennon and McCartney!" And some of those people have also said, "I want to write songs, just like Lennon and McCartney." The number of people who have said "I want to write songs, just like Leiber and Stoller" is far fewer.

So at the end of the day, I'd argue that it is Lennon and McCartney, not Leiber and Stoller, who stands as arguably the greatest pop songwriting team of the second half of the 20th century.

But I'd give Leiber and Stoller a close second.

Of course, I've consigned the following teams to 3rd place or below: Bacharach/David, John/Taupin, Holland/Dozier/Holland, King/Goffin, Mann/Weil, and Jam/Lewis. (I excluded Rodgers/Hammerstein, even though their career lapped into the second half of the 20th century.) Let's throw Jagger/Richards in there for good measure. I'd argue that none of these teams had the impact of Lennon/McCartney or Leiber/Stoller.

Am I wrong? Who would you nominate as the greatest pop songwriting team of the second half of the 20th century?
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