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The Underplayed Role of Lyricists in Pop

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Very few people will recognize the names of Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris. Strangely enough, they’ve written one of the biggest hits in pop music history, a club anthem whose lyrics are known to thousands.

Perren and Fekaris are the writers and composers of I Will Survive, sung by Gloria Gaynor in the late 1970s Disco boom. Even today, the song is a Radio favourite, and is played on dance floors across the world. No matter how often one hears it, one never tires of it.

This isn’t the only big example of the writers of a huge song being relatively unknown, with the singer hogging all the credit. One immediately associates the hit Killing Me Softly with singer Roberta Flack, without speaking of writer Norman Gimbel in the same vein. Incidentally, Gimbel also wrote the English words to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova hit The Girl From Ipanema, originally written in Portuguese by Vinicius De Moraes. Likewise, very few mention writer Hal David in connection with Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head composed by Burt Bacharach and sung by B.J. Thomas in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Normally, in popular Western music, a separate lyricist isn’t utilised. In most cases, the same person or set of people are involved in the creation of a song. Take The Beatles, for instance. Most songs were set to tune and written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with George Harrison contributing in some cases. Similarly, in Swedish Pop band ABBA, members Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote the songs, whereas Mick Jagger and Keith Richards performed that role for The Rolling Stones. Even the lyrics of their latest Coronavirus-inspired single Living In A Ghost Town have been credited to Jagger and Richards.

 

In the case of Rock bands like Queen and Doors, all members chipped in with lyrical inputs. Singers Bob Dylan, Cliff Richard, and Neil Diamond composed the tune and wrote the words. The entire process of creating a song, from creating its tune to writing its words to adding special features to giving it a final structure ready for studio recording or live performance, is known as songwriting.

Singers who compose, write, and sing the songs themselves are known as singer-songwriters. Prime examples are Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Don McLean, Van Morrison, Carole King, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell. A recent trend has been to club the newer breed like M. Ward and Leslie Mendelson under the umbrella of ‘alternative singer-songwriters’, though it isn’t clear what it exactly means.

Though most musicians are involved in the entire songwriting process, there are exceptions. Through different eras and genres, certain lyricists have made a mark of their own – a classic example being Bernie Taupin, who wrote songs of Elton John.

A path-breaking personality in lyric-writing was W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan, who wrote music for many comic plays in the late 19th century. From the Great American Songbook, a collection of standards, a leading example was Ira Gershwin, who wrote many songs for his famous brother, composer George Gershwin, including Embraceable You and I Got Rhythm. One glaring exception was George Gershwin’s iconic Summertime, written by DuBose Hayward.

Then, there was lyricist Ned Washington, who wrote classics like Stella By Starlight, My Foolish Heart, The Nearness Of You, and High Noon. Dorothy Fields wrote many Broadway songs. Johnny Mercer penned the popular Moon River, besides the English lyrics of the evergreen French song Autumn Leaves.

Cut to the blues, and the most famous composer-lyricist was Willie Dixon, who wrote Hoochie Coochie Man and I Just Want To Make Love To You (popularised by Muddy Waters), Backdoor Man (Howlin Wolf, Doors), Spoonful (Etta James, Cream) and Little Red Rooster (Howlin Wolf).

Hollywood musical films and Broadway musical theatre gave a lot of opportunities for lyricists. Composer Richard Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II on the path-breaking The Sound Of Music. Other known film lyricists were Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady), Larry Kusek (Murder On The Orient Express, Godfather), and Carl Sigman (Love Story). Lorenz Hart, who worked on Broadway musicals, was known for the hits The Lady Is A Tramp and My Funny Valentine. Other popular lyricists from the 1950s and 1960s included Stephen Sondheim (the musical, West Side Story), Jerry Leiber (who teamed up with composer Harry Stoller on the Elvis Presley-popularised Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog) and the Motown specialist Eddie Holland.

In the 1970s, some Rock musicians took songs composed and written by others. Many J.J. Cale songs were popularised by well-known acts – Eric Clapton did Cocaine and After Midnight, Santana covered The Sensitive Kind and Lynyrd Skynyrd rendered Call Me The Breeze. Even Elvis Presley did Creedence Clearwater Revival’s, Proud Mary.

However, these were examples of cover versions and not cases where independent lyricists were hired. As mentioned earlier, Bernie Taupin wrote extensively for Elton John – hits included Your Song, Daniel, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Nikita, Rocket Man, Candle In The Wind, Crocodile Rock, and Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.

Robert Hunter wrote many songs for the Grateful Dead, including Dark Star, Ripple, China Cat Sunflower, Truckin’, and Terrapin Station. Gerry Goffin wrote for Carole King, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and later, Whitney Houston. In the world of stage musicals, British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber worked with lyricist Tim Rice on Joseph And The Amazing Technical Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. Rice also worked on the Disney film The Lion King and with Elton John on the musical, Aida.

From the 1990s onwards, one of the most prominent lyricists has been Diane Warren, who has written for a host of top-rung artistes like Tina Turner, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand and Enrique Iglesias. Producers Babyface and Timbaland also wrote lyrics for newer artistes.

But by and large, the trend of hiring independent lyricists hasn’t really taken off. Barring hardcore fans of artistes and industry observers, most writers remain unknown. Considering the phenomenal work they have done, this is unfortunate.

Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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