While it's easy to get lost in the glamour and forget, the vast majority of our favorite pop hits are rarely penned exclusively by those singing them, and often as not there is a less well-known person, or even team of less well-known persons behind your favorite chart-topper. Here we look at some of these unsung heroes.
Guest post by Evan Zwisler of Soundfly's Flypaper
When we think about how the world’s most popular music is written, recorded, and performed, it is both more convenient and more glamorous to imagine that the entire process is undertaken by a single individual or band. The people on the screen, they must be the beautiful, rare geniuses that they are portrayed to be…
In reality, however, most pop music hits are written by someone other than the performer. Even if the performer does write their own melody or lyric, often a producer will come in and work out how the song will ultimately come together on a larger scale.
This was once common knowledge. But the music industry’s marketing machine found that fact inconvenient to the narrative they preferred to sell, and relegated the work of songwriters and producers to the liner notes. It proved more profitable to sell the myth of the singular star than to publicly credit the entire chain of talented people who contributed to the songs we love.
So we wanted to shed a bit of light on the historical relationships between popular performers and their trusted songwriters (as well as any other contributors) who helped make them the biggest and brightest stars.
Elvis’s Real Hound Dogs
Singers in the 1950s and ’60s weren’t typically presumed to be writing their own music. If you were a record executive why would you trust some unknown singer from the middle-of-nowhere in Mississippi to write the song when you could just go with someone working in your office to bring the hits?
Elvis Presley was lucky to be able to work with many talented songwriters over the years and managed to find success with most of them, perhaps speaking to his own ability to internalize the songs so well. Elvis was the perfect icon for his era — his good looks, southern charm, and his ability to turn on the sexual bravado when he needed to was the perfect rallying point for a youth counterculture that wanted to push up against conservative forces like McCarthyism. Elvis was an icon in his time, but the amazing music that was written for him made him a dominating figure in music history.
Enter Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the songwriting duo that wrote some of his biggest hits, including: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Kansas City.” They were some of the first people to use the music coming out of black America and pair it with elaborate production values. They saw the value and quality of black music at the time and brought it into the mainstream limelight. Elvis is often both credited and criticized for being inspired by and/or stealing from black styles of music, and bringing them into the mainstream, very white pop music industry. Leiber and Stoller, themselves marginalized for being Jewish had written largely for black artists and took a lot of inspiration from the black music they grew up around. They married their love of the commercially under-appreciated musical style with an undisputed pop talent, and the rest is history.
Otis Blackwell was another notable songwriter who worked with Elvis. If you’re a fan of pre-Beatles rock, you’re probably a fan of Blackwell.
During the ’50s and ’60s, African Americans were permitted to be R&B stars, but very few broke through into the pop charts. Blackwell wrote “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel” along with ten or so other songs for the King. He also wrote the mega-hits “Great Balls of Fire” for Jerry Lee Lewis and “Hey Little Girl,” sung by Dee Clark.
While American consumers loved music written by African Americans and Jewish people, it would take another decade or more before they’d pay to hear anyone but white Christians sing it, helping to launch the great songwriter-artist divide.
Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Maestros of Motown
Even simply mentioning Motown invokes a swagger and confidence in me that is palpable. Motown has always been cool and there’s something so enduring about the fact that those songs and their production still sound amazing over 50 years later. From 1962 to 1967, the songwriting team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, known as Holland-Dozier-Holland, was responsible for the vast majority of the songs coming out of Motown Records.
Dozier and Brian Holland were the composers and producers, while Eddie Holland wrote the lyrics and arranged the vocal parts. Just some of their credits include the Supremes’ hits “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “You Keep Me Hanging On,” “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You” by Marvin Gaye, and the Four Tops’ “Bernadette,” among so many others. People always talk about the Motown Sound, and Holland-Dozier-Holland were the backbone of that sound. According to Rolling Stone Magazine:
“No one production team has been allowed to dominate the creative process the way [Holland-Dozier-Holland] did in the middle Sixties.”
I’d describe the Motown sound as R&B moving toward pop music, with a tambourine often holding down the back beat and a prominent call-and-response from the vocals. The bass lines were generally played on electric bass and could function as stand-alone melodies themselves. It was a singular combination of timbres and arrangement roles that we have still yet to see duplicated across a community of artists, as with the Motown family. Holland-Dozier-Holland were instrumental in crafting this sound and wrote many of the songs that helped solidify this style.
Prince, the Songwriting… well, Prince.
Prince Rogers Nelson actually is everything the media wants you to believe about songwriters. He was a genius who crafted almost every aspect of his songs from the ground up. He was often in the studio recording every instrumental part himself, and was beyond gifted at each one. He slaved over the production, making bold decisions that pushed popular music in exciting new directions. And on top of all this, he was a truly magnetic performer, an incredible dancer, and without a doubt, one of the greatest guitarists of all time. It’s difficult to overstate how much of a musical force Prince was, in all areas of musical production.
In addition to having a robust and impeccable discography of his own musical output, Prince wrote dozens of hits for others artists over the years, as well. Unlike the other songwriters on this list who tended to work in pretty stable styles, Prince was able to change and adapt his songwriting to fit the person he was working with. One of the best examples of this, and one of my personal favorite songs he’s written is “Manic Monday” by The Bangles. I am always impressed at how he, of all humans on this planet, could’ve possibly nailed the mundanity of working a 9-to-5 job, and all the daydreaming fantasy that comes along with it. Prince was one of the most, let’s say, eccentricindividuals, but he could still write a great song from the perspective of a mousy girl suck in a dead-end job.
Prince also wrote a handful of tracks that could easily fit into his own discography, yet he gave them up to others. Some of these include: Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Madonna’s “Love Song,” and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You.”
The synth stabs in “Sugar Walls,” and its weird minor progression in the chorus, as well as Ms. Easton’s sexy, breathy oohs and ahhs are torn right out of Prince’s playbook, though she makes them her own like the pro that she is. But the deeper we dig, the more we continue to unveil more Prince-esque attributes, like the lyrics for example. “Sugar Walls” is, apparently, a euphemism for a part of the female anatomy, and writing a song about that body part is a very Prince thing to do.
Max Martin, the Hitmaker
Max Martin is the most successful songwriter of the modern era. He has written hits for Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, The Weeknd, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande. He’s also won ASCAP’s “Songwriter of the Year” a whopping ten times!
He’s been pumping out radio-friendly chart-toppers for twenty years. So much has changed in that time, yet his ability to continually adapt to what works year in and year out, and find what each performer is truly the best at, is second to none. He has three people whom he calls his disciples — Dr. Luke, Savan Kotecha, and Shellback — who have helped him produce, melodicize, and harmonize the song ideas in his head.
Martin’s style, of course, varies from project to project, but there’s a vein of similarity to many of them that can only be described as “digestible and catchy with a sharp edge of potential danger.” Whether it’s Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” or The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” there’s always something lurking underneath the surface hinting at some bad behavior, despite the glossy coating. Martin’s superpower is to give your ear every opportunity to grab onto a catchy melody or lyrical hook.
Diane Eve Warren, the Original Soundtrack Queen
Diane Eve Warren has a unique talent, and is commonly referred to as “the song whisperer.” She seems to be perfectly able to write songs for movies that capture the feeling and emotion of the film’s momentous climax. She has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, and she’s won a Grammy, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe Award. As of 2011, her music has been featured on over 60 soundtracks!
Some of her all-star credits include “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, “There You’ll Be” by Faith Hill, and “Because You Love Me” by Celine Dion. Each one of these songs has been used to drive home the most powerful scenes of the blockbuster movies in which they feature. And part of that comes from her knack for writing songs that can both stand alone from the film, as well as take influence from the storyline and live perfectly inside it. Regarding, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” she thought that it:
“would be a great song to write for Armageddon where it could possibly be the end of the world, and what would someone say to someone they loved with the time they had left. Steven Tyler’s daughter Liv was in the movie, and he was very emotional when he heard the song and wanted to sing it. It became Aerosmith’s first #1 record and biggest hit of their career.”
Her music is ubiquitous, even though she isn’t.
So what does this all mean?
Truly great songs are rarely written by just one person. Sure, exceptional artists like Prince provide an exception to the rule, but overall I believe that collaboration is one of the keys to making great art that resonates with a wide audience. One needs to be flexible when taking a song from the inception of an idea to a finished product.
We can never know how someone else is going to help us transform what we’re working on, and make it better or into something new and exciting. And even though there may only be one name next to the song on the charts, there’s almost always a whole team in place helping to bring it to life.
Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.