In English-language music, singer-songwriters have always carved a niche of their own. The moment one mentions the genre, one thinks of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Don McLean… the list is endless. Even partnerships like Lennon-McCartney of the Beatles, Jagger-Richards of the Rolling Stones, Anderson-Ulvaeus of Abba, the Gibb brothers of the Bee Gees, Gilmour-Waters of Pink Floyd and Crosby-Still-Nash-Young come to mind.
In such a scenario, where does that leave the stand-alone lyricist? People who wrote the words of songs which were eventually composed, sung and popularised by others.
This question came to mind when one heard of the recent death of Hal David, one of the greatest lyricists of the 20th century. In partnership with composer Burt Bacharach, he created a series of hits that included ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’, ‘I say a little prayer’, ‘(They long to be) Close to you’, ‘Alfie’, ‘Magic Moments’ and ‘Message to Michael’.
Bacharach-David were one of the most prolific songwriting teams (in the picture, David is on the right). While singer Dionne Warwick rendered many of their compositions, others to use their creations included the Carpenters, Perry Como, BJ Thomas, the 5th Dimension, Tom Jones, Herp Albert, Dusty Springfield and even newer acts like Alicia Keys, the White Stripes and the Flaming Lips.
After splitting from Bacharach, David wrote for composers Albert Hammond and Henry Mancini of Pink Panther fame. Surely, his death at age 91 marks the end of an era. He belonged to a minority set, comprising musicians who continued to write gem after gem, without singing them or composing their tunes commercially.
Minority set, did we say? Well come to think of it, one can think of very few stand-alone lyricists. While some like Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, George M Cohan and Irving Berlin were among the greatest lyricists in history, the truth is that they also composed their songs.
Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics to classics like ‘Autumn leaves’, ‘Satin doll’, ‘Travelling light’ and ‘Something’s gotta give’, but he made an equal mark as a composer and singer. Blues biggie Willie Dixon and ‘Tulsa sound’ pioneer JJ Cale were also known for the quality of their lyrics, but in reality, they wrote entire songs, most of which were popularised by others like Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton. Norman Gimbel wrote Roberta Flack’s hugely-successful ‘Killing me softly’, but as a lyricist, he was more famous for his translations of foreign language songs, including Portuguese tunes written by Vinicius de Moraes for Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
While talking of stand-alone lyricists who have made a huge contribution to English-language music, only a few names come to mind. The trendsetter was WS Gilbert of the famed duo Gilbert & Sullivan, which wrote many comic operas in the late 19th century, and was an inspiration for many others.
Here, we name the 12 other prolific writers, besides Gilbert and David, who made a major contribution in their fields:
Ira Gershwin: The writer of some of the best-known tunes of Broadway, Ira was best known for his partnership with his elder brother, the legendary composer George Gershwin. After George’s untimely death, Ira continued writing songs for composers like Kurt Weill and Jerome Kem. Best known for: The songs ‘Embraceable you’, ‘I got rhythm’, ‘Someone to watch over me’, ‘The man I love’, ‘But not for me’. Contrary to general belief, he didn’t write George’s famous ‘Summertime’ — DuBose Heyward authored that song.
Oscar Hammerstein II: The writer of some 850 Broadway and Hollywood songs, Hammerstein was primarily known for his work with composer Richard Rodgers, though he worked with other musicians too. Best known for: ‘The Sound of Music’ soundtrack, and the standards ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’.
Lorenz Hart: Another partner of Richard Rodgers, Hart was extremely popular on the Broadway scene. Best known for: The songs ‘The lady is a tramp’, ‘My funny Valentine’, ‘Blue moon’, ‘Falling in love with love’.
Gus Kahn: German-born, US-settled Gus was one of the most prolific names of the early 20th century, more so for his work with Tin Pan Alley. Best known for: The songs ‘Dream a little dream of me’, ‘It had to be you’, ‘Side by side’.
Arthur Freed: Another giant from the early 20th century, the American lyricist was mostly associated with composer Nacio Herb Brown. Best known for: The songs ‘Singing in the rain’, ‘The Broadway melody’ and ‘All I do is dream of you’.
Alan Jay Lerner: Worked with the famous composer Frederick Loewe, Lerner worked on numerous theatre works and their film adaptations. Best known for: The stage and film versions of ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Camelot’ and ‘Brigadoon’, and the film ‘The Little Prince’.
Yip Harburg: A close friend of Ira Gershwin, Harburg wrote some famous standards in the Great American Songbook. Best known for: The songs ‘April in Paris’, ‘It’s only a paper moon’, ‘Over the rainbow’, ‘Old devil moon’.
Dorothy Fields: Broadway and early Hollywood had many female lyricists, but Fields was the most prolific of them all. Best known for: The songs ‘The way you look tonight’, ‘On the sunny sides of the street’.
Carl Sigman: His early work included associations with jazz greats Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo, but later, he wrote huge hits for pop musicians of the 50s and 60s. Best known for: ‘My heart cries for you’ (Dinah Shore), ‘Ebb tide’ (the Righteous Brothers’) and ‘Where do I begin? (Andy Williams in the film ‘Love Story’).
Tim Rice: The perfect foil to the compositions of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rice also penned songs popularised by Elvis Presley, Elton John and Freddie Mercury: Best known for: The Webber musicals ‘Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Evita’, the film ‘The Lion King’ and the Elton John musical ‘Aida’.
Bernie Taupin: Elton John’s long-time collaborator, Taupin did selective but successful work with other musicians like Starship, Kid Rock and Courtney Love. He also wrote for the film ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Best known for: The song ‘We built this city’ by Starship, and most of Elton John hits, like ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Crocodile rock’, ‘Tiny dancer’, ‘Candle in the wind’, ‘Your song’, ‘Rocket man’, ‘Daniel’ and ‘Something in the way you look tonight’.
Diane Warren: A Grammy and Golden Globe winner, Warren is one of the most consistent among the newer lyricists, writing hits for Whitney Houston, Laura Branigan, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Enrique Iglesias, Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Toni Braxton, Gloria Estefan and many others. Best known for: The songs ‘Nothing’s gonna stop us now’ (by Starship), ‘Because you loved me’ (Celine Dion), ‘Unbreak my heart’ (Toni Braxton), ‘I don’t want to miss a thing’ (Aerosmith). ‘You haven’t seen the last of me’ (Cher).
As one notices, it’s a pretty short list. Among today’s generation, quite a few of those mentioned are totally unknown. Yet, each of them is legendary in his or her own way. Hal David was one of a kind, and his contribution to music deserves a huge round of applause. Goodbye, Hal.