Earlier this week we celebrated the birthday of Burt Bacharach: songwriter extraordinaire, ivory tickler and bona fide charmer who’s still swingin’ at 86! His first-ever job was accompanist for sizzling femme fatale Marlene Dietrich – who, in her autobiography, fessed up to falling head over heels for him during the four years they performed together. After they parted ways, he didn’t lose that swagger: six Grammys, three Oscars and smash hits like “The Look of Love,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” – not too shabby!
One of Mr. Bacharach’s most enduring partnerships was with singing sensation Dionne Warwick. They met in August 1961 while she was on backup for The Drifters, and he took quite a shine to the “regal elegance of a young pig-tailed girl with a high voice.”
And oh, what a team they made! Over the course of 20 years, Warwick charted 38 singles co-written by Bacharach (and songwriter/producer Hal David), nine of which were Top 10 hits. If you can hum something of Ms. Dionne’s before the ‘90s, he was probably responsible: “Walk on By,” “Do you Know the Way to San Jose” … there were so many! They eventually had a falling out and stopped working together, but I sure am glad the music they made lives on to delight us all.
Reminiscing about all these fabulous songs got me thinking about all the other “dynamic duos” there have been in the music world. Some of them we know well; others we may have forgotten about, even though their catchy tunes have stuck with us since the second they first hit our ears! (Did you recall that Neil Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer” for the Monkee’s in 1966? Bet you can’t resist singing it right now!)
Let’s have a bit of fun and take a gander at some of my favorite song-making duos and some of their greatest triumphs. I’m positive you can think of a lot more!
Ashford & Simpson
You likely couldn’t pick these two out of a lineup, but boy, they could write some incredible songs: from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, to that girl-power anthem “I’m Every Woman” for Chaka Khan, the list of hits just doesn’t stop!
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson hit the music scene in 1964 when they made a go at recording as a duo. Their songwriting talent piqued the interest of the folks at Motown, and the pair ended up writing hits for Ray Charles, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Supremes, and a whole lot more. In the ‘70s, they wrote and produced almost all the songs on three albums for Diana Ross, including her self-titled debut solo album, which featured that heartstring-tugging hit “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”
Ashford & Simpson were real-life lovebirds, but didn’t get hitched until 1974. They stayed together for almost 50 years and did finally circle back to recording their own duets. Do you remember that ‘80s earworm “Solid as a Rock”? Totally them!
I honestly can’t think of another couple in music that stuck it out for half a century … can you?
Carole King & Gerry Goffin
Many of us know – and adore – Carole King’s solo singer/songwriter oeuvre. But it was the music she made with her former husband Gerry Goffin that first thrust her into the spotlight. They met at Queens College, shortly after she split with her high school sweetheart – none other than the ever-so-dreamy Neil Sedaka. Goffin and King quickly married at 17, taking up day jobs and writing songs together at night in order to jump-start King’s career as a singer.
It wasn’t until the couple came up with the “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1959 that they really hit their stride. The Shirelles released it in 1960, and it became the first #1 hit by an African American girl group. The song is now a standard, with versions by Brenda Lee, Dusty Springfield, Cher, and others that we continue to enjoy. (And I say more! Let’s keep ‘em coming, please!)
During the ‘60s, King and Goffin wrote a slew of classic songs for lots of artists, working for Dimension Records. They wrote “The Loco-Motion” for Little Eva (once their babysitter!), “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee, “Up on the Roof” for The Drifters, and Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Sadly, they divorced in 1968, but at least they left us some pretty sparkly sonic gems!
Elton John & Bernie Taupin
It’s almost impossible not to be completely dazzled by the career of Sir Elton John. His talent for songwriting and spectacular, enthusiastic live performances have hit pop music, pop culture and everything in between with the force of a gorgeous and glittery sledgehammer. But what about his quieter half, Bernie Taupin, who wrote most of the superstar’s songs and some of the most unforgettable rock lyrics of all time?
This musical duo’s meeting in 1967 was nothing short of kismet. Taupin and John both answered an ad submitted by Liberty Records looking for new songwriters in the “New Musical Express” at the same time. While both failed the audition, the label executive in charge put them in touch, and that was that!
Together, they have collaborated on more than 30 albums to date, including some of Sir Elton’s earliest, like Elton John (1970), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973), and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975), the first album in history to sell one million copies in its first day.
Taupin is the man behind Elton John’s career-defining mega hits: “Rocket Man,” “Crocodile Rock,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” and that Marilyn-inspired ballad that we just can’t quit, “Candle in the Wind” were all the result of Taupin’s handiwork.
Together, these two even branched out into Broadway. Their first musical, the deliciously-decadent vampire piece Lestat: The Musical opened in 2006. And they keep venturing down new artistic roads: In 2011, they put together five happy little songs for Miramax’s movie Gnomeo and Juliet.
So many of our favorite ditties have come from long-time pals and collaborators. I wonder: Why do some of these song-makers sparkle so when they’re working in pairs? Maybe it’s an expression of their friendship … or it could be that amazing things are just bound to happen when all that talent, skill, and energy get all mixed up together.
I tend to be a solo kind of gal when it comes to my own music. But I sure do love the magic that happens whenever I join forces with a bunch of brilliant musicians on stage or in the studio to create something special!
What do you think? Let’s trade some more of our favorite duos and their songs in the comments section!