Mick Jagger to Bob Dylan: The ten greatest lyricists chosen by SIR TIM RICE
By TIM RICE
Sophisticated lyrics from The Rolling Stones frontman to the musical visionary of a sixties icon who realised how important rock music was, SIR TIM RICE on the ten songwriters who have inspired him
1. MICK JAGGER
Mick Jagger was writing stuff like Play With Fire, about an heiress from St John's Wood, and Mother's Little Helper, all about women taking pills, in his early twenties
Jagger's underrated as a lyricist because he's such a brilliant performer. The Rolling Stones, probably because they came from the London area, were much more sophisticated than all the Northern groups in their lyrics. Of course, the others soon caught up. Mick was writing stuff like Play With Fire, about an heiress from St John's Wood, and Mother's Little Helper, all about women taking pills, in his early twenties. His songs were brutally realistic: 'Don't want you out in my world/Just you be my backstreet girl.' More recently he's written a lot of stuff that could almost be described as sentimental, but which still has a cutting edge.
2. DON BLACK
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Black was brought up in Hackney before entering the music business as a song-plugger. As personal manager to the Sixties balladeer Matt Monro, he wrote English lyrics for European songs Monro recorded, such as Walk Away (the first pop lyric that made me identify with a love situation). He wrote the lyrics to several Bond songs, including Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever, which I think is his greatest work: 'Diamonds are forever/Hold one up and then caress it/Touch it, stroke it and undress it/I can see every part/Nothing hides in the heart to hurt me.'
3. COLE PORTER
Porter was born into a wealthy family in Indiana. He wrote student songs at Yale and graduated to Broadway shows in the Twenties. I was introduced to his songs through my parents' High Society soundtrack, one of the great scores of all time. The duet Well, Did You Evah? is kind of a list song, and the genius of list songs, which he was really good at, isn't necessarily the list itself, but the idea of the list. It's a wonderful musical evocation of a cocktail-party conversation. One of his best repeated rhymes is from the song I Get A Kick Out Of You: 'Flying too high with some guy in the sky/Is my idea of nothing to do.' Porter also wrote incredibly moving ballads and love songs. I came to a lot of these songs via pop cover versions. For example, Elvis Presley did rather a good version of True Love.
4. JERRY LEIBER
Jerry Leiber and composer Mike Stoller wrote numerous 'crossover' hits. For example, Hound Dog was a hit for the black artist Big Mama Thornton in 1953 before Elvis made it his own in 1956. They had success with the Coasters, the Drifters, the Clovers; they wrote tons of stuff for Elvis; they wrote Stand By Me with Ben E King, and On Broadway with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. They also wrote for Peggy Lee: I'm A Woman and Is That All There Is? Leiber produced one of my top three rock couplets of all time, in Love Potion No 9: 'I told her that I was a flop with chicks/I've been that way since 1956.'
5. ALAN JAY LERNER
He came from New York City and was educated partly in England.
Teaming up with Frederick Loewe in the Forties, he produced a string of Broadway musicals, including Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady and Camelot.
You can enjoy his lyrics as a child because on a very simple, surface level they describe something appealing and entertaining. But then, as an adult, you realise there's another level.
In You Did It he produced this brilliant rhyme: 'Every time we looked around/There he was, that hairy hound/From Budapest/Never leaving us alone/ Never have I ever known/A ruder pest.'
6. BOB DYLAN
There's no one like Bob Dylan around today (apart from Bob Dylan). He wrote many of his songs at a time when it seemed possible that protest songs might actually change things. He was a musical visionary in that he realised, even before the Beatles and the Stones, how important rock music was - everybody else still thought it was a branch of show business. I was particularly impressed by the lyrics for It Ain't Me Babe. It was an original thing to say in a love song, that I'm not good for you - especially when you're a young man and in 1964. His love songs, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, are often stronger than the political ones, which can get a bit preachy. In Positively 4th Street, an angry one, he wrote, 'Yes, I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You'd know what a drag it is/To see you.'
7. HERBERT KRETZMER
One of Kretzmer's earliest hits was a wonderful comedy song for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, Goodness Gracious Me, which contained the following lines: 'From New Delhi to Darjeeling/ I have done my share of healing/And I've never yet been beaten or outboxed/ I remember that with one jab/Of my needle in the Punjab/How I cleared up beriberi/And the dreaded dysentery/But your complaint has got me really foxed.'
For several years he collaborated with Charles Aznavour, for whom he wrote She, a big hit.
Kretzmer was already nearing his sixties when he wrote the lyrics for the stage show Les Misérables, the longest-running musical in the world.
It's never too late to have your biggest hit if you're a lyricist.
8. JOHNNY MERCER
Mercer brought a Southern folksy inflection to many of his songs. I first consciously encountered him with Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Mercer had two number ones in the UK within 12 months in 1961-62, with Moon River (a new song) and I Remember You (an old song from 1941, revived by Frank Ifield). The latter is a wistful tribute to a former love with a lovely, simple lyric: 'When my life is through/And the angels ask me to recall/ The thrill of it all/Then I will tell them I remember you.'
9. MICHAEL FLANDERS
He first collaborated with his composing partner Donald Swann for a school revue at Westminster in 1940. Reunited after WWII, they started writing comic songs for revue artists, and in 1956 for themselves as performers, with Swann at the piano and Flanders, a polio victim, in a wheelchair. Their show At the Drop of a Hat ran for two years in the West End. Flanders influenced me more than any other lyricist, because I encountered his songs when I was a child - classics such as The Hippopotamus Song: 'His inamorata adjusted her garter/And lifted her voice in duet.'
10. SAMMY CAHN
Towards the end of his life, I became good friends with Sammy Cahn and his wife, Tita. In his early years he was in demand to write 'special material', and, as he put it, 'Many might have written these lyrics better - but none faster!' Sammy wrote a lot of Sinatra's hits, such as Love and Marriage, All the Way and Come Fly With Me: 'Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru/In llama-land there's a one-man band/And he'll toot his flute for you.' In terms of records sold, he was the most successful songwriter, in words or music, for the period from 1940 until the beginning of the rock 'n' roll era in 1954.