In the Key of Collaboration: A Look at 10 of Music's Top Songwriting Duos
Throughout history and across all genres, the music industry has churned out some pretty remarkable albums, the vast majority of which were achieved through collaboration and partnerships. At times, however, tensions between these powerhouse songwriting duos may have been amplified by egos, substance use, or their own selfish ambition – ingredients that, in the right setting and brewed under the ideal “temperature”, result in delicious auditory treats for our personal indulgence.
In no particular order, here’s a glimpse into 10 of music’s best songwriting twosomes.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney
It goes without saying that this Beatles songwriting pair found a formula that appealed to the ears of the masses: Lennon’s realistic, heavy, and often dark, bluesy undertone was a nice complement to McCartney’s lighthearted, poppy, and seemingly optimistic worldview. Though their approaches to and ways of walking through life were vastly different, there’s no denying their musical chemistry or the notion that music was their middle ground, a place where words, harmonies, and melodies had no bounds. For a point of reference, between 1962 and 1969 – a mere eight years – Lennon and McCartney jointly created about 180 songs, a rather impressive feat for two lads from Liverpool. McCartney and Lennon (posthumously) were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987, justifying the notion of getting by with a little help from friends.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
Between 1943 and 1960, this musical-conceiving duo spawned some of the most successful and beloved musical hits of all time. Richard Rodgers, drawing on his intelligent and comedic style, composed the musical scores while Oscar Hammerstein II, a passionate playwright, penned the lyrics of the Broadway masterpieces Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, to name a few. Through their collaboration, these two men paved the way for thought-provoking musical theater by simultaneously addressing relevant social issues and creating enduring singalongs, all while keeping audiences entertained and wanting more. Over the course of their fruitful 50-year career, they received 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, and two Grammys.
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
In 1961, at a California coffeehouse, a fortuitous meeting occurred between Robert Hunter, a writer, lyricist, and musician, and Jerry Garcia, the glasses-wearing guitarist with a penchant for folk music. This meeting was the springboard for countless collaborations, masterful and intricate riffs, and powerful, ballad-like lyrics – which, when combined – made for notorious live performances and a diehard fan base. Together, Garcia and Hunter found a way to capture the zeitgeist of free-loving America while paying homage to blues, rock, folk, and bluegrass musicians of the past. Though the Santa-esque Garcia penned songs with other members of The Grateful Dead, the bulk of his repertoire was created in conjunction with Hunter, who, interestingly, never performed live with the band. In a rare 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Hunter stated, “We were just getting started” regarding Garcia’s passing in 1995.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Ah, yes. No modern list of songwriting teams would be complete without The Glimmer Twins. Growing up in Dartford, England, Jagger and Richards were both choirboys and shared a love for the rawness of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, and Robert Johnson. Richards’ loose, raucous guitar playing and Jagger’s cutting and excitable vocals made for more than a half-century of songs, success, and well-known excess. Their 1965 songwriting breakout hit, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” catapulted them to stardom and down a rather prolific songwriting path, both on solo ventures and with The Rolling Stones. They created hundreds of songs together, often spotlighting the integral role of backup singers, making their music irresistibly singalong-able. In fact, both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1993, proving that time is definitely on their side.
Carole King and Gerry Goffin
Flying under the mainstream or the ‘I-didn’t-know-they-wrote-that’ radar is the songwriting pair of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Deemed a musical prodigy early on (she had developed a sense of absolute pitch at the ripe age of four), King’s insatiable thirst for learning about music and all of its intricacies never wavered. While at Queens College, she met Gerry Goffin, a sharp and talented lyricist, who shared in King’s love for creating enduring musical masterpieces. The two married in 1959, when King was just 17 years old. Over several decades, they wrote hundreds of songs made popular by the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Righteous Brothers, The Monkees, and Dusty Springfield. Though the melodies written by King and Goffin sound jovial and carefree, the lyrics are heavy and melancholy –a nice, balanced dichotomy that landed both of them spots in the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1987) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1990). This songwriting pair is, indeed, Some Kind of Wonderful.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin
In 1967, Bernie Taupin, an English lyricist, singer, and poet, answered a music newspaper ad for a company needing new songwriters. Around the same time, Elton John, a pianist, singer, and composer, responded to that same advertisement. The two were serendipitously put together, a songwriting match made in heaven, with Taupin first writing the lyrics then John composing the melody. Initially, they created music for other musicians until recording their first album together in 1969. They couldn’t have been more different – Taupin was unassuming, preferring to be offstage while John loved the limelight and flamboyant showmanship. Interestingly, in the early days, this pair collaborated side by side only once or twice; it was a formula that worked for them…and for fans. For over the past half-century, their divergent, yet complementary personalities have been showcased in their unforgettable and heartfelt tunes, such as “Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” “Tiny Dancer,” and “Bennie and the Jets,” resulting in numerous awards, record album sales, and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1992.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Although their names might not be familiar to most, their songs are known worldwide. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller met in Los Angeles in 1950, and the two 17-year-olds quickly discovered they shared a love of rhythm and blues music. Leiber, an acutely brilliant lyricist, and Stoller, a pianist with a bluesy edge, composed countless songs for a multitude of artists, including the Coasters, the Drifters, and even The King himself, Elvis Presley. The duo blended elements of rock, pop, and rhythm and blues with catchy, street-smart lyrics, as heard in “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock, and “Yakety Yak,” which helped to pave the way for the blossoming of soul music several years later. They embarked on a songwriting and production career that spanned both decades and continents, yet their songs always remain close to our hearts. This hit-making pair was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985, the Record Producers Hall of Fame in 1986, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Glenn Frey and Don Henley
While on tour in 1971 as members of Linda Ronstadt’s band, guitarist and keyboardist Glenn Frey and drummer Don Henley decided to form their own band, though they hadn’t yet settled on a name. Later that year, the “Eagles” was chosen during a peyote- and tequila-fueled excursion in the Mojave Desert with then-fellow band members Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner (isn’t that how all great bands get their names?). The band’s musical style – an ingenious interweaving of country, folk, rock, blues, and pop – highlights their tight harmonies and even tighter lyrics. Henley and Frey had a musically cosmic partnership. Together, they created a catalog of lyrically poignant ballads and rhythmic anthems, signaling listeners to either begin foot stompin’ or slow dancing (either is acceptable).
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
The Motown Era of the 1960s was defined by polished fashion, snappy dance routines, and that rousing, soulful sound emanating from heart of Detroit. Norman Whitaker, a persistent 19-year-old, landed a job working for Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, as a member of the quality control department then the songwriting team. Barrett Strong, a gifted singer and songwriter, was the first artist to record a hit for Motown, with “Money (That’s What I Want)”. During the mid-1960s, Strong and Whitaker teamed up to write some of the most successful and recognizable songs, such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “War,” and “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”. For nearly a decade, this genre-bending pair wrote practically all of The Temptations’ music, earning them repeated top rankings in the US and UK charts, as well as an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.
Timbaland and Missy Elliott
This list just wouldn’t be complete without these two hip-hop virtuosos. Longtime friends and collaborators, Timbaland and Missy Elliott, got their start writing songs for Swing Mob during the early 90s. After achieving only minor success with the group, they joined forces with Aaliyah to write and produce tracks on her second album, earning the pair nods from fellow musicians, producers, and critics. Timbaland and Elliott have written numerous hits for other artists, such as Ciara, Destiny’s Child, 702, and Ginuwine. Timbaland’s signature beats, sound effects, and otherworldly samples are the perfect complement to Elliott’s sharp, hard-hitting lyrics. Over the years, they have honed their craft, making them one of the most successful songwriting and production team ever. In fact, Elliott is the first female rapper in history to be nominated to the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2019), evidence that she clearly knows how to Work It.
I acknowledge that there are many other notable songwriting partnerships that have helped shape the music industry that weren’t listed in this article. For brevity’s sake, the list required a cap; otherwise, this article would be at least 50 pages long…