(June 3, 2023).  How ironic and symbolic is it that, on the first day of Black Music Month 2023 in a year in which “anti-wokeism” promises to be a major campaign platform for certain candidates seeking the presidency of these United States, the creator of one of the most empowering Black music anthems of all time has died.  

The legendary American songwriter Cynthia Weil—also considered to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time—died Thursday, June 1.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee was 82.

Cynthia Weil died on June 1, 2023.

Along with her husband of 62 years, Barry Mann, Weil wrote some of the greatest songs of the rock and roll era, including iconic No. 1 love songs “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and (You’re My) Soul and Inspiration”—both for the Righteous Brothers—and personal favorites like “Here You Come Again” (for Dolly Parton), “On Broadway” (originally by The Drifters but famously covered by others including George Benson), and “Kicks” by Paul Revere & the Raiders.

Weil and Mann were close friends—and loosely affiliated business associates—of singer/songwriters Carole King and her late ex-husband Gerry Goffin.  Their younger friendship and emergence as two or the premier songwriting teams of the 1960s “Brill Building era” were depicted in the stellar stage show Beautiful—The Carole King Musical—which I was fortunate enough to see in 2018.

There are many other classics in Weil’s repertoire, including “Somewhere Out There” by Linda Ronstadt & James Ingram (amazingly Weil and Mann’s only Grammy-winning composition), “Never Gonna Let You Go” by Sergio Mendes, “Just Once” by James Ingram (on Quincy Jones’ The Dude album), and one of Chaka Khan’s most beloved songs, “Through The Fire.”

That last song also earned Weil, who co-wrote it with David Foster and Tom Keane, a credit on what may have been her only hip-hop hit by virtue of its use in a sample for Kanye West’s first big single, “Through The Wire” in 2003.

But it was another Cynthia Weil song, co-penned with Mann, that would serve as one of her greatest achievements, particularly in Black music circles.

It was in 1984 that she crafted the lyrics (and Mann the music) for what would become one of the most uplifting anthems in Black cultural history, a tune immortalized by the angelic voice of songbird Deniece Williams.

The song was “Black Butterfly,” a poignant ballad produced by the late, great George Duke and included on Williams’ Let’s Hear It For The Boy album.

“Black Butterfly” was the third track on Williams’ Let’s Hear It For The Boy album (1984)

It’s the title track of that album, a No. 1 hit that also appeared on the soundtrack to the huge 1984 movie Footloose, for which Williams will always be best known in pop music circles.

But it was “Black Butterfly,” in which Williams triumphantly sings on the chorus the refrain “sail across the waters, tell your sons and daughters what the struggle brings,” that forever embodied the spirit of Black empowerment and never forgetting one’s roots.

Williams’ soaring vocals on “Butterfly” (the only song on the album not backed by other vocalists), and the underlying musical bed composed by Barry Mann, were both beautifully constructed on their own merits.  

But it was Weil’s lyrics that powerfully drove home the song’s message, with words that evoked the souls of ancestors (both in this country and “across the waters”) and reminded us how the dream of overcoming adversity and oppression might still be realized (“as the darkness gives way to the dawn…you’ve survived, now your moment has arrived”).

Weil also included some not-so-veiled references to common themes of Black pride and beauty in the song’s second verse (“Now you’re free and the world has come to see…just how proud and beautiful you are”).

“Black Butterfly” performed live by Deniece Williams (circa 1984-85)

Weil and Mann were no strangers to socially conscious songs.  They wrote “Uptown,” which the 1960s group The Crystals recorded about living in Black slums, and “Kicks” as an anti-drug for Paul Revere & the Raiders in 1966.  

The classic “We Gotta Get Out if This Place,” by The Raiders, was also a 1966 Mann/Weil composition that became an anthem for people wanting to escape certain undesirable circumstances. It eventually became a rally cry for American soldiers fighting the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ‘70s.

According to Wikipedia, the Mann/Weil/Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller song “Only In America” was originally written as a protest against racial injustice for The Drifters but was refashioned by Lieber & Stoller as a more positive song for Jay & the Americans, which the Drifters also recorded, much to the dismay of Mann and Weil.  

So “Black Butterfly” wasn’t such a stretch for the husband-and-wife songwriting team who had a history of creating culturally significant tunes, even if their palette had shifted more towards love songs in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Prior to “Black Butterfly,” Weil had a hand in cowriting big pop hits like “He’s So Shy” (Pointer Sisters), “Somewhere Down The Road” (Barry Manilow), “Running With The Night” (Lionel Richie), and “If Ever You’re In My Arms Again” (Peabo Bryson).

Unlike many of those hits, however, “Butterfly” didn’t soar on the charts.  The song reached Billboard’s Hot Black Singles list (now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) where it peaked at No. 22, but failed to make the pop-oriented Hot 100 altogether—a surprising outcome considering Williams had just come off a huge No. 1 pop and soul smash in “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” months earlier.

As a result, “Black Butterfly” may be one of the few—if not the only—songs written by Cynthia Weil that reached the soul chart without also crossing over to the pop list. 

In recent years—in the wake of high-profile, unjustifiable deaths of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and more recently Tyre Nichols in Memphis,—“Black Butterfly” has once again been embraced as a song that embodies Black empowerment, with its thoughtfully crafted lyrics about an “unkept promise” and hope buoyed by a faith that is “as sure as the stars.”

Those lyrics were the work of one Cynthia Weil (October 18, 1940 – June 1, 2023), whose songs will forever be a part of the American fabric…be they protest or not.  

May she rest in power and her musical legacy live on through “Black Butterfly” and the dozens, if not hundreds, of other songs she created.

Cynthia Weil (R.I.P.) shown with husband Barry Mann


DJRob (he/him/his), who doesn’t believe anyone but Deniece Williams could have done “Black Butterfly” justice, is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

2 thoughts on “Tribute: Cynthia Weil (1940-2023) wrote one of the most powerful Black anthems (it’s by Deniece Williams)”
  1. Darrel, again, I say you are simply amazing. Each time I read your articles I learn something new. They bring back memories and emotional thoughts. Thanks for all that you do!

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