As Black Music Month 2015 – now formally known as African-American Music Appreciation Month – races through its home stretch, I’ve been completing the last installment of my four-part countdown of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of all Time. But before I publish Part 4 of that countdown, I promised readers I’d produce a special list of the top behind-the-scene guys (and gal) – particularly of the past 55 years – who’ve been responsible for the hits recorded by those famous artists.
What follows is a ranking of the songwriters and producers who’ve given those artists’ songs life. These are the song creators without whom many of the greatest artists wouldn’t reside in our collective musical memories. Think of where Janet Jackson would be without the writing and production talents of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, or if Whitney Houston would have been pop music royalty without the sugary confections conjured up by Narada Michael Walden in the 1980s. The O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass certainly would not be on the 100 Greatest Artists list if it were not for the collective creative genius of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff.
This list recognizes those three legendary songwriter/producers and 17 more. But the list comes with a caveat. Namely, it is limited to those who were more known for their behind-the-scenes work than for their own recordings. So people like Smokey Robinson, Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Kanye West, R. Kelly, Lionel Richie, Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton are not included on this list because they made names for themselves as singers or rappers, and their accomplishments as songwriters/producers – while certainly legendary and able to stand alone – were factored into their rankings on the overall 100 Greatest Artists list.
Instead, artists like Ashford & Simpson, Chic founders Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards, Narada Michael Walden and Sean “Diddy” Combs were eligible. Before you pull the double-standard card, I know all of those artists performed or recorded their own songs, too, but they were far more recognized for what they did behind the boards and on pen and paper for other artists.
So now here they are – the 20 Greatest Music Producers/Songwriters of the Past 55 years (Since 1960):
20. Sean Combs (a/k/a Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy). Legacy: Bad Boy Entertainment. The entrepreneur with the many names made hits for himself as well as the other artists on his Bad Boy label, including the Notorious B.I.G., Mase, 112, Faith Evans and Carl Thomas. In a career that dates back to the late 1980s during an internship with fledgling hip-hop label Uptown Records, Combs had a knack for knowing what people wanted to hear, which for the better part of his heyday were hits from yesteryear fashioned into contemporary hip-hop tunes by the artists of the day. Combs’ critics accused him of borrowing too liberally from other artists’ songs – with very little variation – to create his artists’ biggest hits. But, despite that lack of originality, the number of hits with his name on it are more than enough to push him into this top 20 producer list.
19. RZA. Legacy: Wu-Tang Clan leader and producer. Born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs (named after the famous political family’s late brothers Robert and John Fitzgerald Kennedy), RZA is easily one of the most prolific hip-hop music producers of all time. In addition to his work executive producing most of Wu-Tang’s music as well as that of its members’ solo efforts (Method Man, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa and himself), he has scored the soundtracks to several motion pictures, including Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Unleashed, Derailed, and The Man With The Iron Fists, among others. He’s also produced album tracks for non-Wu-Tang affiliates such as Kanye West, Talib Kweli and The Game.
18. Leon Sylvers. Legacy: The Sylvers. In-house producer for SOLAR Records. Leon Sylvers first gained fame as member of the nine-member sibling act, The Sylvers, who hit big in 1976 with gold singles “Boogie Fever” and “Hot Line.” But his biggest money likely came from writing and producing for various SOLAR label artists, like the Whispers, Shalamar, Dynasty, Lakeside, and Midnight Star. He also produced the 1983 #1 R&B comeback hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips (“Save the Overtime For Me”). My personal favorite is his first big single, “Misdemeanor” – a top-20 pop hit he produced for his younger brother, Foster, in 1973.
17. Narada Michael Walden. Legacy: Whitney Houston’s early hits. NMW was a singer in his own right during the late 1970s when he had success with his top-ten R&B hits, “I Don’t Want Nobody Else” and the very Chic-sounding “I Shoulda Loved Ya” (the Chic sound makes it one of my all-time favorites). But the dough really started rolling in when he produced several #1 hits on Whitney Houston’s first three albums. He added big hits by Sister Sledge, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Stewart, Regina Belle, Lisa Fischer and Tevin Campbell. For good measure, he even produced the rock group Starship’s biggest hit (“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”) in 1987.
16. Teddy Riley. Legacy: Creator of New Jack Swing. Guy. Very few artists or producers can be credited with creating a music sub-genre all his own. Berry Gordy is one such producer, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are two others. Perhaps the most recent artist to do it was Teddy Riley, whose New Jack Swing sound took off like a rocket with songs he produced for Keith Sweat, Johnny Kemp, Bobby Brown and his own bands Guy and Blackstreet. So sought after was Teddy Riley, that the King of Pop himself commissioned Riley as the main producer of his 1991 album Dangerous, making him the first producer of a Michael Jackson solo album other than Quincy Jones since Jackson left Motown in 1976.
15. Pharrell Williams. Legacy: The Neptunes. Despicable Me’s “Happy.” The man with the big hats has enjoyed a renaissance in the past two years with three huge hits he’s co-wrote, co-produced and performed on (“Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines” and “Happy.”). But many latecomers didn’t know he has produced successful R&B/hip-hop/alternative records since the early 1990s as one half of the production team, The Neptunes (along with partner Chad Hugo). Pharrell’s song repertoire includes hits by Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Mystikal, Britney Spears, No Doubt, Daft Punk, Robin Thicke and Janet Jackson. Despite the now-famous recent setback of losing a plagiarism lawsuit to the estate of Marvin Gaye for the classic “Got To Give It Up,” the resilient Williams has already shown that he is capable of bouncing back – as he proved when he created three of this decade’s biggest hits after not having any substantial material on the market for the last half of the 2000s. He’ll be back.
14. Berry Gordy. Legacy: Motown Records. Although he’ll always be known as the founder of the most famous black-owned label in music history, Gordy was also a noted producer and songwriter. He was credited as a co-writer or producer on a number of the label’s earliest hits, and then joined three other Motown company men (Fonzi Mizell, Deke Richards and Freddie Perren) to form the in-house writing and production team, The Corporation. In both capacities, he wrote, co-wrote or produced songs for the Miracles, Barrett Strong, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Marv Johnson, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Contours, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross/Supremes and the Jackson 5, including their first three #1 hits (see Freddie Perren below).
13. Freddie Perren. Legacy: “I Will Survive” and other disco classics. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is easily one of the most recognizable disco songs. But not many can tell you who was behind the mixing boards when Gaynor finished cutting her iconic vocals. The late Perren was that guy, as well as the guy behind many other pop/disco classics, including “Boogie Fever” and “Hot Line” (both by the Sylvers), and “Shake Your Groove Thing” and “Reunited” (Peaches & Herb). He also produced Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” another #1 hit, as well as disco hits by Tavares (“Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel”).
Even with all that on his list of accomplishments, perhaps Perren’s biggest contributions to music were as part of the collective Motown in-house writing staff, The Corporation, where he – along with Berry Gordy, Fonzi Mizell and Deke Richards – was credited with creating most of the Jackson 5’s earliest hits, including their first three #1s, “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “The Love You Save.”
12. Rodney Jerkins. Legacy: Darkchild Productions. With a career that now spans 20 years, Jerkins is responsible for nearly 160 million in record sales, making him one of the biggest-selling producers of all time. He’s written and produced songs for Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Mary J. Blige, Brandy & Monica, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, and Beyoncé. His most impressive work in my opinion was his joint effort with Timbaland, StarGate, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon and others to rework several of Michael Jackson’s previously unreleased songs for the 2014 album, Xscape, the title track of which Jerkins produced. Their studio modifications definitely gave Jackson’s tunes – some of which were decades old – a contemporary feel, with the album reaching #2 last year.
11. Norman Whitfield. Legacy: Motown in-house writer. Whitfield Records. The man behind the Temptations’ success wrote and produced many of their enduring hits, including “Ain’t To Proud To Beg,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “Cloud Nine,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” But Norman Whitfield’s creations weren’t limited to Motown’s biggest group. He also crafted classics for acts like Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”), Edwin Starr (“War”), and several others. When he left Motown to start his own Whitfield Records in 1975, he performed magic all over again for new group Rose Royce, for whom he produced the #1 hit, “Car Wash” as well as most of their other big hits.
10. Jermaine Dupri. Legacy: So-So-Def Recordings. Jermaine Dupri Mauldin, who ditched the last name for his professional career, is one of the many producers on this list who also founded their own record labels. Both with the artists on his label as well as those off of it, Dupri helped create the soundtrack of the 1990s (and beyond) with hits by Mariah Carey, Usher, Nelly, Chris Brown, Monica, Aaliyah, Kris Kross, Lil’ Kim, Da Brat, MC Lyte, Jagged Edge, Xscape, Bow Wow, New Edition, Dem Franchize Boyz and former girlfriend Janet Jackson. He’s been relatively quiet on the music production front for the past five years, but he was able to rack up 13 #1 R&B and 10 #1 pop hits during his most active period between 1992 and 2005.
9. Dr. Dre. Legacy: NWA, Beats by Dre. Death Row Records. The Beats Electronics co-founder wanted people to have a listening experience unlike any other when he ventured into the headphones business in 2006. He felt the nearly two-decades worth of music he had produced was being short-changed by the crappy (my words) products with which people were hearing it. The “Beats by Dre” headphone product line has since helped him approach billionaire status (the first hip-hop artist of that stature), but the groundwork for it was laid by his production credibility in the hip-hop community, which he first established by creating the unique West Coast G-Funk hip-hop sound (heavily inspired by 1970s’ pioneer George Clinton). In the past three decades, he’s created hits for the likes of NWA, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Scarface, Michel’le, Warren G., Eve, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, the Game, Alicia Keys and Jay Z…not to mention his own classics, like “Nothing But a ‘G’ Thang” and “The Next Episode.”
8. Timbaland. Legacy: Mosley Music Group. Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley has been banging out hits for nearly 20 years now, the first of which was his production of singer Ginuwine’s début album in 1996. He then connected with Aaliyah and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and produced some of their most ground-breaking singles: “Are You That Somebody” for Aaliyah and “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” for Missy. After that first success, his career took off like a rocket and he’s become one of the top pop/R&B/Hip-Hop producers of the millennium – of any ethnicity. He has helmed hits for Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Nelly Furtado, Jay Z, Nas, Ludacris, Madonna, Rihanna, OneRepublic, Brandy, Drake and Rick Ross. Understandably, he’s the highest ranked producer on this list whose work mostly occurred after 1995…and certainly one of the most sought-after. He recently oversaw production of the soundtrack to TV’s “Empire,” an album which topped the charts this past April.
7. L.A. Reid/Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Legacy: LaFace Records. Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds were prominent members of the ’80s R&B group, the Deele, before they became legendary songwriters and producers-turned-record label executives. The Deele gave us “Body Talk” and “Two Occasions” (remember those?). But L.A. and ‘Face gave us much, much more. They often teamed with a third partner, Daryl Simmons, with whom they wrote many R&B and pop hits of the late 1980s and early ’90s. The list of artists who have benefitted from their individual or collective efforts reads almost like a Who’s Who of 1980s and ’90s pop/R&B. It includes Karyn White, Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul, Sheena Easton, Pebbles, After 7, the Boys, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, Jermaine Jackson, TLC, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, Donell Jones, OutKast, Total, Usher, Johnny Gill, P!nk and Michael Jackson – just to name a few.
6. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Legacy: Flyte Tyme Productions. Janet Jackson’s biggest hits. If what’s past is prologue in the world of popular music, then James “Jimmy Jam” Harris & Terry Lewis are about to make waves again with Janet Jackson. Her 2015 single, “No Sleeep” (yes, the title has an intentional extra ‘e’) was released just this past week to mixed reviews, but features the production work of Jackson and her long-time, on-and-off-again collaborators Jam and Lewis. It was their famous partnership with Jackson in the 1980s that catapulted them to astronomical production success during that decade and beyond.
While Jam and Lewis had been successful with R&B acts like The Time (where they were members before famously being fired by Prince), Cheryl Lynn (“Encore”), SOS Band (most of their hits, including “Just Be Good to Me” and “The Finest”), Cherrelle (all of her big hits) and Alexander O’Neal (all of his hits), their association with Jackson made them one of the most sought-after pop production and writing teams of the ’80s. They eventually added #1 pop hits by Human League (“Human”), Karyn White (“Romantic”), George Michael (“Monkey”), Boyz II Men (“On Bended Knee” and “4 Seasons of Loneliness”), Usher (“U Remind Me”) and Mariah Carey (“Thank God I Found You”).
Their combined 16 #1 pop hits (including 9 with Janet) and 26 #1 R&B hits (some of which overlap) make Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis the songwriting and production team with more Billboard #1 singles than any other production tandem in history.
5. Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson. Legacy: Hopsack & Silk Productions and Nick-O-Val Music Company, Inc. Those were the production and songwriting/publishing companies under which much of the collective work of this amazingly creative couple occurred. Ashford & Simpson recorded memorable songs themselves, like their two biggest hits: “Solid” and “Found a Cure,” and some lesser known (but still great) songs like (my favorite) “It Seems to Hang On,” “Is It Still Good To You?” and “Street Corner.” However, they will forever be remembered for the classics they did for other artists, beginning with their work as Motown in-house writers starting in 1966. Motown artists who reaped benefits from their work included Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson/Miracles, Gladys Knight/Pips and Martha Reeves/Vandellas.
But their creations away from Motown (after leaving the label in 1973) are almost as noteworthy. They’ve written or produced big hits for the likes of Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight/Pips (again), Stephanie Mills, and – of course – themselves. They were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2002, and they received ASCAP’s highest honor – the Founder’s Award – in 1996.
While they may have had fewer hits than Jam & Lewis or L.A. & ‘Face, their songs are far more enduring. You’ve heard some of them for nearly 50 years, like “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” And they’ll likely be still getting props from oldies’ stations 50 years from now.
4. Nile Rodgers/Bernard Edwards. Legacy: The Chic Organization. The partnership of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards continued to prove that the greatest record producers and songwriters often do their best work in pairs. Continuing in the vein of legendary production and songwriting duos like Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, Thom Bell & Linda Creed, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Lennon & McCartney, and others, Nile and ‘Nard came together in the 1970s and gave us some of the most recognizable songs of all time. Their songs have been adopted by sports franchises (“We Are Family” – Pittsburgh Pirates); used to create rap music’s first commercial hit (“Good Times” – Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) and adopted as gay anthems (“I’m Coming Out”). Their “Le Freak” is one of the two biggest disco hits of all time and they gave Diana Ross her biggest solo hit in “Upside Down.” Under the umbrella “the Chic Organization,” they honed a sound that was unlike any before it, although it was often duplicated (Google songs by Change, BB&Q Band, Narada Michael Walden, Rene & Angela and Vaughan Mason) or copied without permission (see Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” whose bass line was heavily inspired by Chic’s “Good Times”).
But not all Rodgers and Edwards’ successes were accomplished as a pair. They both individually produced several number one hits in the 1980s after Chic temporarily disbanded, including Duran Duran’s two #1 singles: “The Reflex” (Rodgers) and “A View to a Kill” (Edwards), David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (Rodgers), Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (Edwards) and Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” (Rodgers). Nile Rodgers – who is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the past three years – has made a name for himself as one of the most prolific music producers of the past 35 years. In addition to the above, his credited work includes songs by INXS, Diana Ross, the Honeydrippers, the B-52s, Daft Punk, Mick Jagger and Grace Jones.
And he’s now carrying on the Chic legacy without Edwards (who died in 1996). Just two weeks ago, Chic featuring Nile Rodgers reached #1 on the Billboard Dance Club Play chart with their 2015 song, “I’ll Be There,” which harkens back to the group’s original music style of the 1970s and early ’80s.
3. Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff/ Thom Bell. Legacy: Mighty Three Music. Philadelphia International Records. The Sound of Philadelphia. Gamble and Huff were about as self-contained as any songwriting/production entity could be. For their own record label, Philadelphia International Records, they wrote and produced most of the songs for their legendary roster of artists, many of which became pop and R&B classics, like “Love Train,” “Back Stabbers,” “You’ll Never Find,” “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and countless others. That roster of artists included the O’Jays, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Patti LaBelle, the Jones Girls and the Jacksons. Thom Bell – who often teamed with Linda Creed – was the third part of the Mighty Three Music publishing company. Bell was known for his flawless musical arrangements, as showcased on songs by the Stylistics, the Spinners, the Delfonics and even rock legend Elton John (“Mama Can’t Buy You Love).”
Together, they crafted a lush, string-and-horn-filled sound with unrelenting, sharp rhythm sections that were rarely duplicated but often sampled. With this Philly Soul sound, Gamble, Huff and Bell are responsible for thousands of songs, hundreds of which were hits on one chart or another.
Gamble and Huff, who also produced gold and platinum singles for artists not on their label (like Wilson Pickett, Joe Simon and Jerry Butler – who later joined PIR) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. The unfortunate part of this great story is that they no longer own the publishing rights to their music, as “Mighty Three Music” was sold to Sony Music years ago. But their names will always be credited with creating some of the greatest music of all time.
See where Philly International Records ranks on my list of Black Owned Record Labels by clicking here.
2. Holland-Dozier-Holland. Legacy: Motown Sound. Berry Gordy’s writers and producers notoriously competed with one another to determine who would come up with the better selling hits. This spirited competition no doubt contributed to the label’s unprecedented success in the 1960s, the bulk of which could be attributed to this trio of collaborators featuring Lamont Dozier with brothers Eddie and Brian Holland. The biggest beneficiaries of their talents were the Supremes and Four Tops, although many other Motown artists recorded their songs, including Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, R. Dean Taylor, and groups like the Marvelettes, Miracles, Temptations, Isley Brothers and Jr. Walker & the All-Stars. After leaving Motown, the trio (either together or apart) wrote and produced songs for Freda Payne, Chairman of the Board, the Honey Cone and others. Fittingly, they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Their publishing affiliate – BMI – has likewise recognized them with several awards recognizing their iconic status.
Simply put, only one writer/producer could be more prolific than Holland-Dozier-Holland…
1. Quincy Jones. Legacy: “Q” has done it all. He’s conducted or arranged sessions for the biggest jazz artists, including Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He’s produced the scores for countless movies, several for which he received Oscar nominations (among them “The Color Purple”). He’s produced the music themes to TV series like “Sanford & Son,” “The Cosby Show” and the mini-series “Roots.”
He’s produced his own hit albums, which contained multiple #1 R&B singles (“Stuff Like That” with Ashford & Simpson & Chaka Khan, “I’ll Be Good To You” with Chaka Khan and Ray Charles, and “The Secret Garden (Seduction Suite)” with Barry White, James Ingram and El DeBarge). He produced the biggest humanitarian charity single in pop music history (“We Are The World”). He introduced us to ’70s and ’80s R&B staples like the Brothers Johnson, Patti Austin and James Ingram – all for whom he produced #1 hits. He produced Rufus and Chaka’s #1 R&B hit, “Do You Love What You Feel?” and Leslie Gore’s biggest hits: the #1 “It’s My Party” and #2 “You Don’t Own Me.”
Oh, and there’s that gloved guy named Jackson whose three biggest albums (“Off The Wall,” “Thriller” and “Bad”) all bear Quincy Jones’ name in the production credits. And “Thriller” just happens to be the world’s biggest-selling album ever (reportedly having sold over 100 million copies).
Only one person has more Grammy Awards than Jones’ 27 (Sir Georg Solti, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with 31). And as a capper to this legendary career, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted him in 2013 – a move that came 27 years too late in my humble opinion (the Hall opened 27 years ago, by the way).
What more needs to be said about a man who has been in the game longer than anyone else on this list and who has had far more accomplishments, both commercially and critically?
So, in order, the 20 Greatest Black Music Producers/Songwriters of the Past 55 years – essentially of all time – are:
- Quincy Jones
- Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff
- Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards (The Chic Organization)
- Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson
- Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis
- L.A. Reid & Babyface
- Dr. Dre
- Jermaine Dupri
- Norman Whitfield
- Rodney Jerkins
- Freddie Perren
- Berry Gordy
- Pharrell Williams
- Teddy Riley
- Narada Michael Walden
- Leon Sylvers
- Sean “Diddy” Combs
For the record, others I considered for the list include (alphabetically): Denzil Foster & Thomas McElroy, DJ Premier, The Dream, Missy Elliott, Kashif, Kashiwa, Mike will made it, Willie Mitchell, Rene Moore, Lee Scratch Perry, Polow da don, Sylvia Robinson, Salaam Remi, Swizz Beatz, will.i.am, Angela Winbush.
Feel free to comment on this list, including where you think the producers/songwriters should rank – if at all – and who you believe I’ve omitted. And don’t forget to subscribe so you can be notified of future articles.
In the next few days – as Black Music Month 2015 draws to a close, I’ll be posting the completion of my countdown of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of All Time. Click here to access the first part of the countdown.