A Brief History
On December 26, 1871, the famous opera writing duo of Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on Thespis, the first of many operas the much beloved pair worked together on. Today we use this occasion to list some of the greatest musical collaboration teams in the history of musical entertainment. Feel free to nominate other musical collaborators that you think should belong on this list, or to denounce any of our picks. Honorable mention: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the 2 Swedes that wrote most of ABBA’s hit songs, some of the biggest hits of their time (including “Dancing Queen,” “Mama Mia,” Waterloo,” and “SOS”). Honorable mention Part II: Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings of The Guess Who, the pair that wrote most of the hits of that great Canadian rock band.
Questions for students (or others): Are there any collaborators on this list you have not heard of? Of the ones listed, which team is your favorite? If there is a musical collaborator team not listed that you really like, tell us who they are and why you like them. What is your favorite Beatles song? What is your favorite Holland-Dozier-Holland song?
1. Gilbert and Sullivan, opera.
Composer Arthur Sullivan and dramatist W. S. Gilbert had a 25 year run of comic opera hits including H.M.S. Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. Not only have their operas been preformed over and over again, they have also been the basis for audio recordings and have been made into film for television and the big screen. Additionally, these great operas have provided the basis for numerous parodies (the operas are actually parodies themselves) and humor as well as providing a satirical look at British society. Their work remains popular today. No aspect of society was out of their reach, as their opera Trial by Jury shows while making fun of the justice system and the people involved. In The Gondoliers (1889) the irreverent duo poke fun at the monarchy by posing a pair of Venetian gondoliers (boatmen) as rulers of Venice within a fictional kingdom.
2. Lennon and McCartney, rock music.
This pair was the heart and soul of the Beatles, arguably the greatest rock and roll band in history. They wrote most of the Beatles’s hits, and their songs continue to be performed on the radio, in movies and television shows, and recorded over and over again by other artists. Some of the great songs they wrote together were recorded by other artists and not the Beatles. So great is their field of work, that to list some of their hits would be a disservice. Follow the link for a list of their collaborations. This legendary pair is probably the greatest songwriting duo in all of music history. Do you agree?
3. Hall and Oates, rock music.
This pair of pop singers is the most successful recording duo of all time with over 40 million recordings sold. Added to their recording and performing success, the duo also wrote many of their hit songs. Even the songs written only by one of the two men were still produced by the pair. Some of their most memorable tunes include, “Sara Smile,” “You’re a Rich Girl,” “She’s Gone,” “You Make My Dreams,” “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” “Kiss on my List,” “Did it in a Minute,” “One on One,” “Adult Education,” and “Maneater.”
4. Holland-Dozier-Holland, Motown.
Brian Holland also wrote some great hit songs by himself or with other co-writers, but it is the H-D-H songs that jump out as a body of work rivaled only by Lennon and McCartney. Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier also wrote songs on their own and with others. Mostly Motown from this great trio, acts such as The Temptations, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, The Four tops, Martha and the Vandellas, the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, The Miracles, The Elgins, Kim Weston, Freida Payne, Dionne Warwick, The Chairmen of the Board, and others recorded their songs, a veritable who’s who of Motown. Other artists (White singers) also recorded their songs, including Linda Ronstadt, R. Dean Taylor, and The Flaming Ember. Too many top hits to list, so see the link for a list.
5. Lieber and Stoller, rock music.
Known for writing many of Elvis Presley’s hit records, this Jewish duo from Baltimore and Long Island respectively met in Los Angeles, California where they began their fateful collaboration in 1950 when they penned their first commercial song, “Real Ugly Woman,” recorded by Jimmy Witherspoon. The rest, as they say, was history. Many of their R&B hits were first recorded by Black singing acts before they became hits for the budding Rock and Roll singers that began popping up later in the 1950’s. Often the second or third artist to record a Lieber and Stoller song made the song a hit, or a bigger hit. Not just Elvis, but many other famed singing acts recorded Lieber and Stoller songs, including the Drifters, The Exciters, The Clovers, The Searchers, Wilbert Harrison, The Coasters, Peggy Lee, Shangri-Las, Dixie Cups, Dion, Vaughn Monroe, Perry Como, Lavern Baker, The Kingston Trio, Brook Benton, Jay and the Americans, Michael McDonald and even Hank Snow, among others. Their last big hit was 1972’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. Another of the prolific songwriting teams, their hits are too many to list here, so please see the link for a list of their great songs.
6. Hal David and Burt Bacharach, pop music.
Music more along the line of easy listening than rock and roll, this great team matched wits to come up with hit songs recorded by a Hall of Fame group of singing stars, including Perry Como, The Drifters, The Shirelles, Gene Pitney, Chuck Jackson, Gene McDaniels, Jerry Butler, Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, Jack Jones, Linda Scott, Bobby Goldsboro, Jackie DeShannon, Tom Jones, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Manfred Mann, Herb Alpert, BJ Thomas, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Christopher Cross, and Elvis Costello, among many others. Most notable are the string of hits they wrote that were taken high on the charts by Dionne Warwick, including “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Promises, Promises.” Again, with a large body of work as produced by this pair, any list we could make would be partial. Go to this link for a more information about this duo and their songs.
7. Elton John and Bernie Taupin, pop music.
Bernie Taupin is the lyricist behind most of Elton John’s greatest hits, many of which they wrote together in collaboration. Although writing songs recorded by Elton John would be enough for Taupin to be rated as one of the best songwriters in history by itself, he also wrote many hit songs for other artists as well. See this link for a list of songs by Taupin and John that includes songs written by Taupin and recorded by other artists. Just a few of their hit collaborations include “Bennie and the Jets,” “Daniel,” “Your Song,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” Candle in the Wind,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Rocket Man.”
8. Rodgers and Hammerstein, musical theater.
Richard Rogers wrote the music and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics to musical plays that have become part of Americana. These iconic musicals include such staples as Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, and others. Many of their theatrical compositions were adapted for movies and television shows. To get an idea of just how great this duo was (both are deceased), their award tally includes a stunning 15 Academy Awards (Oscars), 34 Tony Awards, 2 Grammy Awards and even a Pulitzer Prize (for Drama in 1950, along with Joshua Logan for South Pacific.)
9. Jagger and Richards, rock music.
This pair of Rolling Stones front men not only performed some of the biggest hits of all time, they also wrote many of them together. Sometimes their collaborations were hits for a person or group other than the Rolling Stones. The scruffy duo also had help on some other hits, including “As Tears Go By” and “Sister Morphine.” Some of their hits (a very, very small sample of their incredible number of hits) include, “Satisfaction,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Angie,” “Beast of Burden,” “Brown Sugar,” “Emotional Rescue” (the author’s favorite), “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Paint It Black,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It),” “She’s a Rainbow,” “Shattered,” “Start Me Up,” “She’s So Cold,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Tumbling Dice.”
10. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, pop music.
What? You say you never heard of these guys? Well, if you ever heard 1950’s and 1960’s music you have heard the fruits of their musical collaboration. Elvis Presley recorded at least 7 of their songs, and other stars such as Dion and the Belmonts, The Drifters, Fabian, Connie Francis, Bobby Rydell, Anita Bryant and Andy Williams all used their material for recordings. Even actor Bruce Willis used one of their songs for a recording! Some of their biggest hits include “Viva Las Vegas,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” “Surrender,” “Little Sister,” “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame,” “Suspicion,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” and “Turn Me Loose.” The songs recorded by Elvis alone account for millions and millions of record sales. Learn more about these great songsters at this link.
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For more information, please see…
Collins, Marlon. Rolling Stones – The Quiz Book: The quiz book from Mick Jagger to Keith Richards to “Blue & Lonesome.” Independently published, 2018.
Compton, Todd. Who Wrote the Beatle Songs?: A History of Lennon-McCartney. Pahreah Press, 2017.
Holland-Dozier-Holland. THE SONGS OF HOLLAND-DOZIER-HOLLAND – vinyl lp. AIN’T TOO PROUD TO BEG – ALL I NEED – BABY DON’T YOU DO IT – BABY I NEED YOUR LOVING – BABY LOVE, AND OTHERS. Jobete Music Company, 1974.
Lieber, Jerry and Mike Stoller. Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography. Simon & Schuster, 2010.
The featured image in this article, opening night (26 December 1871) programme for the comic opera, Thespis by Gilbert and Sullivan, at the Savoy Theatre from https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154896092726599&set=gm.10155886789972457&type=3&theater, is in the public domain in the United States. In most cases, this means that it was first published prior to January 1, 1923.