By Ted Slowik
Many songwriters are artists, and many are regarded as commercially successful. Some great ones strike that perfect balance between art and success. Millions of people write songs, but these 15 stand out as among the best of the best and major influences on countless other writers and listeners. They're described here in alphabetical order.
Burt Bacharach: Working with lyricist Hal David, Bacharach composed dozens of hits, many for Dionne Warwick. He's credited with 73 Top 40 songs--73! Included are such classics as "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," "Close To You" and "What the World Needs Now." Elvis Costello knows he's cool. Bacharach flourished in the Brill Building hitmaking era, when artists sang and performed songs written for them by others. Granted, my admiration of writers like Bacharach, Carole King and others is rooted in my youth of the 1970s when I listened to Top 40 radio, but to this day I admire his mastery of the craft.
Leonard Cohen: If you're not familiar with this icon, you should check out his work. His credits include "Hallelujah" and "First We Take Manhattan." He's a writer admired by other writers, though nonwriting civilians certainly appreciate his work as well. Here's what American Songwriter magazine says about one of his more well-known tunes, "Bird On a Wire." Also check out this 2009 video interview Cohen did with Jian Ghomeshi of CBC. Those crazy Canadians! There's three of them among this list of 15 influential songwriters.
3. Willie Dixon: Imagine what it was like in the 1950s and 1960s at Chess Records in Chicago, when Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters,
Bob Dylan: No. 1 on most lists of the greatest songwriters of all time, and deservedly so. Few can match Dylan's prolific output across six decades and counting, and his words probably changed the course of history by inspiring masses during the 1960s. "Like a Rolling Stone," "Blowin' In the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" are just three examples of Dylan's profound social commentary. He was influenced by Woody Guthrie, who deserves a mention somewhere in this article. Dylan defied convention and infuriated folk fans when he went electric, and he's mastered writing in rock, country and other genres. "Poet" doesn't begin to describe the influence of Dylan's artistry, but it'll have to suffice in this brief entry.
5. Steve Goodman: Admittedly, my list is biased in favor of Chicagoans. Steve hung around with Jimmy Buffett, John Prine and others back in the day. Known on a national scale for writing "City of New Orleans" and "The Dutchman," Goodman composed many great Chicago tunes including "Lincoln Park Pirates" and "Daley's Gone." On the North Side he's known for the Cubs anthems "Go, Cubs, Go" and "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request." Steve and others on this list had an amazing gift for storytelling.
6. George Harrison: Beatle George may rank among many lists of the top songwriters of all time, but he'll always only be the
John Lennon: John, the founder of and rocker in The Beatles. He had a wit and ability to turn a phrase, combined with a knack for melodic chords and catchy rhythms. His psychedelic phase gave us such masterpieces as "A Day In the Life" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." He could bare his soul and be intensely personal on solo albums like "Plastic Ono Band," though he also gave us worldly messages like "Imagine" and "All You Need Is Love." One can only admire John's themes of peace and love and how his timeless messages continue to speak to generations of admirers. Lennon's songs were always relevant to the time, whether he was writing about the pressures of dealing with stardom ("Help!") or the love he felt for his son Sean ("Beautiful Boy").
Paul McCartney: How convenient that the three Beatles in this list run consecutively alphabetically! Arguably the most successful composer of all time (some lists place him behind Andrew Lloyd Webber), Sir Paul is responsible for 32 No. 1 hits and hundreds of millions of sales. The creator of "Yesterday," "Hey Jude" and many other Beatles greats, he went on to achieve success with a second Hall of Fame-caliber band, Wings, that gave us "Silly Love Songs," "Live and Let Die" and many others. A master of melodies ("Eleanor Rigby," "For No One"), Paul could always also rock with the best of them ("Helter Skelter"). He continues to write, record, perform and release material that appeals to his fans.
Joni Mitchell: Here's a link to a great interview Joni did recently with Jian Ghomeshi of CBC. If you get the chance you should watch the video of the hour-long interview, if you want to hear one of the greats talk about the craft. As a songwriter she's responsible for such tunes as "Big Yellow Taxi," "Help Me" and "Woodstock," and deeply personal albums like her classic "Blue." One has to admire not only her mastery of the songwriting craft, but her boldness in exploring other genres like jazz ("Coyote") and electronic music ("Dog Eat Dog"). There are many great female songwriters (Carly Simon, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Tracy Chapman) but Joni is the only woman on this list.
10. John Prine: Chicago scores again! Remember this is a list of the most influential songwriters, and Prine certainly had a major influence on his generation, especially among other writers and musicians. His most familiar works include "Illegal Smile," the oft-covered "Angel From Montgomery" and the clever "Ain't Hurtin' Nobody." He's associated with such artists as Steve Goodman and Kris Kristofferson and is among the best at creating moods and communicating sentiment through his songs.
11. Paul Simon: Who hasn't walked around humming a Paul Simon
Pete Townshend: A personal favorite of mine, Townshend's work with The Who spoke to generations of adolescents. As principal songwriter in one of the greatest rock groups of all time, Townshend gave us such classics as "My Generation," "Baba O'Reilly," "Pinball Wizard" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." He conceived the brilliant concept albums "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia." His solo albums like "Empty Glass" are magnificent, and he's a great example of an artist who has battled addiction and uses writing to come to terms with the demons that lurk in the "dark place." He also found success as a writer of short stories ("Horses Neck") and his nonfiction memoir ("Who I Am").
Muddy Waters: I scanned many "Best Songwriters" lists while researching this, and few acknowledge the contributions Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon made to modern songwriting. Muddy of course was a major influence on The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and many others, and his well-known works include "I Just Want To Make Love To You," "I'm Ready," "Mannish Boy" and "Got My Mojo Working." Muddy summed up his own awareness of his musical influence in his late-career song "The Blues Had a Baby." Eric Clapton says it all in a quote inscribed on a plaque outside Muddy's boyhood home near Clarksdale, Mississippi: "(Muddy Waters') music changed my life, and whether you know it
or not, and like it or not, it probably changed yours, too."
Neil Young: Neil may be the most prolific writer on this list. One day before breakfast he wrote three songs for his 2006 album "Living With War" (that was his 29th Grammy-nominated album). His work is relevant, too. From "Ohio" to his present-day activism, Young is not one to sit by idly when there are causes to champion. His songs are also personal ("Needle and the Damage Done") and beautiful ("Harvest Moon"). One must also acknowledge his work as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the lasting influence Young has had on others including great writers and musicians (Pearl Jam, John Mellencamp) for more than half a century.
Warren Zevon: Warren is probably my all-time personal favorite songwriting artist. Classically trained, Zevon could craft beautifully melodic tunes ("Searching For a Heart"). He could also rock like few others, with his distinctive intellect and dark humor ("Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money"). When he got to storytelling, he's in the top tier, up there with Dylan ("Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Hit Somebody"). Warren loved writing, and he was a writer's writer--someone who befriended literary types. His genius is evident in the body of work he left.
That's my list of the top 15 most influential songwriting artists of all time. Honorable mentions go to Willie Nelson, Jeff Buckley, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Waters and David Gilmour, Brian Wilson, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Elton John, Van Morrison, Carole King, Richard Thompson and Chuck Berry. Feel free to suggest others and why they deserve recognition.