By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
As Motown and its Detroit headquarters turned into a pop-soul powerhouse, she served as a company executive who guided a young Stevie Wonder and managed the careers of such era-defining artists as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes.
When Berry Gordy
Jr. wanted to borrow $800 from his family to found Motown Records
in 1959, he knew that the most formidable resistance would come from his oldest sister, Esther.”You’re 29 years old and what have you done with your life?” his sister snapped as the pair squabbled over his request, her brother later recalled. Edwards assented, but only after Gordy signed a contract pledging future royalties as security.
As Motown and its Detroit headquarters turned into a pop-soul powerhouse, Esther Gordy Edwards served as a company executive who guided a young Stevie Wonder and managed the careers of such era-defining artists as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes.
Yet Edwards made her most enduring mark after the company moved to Los Angeles in 1972. She stayed behind and in 1985 turned the original offices known as Hitsville USA into the Motown Historical Museum. Then she packed it with the artifacts she had pointedly saved along the way.
Edwards died Wednesday in Detroit of natural causes, the museum announced. She was 91.
“Whatever she did, it was with the highest standards,” her brother said in a statement. “She preserved Motown memorabilia before it was memorabilia, collecting our history long before we knew we were making it.”
Wonder said he was “taken back by the loss” of Edwards, whom he regarded as “another mother.”
When Wonder came to Motown as a boy, Edwards helped him manage his money, arranged for tutors and enrolled him at the Michigan School of the Blind.
“She believed in me — when I was 14 years old,” Wonder said in a statement. “She championed me being in Motown. I shared with her many of my songs first before anyone else.”
Edwards played a key role managing young acts in the 1960s. Eventually she rose to vice president and directed Motown’s international operations.
“Poor kids from broken homes would rush here after school and hang out all night,” Edwards said of Hitsville in a 1989 Times article. “Between 1959 and 1972, this little house was like home for a lot of kids. Without Motown, most of the talent discovered in this building would have been overlooked by society.”
Edwards was “born bossy,” her brother once said, on April 25, 1920, in Oconee, Ga. She was one of eight children of Berry and Bertha Gordy and as a toddler moved to Detroit with her family.
Esther attended both Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Wayne State University in Detroit.
She married in the early 1940s and had a son before divorcing.
In 1951, she married George H. Edwards, who went on to serve in the Michigan Legislature. He died in 1980.
She had helped set up the Gordy family savings club as a source of financing for business ventures when her brother sought the loan that led to the “Motown Sound.”
Inside Motown, the 4-foot-10 Edwards was called a “pack rat,” teased for squirreling away everything she could — concert posters, fliers, stage costumes and other would-be collectibles — during her 30 years with the company.
“We used to laugh at Mrs. Edwards because everywhere we went on those tours, she saved everything. She saved all the pictures, all the placards,” Robinson told the Detroit Free Press in 2005. “But what a wonderful thing she did. Because of her we have that museum, we have that place where people can go and see that history.”
More than 40,000 people visit each year, according to the museum. Exhibits have included girl-group gowns, record covers, Michael Jackson’s sequined glove and the upstairs quarters where Berry once lived.
The need for such a museum dawned on Edwards over time as tourists dropped by the offices she kept at Hitsville after the company had moved west.
Once about 50 men sporting white sailor uniforms and British accents showed up, explaining that they had rented vans to drive the 60 miles to Motown after their ship had docked in Toledo, Ohio, she told Smithsonian magazine in 1994.
“That was the turning point,” Edwards said. “I thought, ‘Well, gosh, maybe we did make history here.'”
In addition to her brother, Berry, Edwards is survived by her son, Robert Berry Bullock; stepson Harry T. Edwards; two other siblings, Anna Gordy Gaye and Robert L. Gordy; three granddaughters; and six great-grandchildren.
Mr. Ashford had throat cancer and was undergoing treatment, but the cause of his death was not immediately known. His death was announced by Liz Rosenberg, a friend who is a longtime music publicist.
One of the primary songwriting and producing teams of Motown, Ashford & Simpson specialized in romantic duets of the most dramatic kind, professing the power of true love and the comforts of sweet talk. In “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” from 1967, their first of several hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, lovers in close harmony proclaim their determination that “no wind, no rain, no winter’s cold, can stop me, baby,” but also make cuter promises: “If you’re ever in trouble, I’ll be there on the double.”
Gaye and Terrell also sang the duo’s songs “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Diana Ross sang their “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” and when she rerecorded “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough“ in 1970, it became the former Supreme’s first No. 1 hit as a solo artist.
“They had magic, and that’s what creates those wonderful hits, that magic,” Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire told The Associated Press after learning of his friend’s death. “Without those songs, those artists wouldn’t have been able to go to the next level.”
Nickolas Ashford was born in Fairfield, S.C., and raised in Willow Run, Mich., where his father, Calvin, was a construction worker. He got his musical start at Willow Run Baptist Church, singing and writing songs for the gospel choir. He briefly attended Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, before heading to New York, where he tried but failed to find success as a dancer.
In 1964, while homeless, Mr. Ashford went to White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, where he met Ms. Simpson, a 17-year-old recent high school graduate who was studying music. They began writing songs together, selling the first bunch for $64. In 1966, after Ray Charles sang “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” a song Ashford & Simpson wrote with Joey Armstead, the duo signed on with Motown as staff writers and producers.
They wrote for virtually every major act on the label, including Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Didn’t You Know You’d Have to Cry Sometime”) and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (“Who’s Gonna Take the Blame”).
While writing for Motown, Ashford & Simpson nursed a desire to perform, which Berry Gordy Jr., the founder and patriarch of the label, discouraged. They left the label in 1973 and married in 1974.
Ashford & Simpson’s initial collaborations sold poorly, but by the late ‘70s, songs like “Don’t Cost You Nothing,” “It Seems to Hang On” and “Found a Cure” became hits on the R&B charts. Their biggest hit as a solo act was “Solid,” which reached No. 12 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1984.
They also continued to write hits for other people. “I’m Every Woman“ was a hit for Chaka Khan in 1978, and later for Whitney Houston on the soundtrack to the 1992 film “The Bodyguard.” In 1996, they opened the Sugar Bar on West 72nd Street in Manhattan, where they often presided over open mic nights. Recently, they received a songwriting credit on Amy Winehouse’s song “Tears Dry on Their Own,” which contains a sample from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Besides his wife, Mr. Ashford is survived by two daughters, Nicole and Asia; his brothers Paul, Albert and Frank; and his mother, Alice Ashford.
Ashford & Simpson toured throughout their career, their harmony and vocal interplay illustrating the passion of their lyrics and of their life together.
“When Ms. Simpson sits down at the piano and begins to sing in a bright pop-gospel voice, unchanged since the 1970s,” Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote in a review in 2007, “she awakens the spirit and tosses it to Mr. Ashford, whose quirkier voice, with its airy falsetto, has gained in strength from the old days. Soon they are urging each other on. By the time their romantic relay winds to a close, both are sweating profusely, and the audience is delirious.”
They were always “Solid as a Rock”. Nick and Valerie—the epitome of class, style, and distinction.
Mr. Ashford was a singer/songwriter who wrote beautiful songs of love and devotion. He and his wife, Ms. Valerie Simpson, proved “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”.
My condolences to Ms. Valerie Simpson-Ashford. May she have strength to weather this time of grieving in her loss.
Rest in peace, Mr. Ashford.
Rest in peace.
JERRY LEIBER, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL PIONEER LYRICIST
From left, Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley and Jerry Leiber at MGM Studios in 1957.
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: August 22, 2011
Jerry Leiber, the lyricist who, with his partner, Mike Stoller, wrote some of the most enduring classics in the history of rock ’n’ roll, including “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and “On Broadway,” died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 78.
Mr. Stoller, left, and Mr. Leiber at an awards ceremony in 2008.
The cause was cardio-pulmonary failure, said Randy Poe, president of Leiber & Stoller Music Publishing.
The team of Leiber and Stoller was formed in 1950, when Mr. Leiber was still a student at Fairfax High in Los Angeles and Mr. Stoller, a fellow rhythm-and-blues fanatic, was a freshman at Los Angeles City College. With Mr. Leiber contributing catchy, street-savvy lyrics and Mr. Stoller, a pianist, composing infectious, bluesy tunes, they set about writing songs with black singers and groups in mind.
In 1952, they wrote “Hound Dog” for the blues singer Big Mama Thornton. The song became an enormous hit for Elvis Presley in 1956 and made Leiber and Stoller the hottest songwriting team in rock ’n’ roll. They later wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” “Loving You,” “Don’t,” “Treat Me Nice,” “King Creole” and other songs for Presley, despite their loathing for his interpretation of “Hound Dog.”
In the late 1950s, having relocated to New York and taken their place among the constellation of talents associated with the Brill Building, they emerged as perhaps the most potent songwriting team in the genre.
Their hits for the Drifters remain some of the most admired songs in the rock ’n’ roll canon, notably “On Broadway,” written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. “Spanish Harlem,” which Mr. Leiber wrote with Phil Spector, gave Ben E. King his first hit after leaving the Drifters. Mr. King’s most famous recording, “Stand By Me,” was a Leiber-Stoller song on which he collaborated.
They wrote a series of hits for the Coasters, including “Charlie Brown,” “Young Blood” with Doc Pomus, “Searchin’,” “Poison Ivy” and “Yakety Yak.”
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a 1954 hit written for the Robins, became the title of a Broadway musical based on the Leiber and Stoller songbook. In 1987, the partners were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written some of the most spirited and enduring rock ’n’ roll songs,” the hall said in a statement when they were inducted. “Leiber and Stoller advanced rock ’n’ roll to new heights of wit and musical sophistication.”
Jerome Leiber was born on April 25, 1933, in Baltimore, where his parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, ran a general store. When Jerry was 5, his father died and his mother tried, with little success, to run a small store in one of the city’s worst slums. When he was 12, she took him to Los Angeles.
It was while attending Fairfax High in Los Angeles and working in Norty’s Record Shop that he met Lester Sill, a promoter for Modern Records, and confessed that he wanted to be a songwriter. After Sill urged him to find a pianist who could help him put his ideas onto sheet music he met Mr. Stoller through a friend, and the two began writing together
“Often I would have a start, two or four lines,” Mr. Leiber told Robert Palmer, the author of “Baby, That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller” (1978). “Mike would sit at the piano and start to jam, just playing, fooling around, and I’d throw out a line. He’d accommodate the line — metrically, rhythmically.”
Within a few years they had written modestly successful songs for several rhythm-and-blues singers: “K.C. Lovin’ ” for Little Willie Littlefield, which under the title “Kansas City” became a No. 1 hit for Wilbert Harrison in 1959.
In 1952, Sill arranged for Mr. Leiber and Mr. Stoller to visit the bandleader Johnny Otis and to listen to several of the rhythm-and-blues acts who worked with him, including Big Mama Thornton, who sang “Ball and Chain” for them. Inspired, the partners went back to Mr. Stoller’s house and wrote “Hound Dog.”
“I yelled, he played,” Mr. Leiber told Josh Alan Friedman, the author of “Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock ’n’ Roll” (2008). “The groove came together and we finished in 12 minutes flat. I work fast. We raced right back to lay the song on Big Mama.”
In 1953 they formed Spark Records, an independent label, with Sill, but without national distribution it failed to score major hits. Atlantic Records, which had bought the Leiber and Stoller song “Ruby Baby” and “Fools Fall in Love” for the Drifters, signed them to an unusual agreement that allowed them to produce for other labels. The golden age of Leiber and Stoller began.
Their seemingly endless list of hit songs from this period included “Love Potion No. 9” for the Clovers (later a hit for the Searchers).
In the mid-1960s, Mr. Leiber and Mr. Stoller concentrated on production. They founded Red Bird Records, where they turned out hit records by girl groups like the Dixie Cups (“Chapel of Love”) and the Shangri-Las (“Leader of the Pack,” “Walking in the Sand”).
They sold the label in 1966 and worked as independent producers and writers. Peggy Lee, who had recorded their song “I’m a Woman” in 1963, recorded “Is that All There Is?” in 1969.
Mr. Leiber is survived by three sons, Jed, Oliver and Jake, and two grandchildren.
With Mr. Stoller and David Ritz, Mr. Leiber wrote a 2009 memoir, “Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 24, 2011
An obituary on Tuesday about the lyricist Jerry Leiber misstated the given name of a record executive who helped him early in his career. He was Lester Sill, not Leonard. The obituary also referred incorrectly to the recording of the original versions of the songs “Stand by Me” and “Spanish Harlem,” both of which Mr. Leiber co-wrote. They were recorded by Ben E. King — not by the Drifters, for whom he had been the lead singer. (Mr. King recorded both songs shortly after leaving the group.)
JOEY VENTO, FOUNDER OF GENO’S STEAKS INSTITUTION
By DENNIS HEVESI
Published: August 24, 2011
Joey Vento, the founder of Geno’s Steaks, a stand-in-line takeout establishment that is one of the pillars of the cheese-steak mecca of South Philadelphia, died Tuesday at his home in Shamong, N.J. He was 71.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Joey Vento, whose Philadelphia restaurant, Geno’s, stands opposite the rival Pat’s.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia.
The cause was a heart attack, said his son, Geno (who was named after the food stand).
The bulging, dripping cheese-steak sandwich, while hardly a rival to the hamburger, the hot dog or the pizza slice, has etched a niche for itself nationally in the last half-century. And the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood that is considered its birthplace is a draw for local devotees and throngs of tourists detouring from Independence Hall.
Geno’s Steaks is considered one of the Big Three of the Philly cheese-steak establishments. It stands at the southern end of the Italian Market, where Ninth Street, Wharton Street and Passyunk Avenue intersect. Diagonally across the way is its chief rival, Pat’s King of Steaks, while the also renowned Jim’s Steaks is closer to the city’s center.
Started by Mr. Vento in 1967, Geno’s — like Pat’s — is open 24-7, its patrons inching up to the windows and usually saying, “Whiz, with,” indicating that they want the paper-thin strips of sizzled beef on a hero topped with Cheez Whiz and grilled onions.
“Without” means hold the onions.
While Pat’s opened in the 1930s, both establishments claimed to have been the first to slather cheese atop the beef.
Still, as R. W. Apple Jr. wrote in The New York Times in 2003: “Geno’s steaks are almost self-effacing. The cheese dissolves into a runny sauce; the strips of beef are laid precisely on the roll, rather than in a tangle; and the onions are sparsely applied.”
So many customers have ordered those belly-bending sandwiches since 1966, when they cost 35 cents apiece, that Mr. Vento became a millionaire. These days, the basic sandwich costs $9.
Mr. Vento was no stranger to controversy. In 2005 he posted signs at Geno’s that read, “This is America: When ordering please speak English.” Critics asserted that the signs were discriminatory. In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Vento said the critics were ignoring the word “please,” adding: “I am not demanding it. It just makes things a lot easier. And the bottom line is, like I said before, nobody gets refused.”
In 2008, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations ruled, 2-to-1, that the signs did not violate the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance.
Joseph Anthony Vento was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 18, 1939, to James and Eva Vento. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade and went to work at his father’s restaurant. With $6, two boxes of steaks and some hot dogs, the family says, he opened Geno’s — a name that he took after spotting it on the building’s back door.
Besides his son, Mr. Vento is survived by his wife of 51 years, the former Eileen Perno; his sister, Marie Vento; and his brother, James.
The rivalry between Geno’s and Pat’s never waned. But in an interview with Fortune magazine in 2003, Frank Olivieri, the owner of Pat’s, was asked what he would do if Geno’s ever closed.
“I’d feel a void — that’d be hard,” he said. Then he added: “I’d buy the place and open it up again. And call it Geno’s. And fight with myself.”