Collaboration is the backbone of modern music. There are great swathes of songs that you never knew were covers and others that have been passed around so many times that the originator goes unknown. However, there is another sensation that frequently occurs of contributors being buried in the depths of the song sheet and lost to history.
While it is well known that the likes of Prince and Bob Dylan weren’t too fussed about giving away yet another classic, there are some other studio partnerships that see one half disappear from history like the multitudes of lost gloves or socks that go wondering from drawers.
Below we have collated some of the most surprising secret songwriters that we have come across over the years, desperately trying to avoid the well-known classics like Bruce Springsteen co-penning the Patti Smith hit ‘Because the Night’. From David Bowie to Carole King, these are hopefully some musical titbits that you didn’t already know about.
10 best secret songwriters to feature on classic tracks:
‘Fascination’ by David Bowie – Written by David Bowie and Luther Vandross
It is widely known that David Bowie was joined in the Electric Lady Studios for the classic Young Americans track ‘Fame’ by John Lennon who received a co-writing credit for the plastic soul effort. However, it is less well known that Bowie had enlisted the up-and-coming soul musician Luther Vandross as a session musician.
While fleshing out the album, Bowie recruited the assistance of several soul musicians to help him make headway in his new musical realm. The song ‘Fascination’ originated from the Luther Vandross track ‘Funky Music (Is Part of Me)’ which Mike Garson played before Bowie concerts a year earlier in 1974, thus it can even be said that it underpinned the Young Americans project as a whole.
‘A Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash – Written by Shel Silverstein
If Johnny Cash is the king of songs with a story, then ‘A Boy Named Sue’ is the jewel in his crown. It is a perfect piece of storytelling that even settles up with a punchline. With that in mind, it perhaps isn’t all that surprising that it was indeed penned by an author after all.
Shel Silverstein is the iconic imaginative force behind children’s favourites like Don’t Bump the Glump and Falling Up. However, he decided to venture into a rather more adult tale after his friend Jean Shepherd told him that he was bullied in school days owing to his first name. Cash decided the tale would add some joviality to a potentially tense performance at the San Quentin State Prison in 1969. It became an instant hit.
‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ by Julie Driscoll – Written by Bob Dylan
Dylan may very well have written a fair chunk of the sixties into existence, there is no secret to that, but it is rather more shocking that he was behind the theme for the classic BBC comedy series Absolutely Fabulous. The series was a huge hit in the UK in the 1990s, created by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, but it barely registered that it also brought a dose of Dylan into living rooms each time it aired.
The song is one of many of Dylan’s famed Basement Tapes, a slew of tracks he wrote and simply discarded. This particular effort sees The Band’s Rick Danko receive a co-writing credit. Latterly, it was picked up by Julie Driscoll and it became a British psychedelic classic.
‘Badge’ by Cream – Written by Cream and George Harrison
The 1960s is the prime era for secret songwriters owing to the fact that studios were seemingly open for anyone to simple swan into. What’s more, some of the contributions have been cleverly obscured for decades due to playful monikers making up the song sheet. For instance, on the Cream hit ‘Badge’, George Harrison is noted down as ‘L’Angelo Misterioso’.
Harrison recalled recording the track in The Beatles Bible: “I helped Eric write ‘Badge’ you know. Each of them had to come up with a song for that Goodbye Cream album and Eric didn’t have his written. We were working across from each other and I was writing the lyrics down and we came to the middle part so I wrote ‘Bridge.’ Eric read it upside down and cracked up laughing – ‘What’s BADGE?’ he said. After that, Ringo Starr walked in drunk and gave us that line about the swans living in the park.”
‘A Love Bizarre’ by Sheila E – Written by Prince
Much like Dylan in the 60s, it would seem that during the 80s Prince was handing out songs like business cards at a conference. Sinead O’Connor’s overly melodramatic hit ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ may well be his best-known giveaway, but it is far from his only one.
When it came to the plethora of female collaborators that Prince worked with, he was known to occasionally mix business and pleasure. Sheila E. met Prince for the first time in 1978 and settled down as his sticksmith. She quickly became somewhat more than that and resided as a confidant throughout his life.
Sheila E. remarks: “We were together for so long, I don’t know when we weren’t.” But not only did he write songs about her during that time, he also gave some away to her. Many of the tracks Prince never claimed a songwriting credit for, so it’s difficult to say how many, but the most notable is ‘A Love Bizarre’.
‘Cat People’ by David Bowie – Written by David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder
One of the greatest aspects of David Bowie’s celestial stardom was that despite being discreetly singular, he welcomed so many people into his oeuvre that he created his own little bohemian world. It is, without doubt, one of his greatest attributes as an artist that he wasn’t unhinged by his own sense of individualism and was happy to celebrate the artistic vision of others.
Thus, over the course of his career, a great swathe of his songs were penned alongside his contemporaries. However, one of the more surprising ones is his link up with the classic ‘Father of Disco’ for the atmospheric classic ‘Cat People’.
‘I’m a Believer’ by The Monkees – Written by Neil Diamond
The retrospective view of 1967 places it as the year when hip counterculture really got swinging. Amid that scene, Neil Diamond and The Monkees might not seem like the daring iconoclasts synonymous with the era, but with ‘I’m a Believer’ they landed the biggest selling of the year (although it was technically released on December 31, 1966).
The track now resides as an icon of the era and continually transcends the generations through an unfurling run of covers. In the process, it has earned Diamond a pretty packet in royalties along with the likes of ‘Red Red Wine’ which he also wrote. Admittedly, neither are anywhere near as surprising as the fact he almost played Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver!
‘Grease’ by Frankie Valli – Written by Barry Gibb
It might be kitsch but there is no doubting that it is a classic. The iconic title track for the musical Grease is one that holds plenty of secrets behind the scenes. The song that captured the zeitgeist so faithfully that kids still slide on their knees to it at school discos to this day was not only written by Barry Gibb, but it also features Peter Frampton on guitar.
Frankie Valli would go on to imitate the falsetto range that the Gibb brothers made famous, but back in the day he was more of a classic Teddy Boy crooner, thus Gibb figured it was perhaps more befitting for the denim-clad singer.
‘The Loco-Motion’ by Little Eva – Written by Carole King
Another wedding classic comes in the form of ‘The Loco-Motion’, a track that has been covered by everyone from Grand Funk Railroad to Kylie Minogue, but the star behind is none other than Carole King.
The song has been a huge hit on 3 different occasions, in three different decades, initially rising to number one with Little Eva in 1962. Carole King was just 20-years-old and working behind the scenes in the industry at the time, however, the huge success of her hitmaking ways would soon force producers to give her centre stage.
‘The Killing Moon’ by Echo & The Bunnymen – Written by Echo & The Bunnymen and God
Last on the list is a rather more playful entry, with a big name who escapes the song sheet but is apparently there in spirit. The legacy of ‘The Killing Moon’ is as evocative as the song itself; with the band’s frontman, Ian McCulloch, declaring in an interview with the Guardian: “I’ve always said that The Killing Moon is the greatest song ever written… for me The Killing Moon is more than just a song.”
Adding: “It’s a psalm, almost hymnal. It’s about everything, from birth to death to eternity and God – whatever that is – and the eternal battle between fate and the human will. It contains the answer to the meaning of life.” Before concluding: “I’ve always half-credited the lyric to God.”