These are New Jersey’s greatest songwriters…
Crafting songs is no way to make a living. Making the music and lyrics come together in just the right way can be frustrating, time-consuming and totally unpredictable. An artist can spend months on a song and never quite get it right. Or it can pop into his or her head in a serendipitous moment. The best piece of advice for a songwriter might be Don’t quit your day job. When the stars align, however, the result can be nothing short of immortality. Which is why they do what they do.
New Jersey has been producing hit-makers for more than a century, from the earliest days of popular music to Broadway shows to every conceivable sub-genre of rock and R&B. It is difficult to put one’s finger on how or why spending one’s formative years in the Garden State elevates a songwriter’s craft, but the evidence that it does seems irrefutable.
Who are the best of the best? Here are my 16 picks…
James Murphy Princeton Junction • B. 1970
Murphy is the driving force behind one of the first groundbreaking bands of the 2000s, LCD Soundsystem. The group energized the Electronic/Dance/ Alternative Rock genre with songs like “Losing My Edge” and “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”—both of which were written by Murphy and produced by his DFA Records label. Murphy won his first Grammy last year for “Tonite,” which he co-wrote with bandmate Al Doyle.
Jon Bon Jovi Sayreville • B. 1962 & Richie Sambora Woodbridge • B. 1959
Bon Jovi—the man, not the group he fronted—was inducted along with Richie Sambora into the Songwriters Hall of Fame a decade ago. They penned a string of chart-toppers in the 1980s, including “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Livin’ On a Prayer,” “Bad Medicine” and “I’ll Be There for You,” as well as fan favorite “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Bon Jovi also wrote “Blaze of Glory,” a #1 hit he recorded as a solo act in 1990. Their formula was simple: If both did not think a song had potential, they discarded it and started on the next one.
Bruce Springsteen Freehold • B. 1949
Even the eight people in New Jersey who don’t believe Springsteen is a musical genius have to admit he deserves top billing on this list. And he may be the finest songwriter this country has every produced. As a teenager, The Boss was deeply influenced by The Beatles, who wrote and played their own material. He carved out his own niche as a game-changing singer/songwriter in the 1970s with his poetic take on working-class life and his epic live performances, but also penned songs that were huge hits for other performers—including “Fire” (Pointer Sisters), “Because the Night” (Patti Smith) and “Blinded By the Light” (Manfred Mann). Although Grammys are an inexact measure of talent, the sheer number of Best Song and Best Album nominations Springsteen has accrued speaks to his ability to write at a consistently high level. Entire books have been produced on his work (including his own autobiography), so summing it up in a long paragraph tends to be perilous. However, the depth of his lyrics is easy to appreciate in “Born to Run,” “Hungry Heart” and “Born In the USA”—rock anthems so familiar that listening to them is almost like breathing.
Donald Fagen Passaic • B. 1948
A move to the suburbs from gritty Passaic during Fagen’s pre-teen years greatly influenced his artistic outlook. He couldn’t stand it. He became a jazz junkie as a teenager and did not rediscover rock and R&B until he enrolled at Bard College—where he met guitarist Walter Becker. After graduating, the duo moved to Los Angeles and wrote songs for ABC/Dunhill recording artists. They co-wrote and released their first album as Steely Dan in 1972 and the rest is history. Aja, which hit stores in 1977, was one of the first albums by an American group to go platinum.
Debbie Harry Hawthorne • B. 1945
Best known as the front woman for the new wave group Blondie, Harry co-wrote a huge number of hits in the 1970s and 1980s, with bandmate Chris Stein and others. Her writing credits include “One Way or Another,” “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me” and “Rapture.” Before achieving superstar status, Harry worked as a go-go dancer and Playboy bunny, as well as a cocktail waitress at the East Village clubs where she later became a headliner.
Charlie Puth • Rumson • B. 1991
Puth’s ability as a songwriter was first recognized by YouTube fans and by Ellen DeGeneres, who signed him to her label. His star continued to rise in 2015 with “See You Again,” the song he co-wrote and performed with rapper Wiz Khalifa, and “Marvin Gaye,” a huge international hit recorded with Megan Trainor. Just 27, Puth has already demonstrated stunning versatility in his songwriting and producing skills. His second album, 2018’s Voicenotes, was a hit with reviewers, who applauded his maturity, attention to detail and willingness to take chances with his lyrics.
Rob Fusari • Livingston • B. 1976
A multi-instrumental prodigy as a child, Fusari started writing songs at 22 and is credited with discovering Stefani Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga, in 2006. He co-wrote and co-produced most of her 2008 Grammy- winning album The Fame. Earlier, Fusari wrote “No, No, No” and “Bootylicious”—both #1 hits for Destiny’s Child. He has also written for Will Smith, Whitney Houston, ABC, Adam Lambert and the Back Street Boys.
Bob Gaudio Bergenfield • B. 1942
At age 15, Gaudio co-wrote “Short Shorts,” which rose to #2 on the charts. Two years later he formed the Four Seasons with Frankie Valli and wrote “Sherry,” the group’s first #1 hit. Working with Newark-born producer Bob Crewe, Gaudio wrote “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Dawn,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Always on the alert for new ideas and inspirations, he authored the hit “Rag Doll” after a poor young girl washed his windshield while he was stuck in traffic in New York. Gaudio and his wife, Judy Parker, co-wrote “Who Loves You” and “Oh, What a Night” in 1975. He also wrote and/or produced songs for Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Barry Manilow and Diana Ross, and produced six of Neil Diamond’s albums.
R&B + HIP HOP
SZA • Maplewood • B. 1990
Solana Rowe, aka SZA (SIZ-eh), is among a group of young performers who are remaking the soul and R&B genres. Her 2017 debut studio album, Ctrl, went platinum and was roundly hailed as the year’s best record. Her lyrics, which often explore themes of sexuality and abandonment, reference a range of influences, from fellow New Jerseyan Lauryn Hill to non-musicians Spike Lee to jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald. SZA’s background also imparts a unique spin on her songwriting. Her father is a Muslim and her mother a Christian—both are high-achieving corporate executives—and she originally set her sights on a career in marine biology. In 2018, SZA co-wrote and performed “All the Stars,” the lead single on the Black Panther soundtrack, with Kendrick Lamar.
Rodney Jerkins Pleasantville • B. 1977
Jerkens, who went by Darkchild early in his career, established himself as one of the industry’s most influential hit-makers two decades ago. He co-wrote and produced songs for the top names in the business, including Toni Braxton, Brandy, Mary J. Blige, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Brittney Spears, Will Smith and Jennifer Lopez. Jerkins’s chart-topping hits include “The Boy Is Mine,” “Say My Name” and “Déjà Vu.”
Freddie Perren • Englewood • 1943–2004
Berry Gordy hired 24-year-old Perren as a member of the production team for the Jackson 5 in 1968. Over the next 15 years, Perren wrote or co-wrote some of the most iconic pop and disco hits, including “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “Mama’s Pearl” for the Jackson 5, “Love Machine” for The Miracles, “Boogie Fever” for The Sylvers, “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” for Tavares and “Shake Your Groove Thing” and “Reunited” for Peaches & Herb. In 1980, he won the first Disco Grammy for writing the Gloria Gaynor hit “I Will Survive.” Perren also produced the Saturday Night Fever album.
Leon Huff • Camden • B. 1942
A talented keyboardist, Huff teamed up with Philadelphia’s Kenneth Gamble when they were in their 20s to form one of the great soul music writing and producing duos. After working with Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett at Atlantic Records, they formed Philadelphia International Records in 1971 as a rival to Motown, adding deep bass and lush strings to their recordings—creating a foundation that would later popularize disco. Huff co-wrote “Backstabbers” and “Love Train” for the O’Jays, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” for Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” for McFadden & Whitehead. Gamble and Huff’s biggest star of the 1980s, Teddy Pendergrass, was paralyzed in a car accident. The duo went into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 with more than 3,000 songs to their credit.
Jerry Herman • Jersey City • B. 1931
The recipient of a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, Herman perfected his craft putting on musical productions at summer camps in the 1940s and 50s. An off-Broadway collaboration with friends Phyllis Newman and Charles Nelson-Reilly brought him to the attention of big-time producers and, in 1964, Herman was hired to write the score for Hello, Dolly! From there, Herman wrote the scores for Mame, La Cage aux Folles and other hit shows.
Jerome Kern Newark • 1885–1945
A giant in the world of theater composers, Kern wrote the music for hundreds of songs and worked with an all-star list of lyricists, including Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Oscar Hammerstein . His iconic songs include “A Fine Romance,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Ol’ Man River.” The Kerns moved to Newark when Jerome was 12 and his songs were first performed in a musical at Newark High School (now Barringer High). Kern began composing for Broadway in the early 1900s and later composed scored for silent films. In 1927, he wrote the scores for Show Boat, the crowning achievement of his career. The vacation yacht Kern purchased with his earnings was named after the musical.
Dory Previn Woodbridge • 1925–2012
A talented lyricist who contributed to movie scores in the 1950s as Dorothy Langan, she married composer Andre Previn in 1959 and they churned out several Oscar-nominated songs. They also wrote songs for Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Jones, Nancy Wilson, Vic Damone and Rosemary Clooney. Previn’s fear of flying kept her from accompanying her husband on tour when he became a classical music conductor and they divorced in 1970 after she learned of his affair with Mia Farrow. Previn became a highly regarded singer-songwriter in the 1970s. Her intensely personal lyrics and political activism earned her a devoted following.
Cy Coben • Jersey City • 1919–2006
How many songwriters can claim that their songs were recorded by Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, Eddy Arnold and The Beatles? Coben may be the only one. He was also the first writer of a UFO song: 1947’s “Those Flying Saucers,” which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Charlie Grean, who was Arnold’s manager. Coben found his ultimate niche in Nashville during the late-1940s. He wrote several #1 hits for Arnold during the 1950s and his songs were popular on both sides of the Atlantic into the 1970s. Coben also wrote for Leonard Nimoy, whom Grean produced in the 1970s.
Ol’ Blue Eyes
Wait, don’t shoot! No, Frank Sinatra does not make this Sweet 16 list. However, it’s worth mentioning that a) he was well known for tweaking a word or two in the songs he made famous and b) he actually did receive official co-writing credit on a handful of songs, including:
This Love Of Mine (1941)
Peachtree Street (1950)
Take My Love (1950)
I’m A Fool To Want You (1951)
Mistletoe and Holly (1957)
Mr. Success (1958)
All That Jazz
For the better part of a century, New Jersey has been a fertile ground for pioneering jazz performers, as well as providing dozens of venues where people from all walks of life could enjoy groundbreaking acts. To call jazz composers “songwriters” sounds a bit pedestrian, but their work has certainly stood the test of time alongside composers of popular music. Here are three of the genre’s New Jersey giants…
Wayne Shorter Newark • 1933–
Shorter has been at the leading edge of his craft for 60 years, as a writer, arranger, saxophonist and bandleader. The jazz standards he has crafted are too numerous to mention, while his Grammy wins are now in double-digit territory. Shorter’s collaboration with Miles Davis and his work with Weather Report rank among the most productive quarter-century enjoyed by any musician in history.
James P. Johnson • New Brunswick • 1894–1955
A great deal of the evolution of ragtime into jazz occurred in the Garden State thanks to the writing and performing of Johnson, whose most famous song “Charleston” ignited an epic dance craze during the Roaring ’Twenties.
Willie Smith Newark • 1897–1973
Smith was known as The Lion during a performing career that stretched into the 1970s. A pioneer of stride piano, Smith had a profound influence on the music of Duke Ellington, and was regarded—along with Fats Waller and James P. Johnson—to be the masters of their craft.
Today, New Jersey (specifically, Newark) can legitimately lay claim to the title “epicenter of jazz” thanks to the radio station WBGO, which streams music and interviews 24/7 at wbgo.org. The station was founded in 1979 and reaches a global audience of 400,000 listeners a week, as well as providing content for NPR and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Editor’s Note: Mark Stewart does not sing or play an instrument, but he has written two books related to the music industry (Will Smith and Ultimate 10 Music Legends) and produced the guidebook for Woodstock ’94. He has interviewed jazz performers Vince Giordano and Audra Mariel for EDGE, as well as Jeff Hanna of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.