Obituary: Michael Masser: US songwriter who penned hits for Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Barbra Streisand

Masser considered himself an heir to the tradition of Gershwin, Porter and his mentor, Johnny Mercer

Click to follow
The Independent Online


Michael Masser was a songwriter who composed several No 1 hits in the 1970s and 80s, and who helped to launch the career of Whitney Houston, writing and producing some of her most popular songs. A stockbroker before he turned to music, he first found success with “Touch Me in the Morning”, which became a No 1 for Diana Ross in 1973.

He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1976 for Ross’s “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?)”, written with Gerry Goffin, and he wrote and produced three No 1s for Houston. In his 20 years as a songwriter he worked with such performers as George Benson, Natalie Cole, Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight, Crystal Gayle and Barbra Streisand.

His songs typically began with a quiet keyboard introduction before layers of lush strings and synthesisers built to a soaring climax. His slickly produced style found a vast audience in the 1970s and 80s – but Masser considered himself an heir to the tradition of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and his former mentor, Johnny Mercer.

Mercer, who wrote the lyrics to such classic songs as “One for My Baby”, encouraged Masser early in his career and invited him to stay at his Hollywood guest house in the early 1970s. “The biggest thing I got from Johnny was [not to] rush a song,” Masser said. “It took me two years to finish ‘Touch Me in the Morning’.”

That song, with lyrics by Ron Miller, became one of Ross’s biggest hits. Motown head, Berry Gordy, said that he had Masser mix 79 versions of the tune before everyone was satisfied. “Then he applied that kind of philosophy to all of his stuff,” said Gordy, “and he went on to become the genius that he became.”

Masser went into the studio with Houston in the mid-1980s. She recorded several of his songs, including “The Greatest Love of All” and “Saving All My Love for You”. Each was produced by Masser, and all reached No 1 on the Billboard chart.

In 1987, Masser was sued by the singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who alleged that 24 bars of “The Greatest Love of All” were lifted from Lightfoot’s 1971 song “If You Could Read My Mind”. The case was settled out of court.

Born in 1941 in Chicago, Masser graduated from law school and worked as a theatrical agent and stockbroker in New York. He was a self-taught pianist who couldn’t read music, but began to devote himself to writing songs. He moved to Los Angeles in 1971.

He died of complications from a stroke he suffered three years ago.  

Michael William Masser, songwriter: born Chicago 24 March 1941; twice married (three children); died Rancho Mirage, California 9 July 2015.

© The Washington Post