Pow­er­house song­writer of the 1970s and 1980s

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Michael Masser, a song­writer who com­posed sev­eral No. 1 hits in the 1970s and 1980s and who helped launch the ca­reer of singer Whit­ney Hous­ton by writ­ing and pro­duc­ing some of her most pop­u­lar songs, died July 9 at his home in Ran­cho-Mi­rage, Calif. He was 74.

His death was first re­ported by the Desert Sun news­pa­per of Palm Springs, Calif. He had com­pli­ca­tions from a stroke suf­fered three years ago.

A stock­bro­ker be­fore he turned to mu­sic, Mr. Masser first found suc­cess as a song­writer with “Touch Me in the Morn­ing,” which be­came a No. 1 hit 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 lyri­cist Gerry Gof­fin, and he later wrote and pro­duced three No. 1 hits for Hous­ton.

“Michael Masser’s won­der­ful melodies are mem­o­rable and hyp­notic,” mu­sic pro­ducer and record-com­pany ex­ec­u­tive Clive Davis said in a state­ment. “He is and was truly an all-time great com­poser.”

Mr. Masser wrote the mu­sic while col­lab­o­rat­ing with sev­eral lyri­cists, in­clud­ing Gof­fin, Will Jen­nings and Linda Creed. In his 20 years as a song­writer, he worked with such well-known per­form­ers as Ge­orge Ben­son, Natalie Cole, Robert Flack, Pe­abo Bryson, Gla­dys Knight, Crys­tal Gayle and Bar­bra Streisand. Mr. Masser was named to the Song­writ­ers Hall of Fame in 2007.

His songs typ­i­cally be­gan with a quiet key­board in­tro­duc­tion be­fore lay­ers of lush strings and syn­the­siz­ers built to a soar­ing cli­max. His slickly pro­duced style of pop mu­sic found a vast au­di­ence in the 1970s and 1980s, but Mr. Masser con­sid­ered him­self an heir to the tra­di­tion of Ge­orge Gersh­win, Cole Porter and his one­time men­tor, Johnny Mercer.

Mercer, who wrote the lyrics to such clas­sic songs as “One for My Baby” and “Sky­lark,” en­cour­aged Mr. 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, ‘Don’t rush a song,’ ” Mr. Masser told the Desert Sun in 2002. “And the thing I ran up against was ev­ery­body wanted a song so fast. It took me two years to fin­ish ‘ Touch Me in the Morn­ing.’ ”

That song, with lyrics by Ron Miller, be­came a sig­na­ture tune for Ross and was one of her big­gest hits. Mo­town stu­dio head Berry Gordy said that he had Mr. Masser mix 79 ver­sions of the tune be­fore ev­ery­one was sat­is­fied.

“Then he ap­plied that kind of phi­los­o­phy to all of his stuff,” Gordy told the Desert Sun, “and he went on to be­come the ge­nius that he be­came.”

Mr. Masser wrote the score of the 1975 film “Ma­hogany,” di­rected by Gordy and star­ring Ross. The theme song re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion.

He also teamed with lyri­cist Creed to write “The Great­est Love of All,” first per­formed by Ben­son for the 1977 film “The Great­est,” with Muham­mad Ali.

Work­ing along­side Davis, then at Arista Records, Mr. Masser went into the stu­dio with Hous­ton in the mid-1980s. She recorded sev­eral of his songs, in­clud­ing “The Great­est Love of All,” “Sav­ing All My Love for You” and “Didn’t We Al­most Have It All.”

Each of the songs was pro­duced by Mr. Masser, and all reached No. 1 on the Bill­board pop chart.

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

Michael Wil­liam Masser was born March 24, 1941, in Chicago. He grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Illi­nois law school and worked as a the­atri­cal agent and stock­bro­ker in New York while liv­ing on the fringes of the mu­sic scene.

“I left an of­fice at the top of the Pan Am build­ing, a nine-room apart­ment and a farm in Ver­mont,” he told the Chris­tian Science Mon­i­tor in 1989, “be­cause I was aching in­side.”

He was a self-taught pi­anist who couldn’t read mu­sic, but he be­gan to de­vote him­self to writ­ing songs. He moved to Los An­ge­les in 1971.

His first mar­riage ended in di­vorce. Sur­vivors in­clude his wife, Og­ni­ana Masser of Ran­cho Mi­rage; three chil­dren; a sis­ter; and two grand­sons.

In the stu­dio, Mr. Masser was painstak­ingly fas­tid­i­ous; he would re­work a song un­til it was pol­ished to per­fec­tion.

“I would spend months and months look­ing for a sound,” he said in 2007. “I had to do that or I wouldn’t feel the ex­treme emo­tions I was feel­ing in my heart.”

When record­ing “The Great­est Love of All” with Hous­ton, Mr. Masser had her sing dozens of takes, go­ing one verse at a time.

“She was a good sport about it, but it was very try­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” record­ing engi­neer Joe Tarsia told the Philadelphia Tri­bune af­ter Hous­ton’s death in 2012. “We never saw any­body put a vo­cal­ist through the rig­ors that Michael Masser did with her, of all peo­ple, be­cause she was so tal­ented she could prob­a­bly knock it off in one take.”

RYAN BORN/WIREIMAGE FOR SONG­WRIT­ERS HALL

MichaelMasser wrote sev­eral No. 1 hits for Diana Ross and Whit­ney Hous­ton.

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