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, Roberta 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 attended law school at the University of Illinois 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.”