© Magalice -
© Magalice -

We haven’t had much discussion about two-person partnerships, but thanks to a comment by Joel D Canfield on a recent post, I realize we’re overdue.

Popular music has had its share of successful duos from The Everly Brothers, Sam & Dave, Sony & Cher, Simon & Garfunkel, and Ike & Tina Turner of yesteryear to the White Stripes and Black Keys of modern times. (If I've left out your favorite duo, you can lodge your protest in the comment thread!)

The most interesting fact that jumps out at me is how many of the top duos did not get along with each other. Perhaps this was because there weren’t other team members to buffer or absorb the creative tension between the partners. Yet they prevailed despite their differences. Or BECAUSE of their differences. Conflict was the crucible in which they honed their craft. After all, the sparks of conflict—the friction of opposing viewpoints—can produce passion, determination, competition, and creativity.

For instance, Sam & Dave (“Soul Man”) didn’t speak to each other offstage for 13 years! They kept separate dressing rooms and spoke through third parties. Yet as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members and Grammy Award winners, Sam & Dave have been the most successful soul duo ever, with multiple gold records to their credit.

Simon & Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Waters”) were always at each other’s throats over artistic differences yet became the most successful folk-rock duo in history. As fans of The Everly Brothers (“Wake Up Little Susie”)—whose brilliant harmonies set the gold standard for vocal duos in their time—Simon & Garfunkel may have unwittingly replicated the siblings’ fractious quarreling (and frequent breakups) as well as their vocal craft.

Sonny & Cher (“I Got You Babe”), after having a string of hits and a popular TV variety show, ended their marriage and musical partnership due to irreconcilable differences. Same with the R&B duo of Ike & Tina Turner (“River Deep, Mountain High”). Cher and Tina Turner moved on to triumphant solo careers however.

Meanwhile, there have been numerous two-person business partnerships—especially in the computer/IT field—that have been major success stories, including: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard who started Hewlett-Packard; Paul Allen and Bill Gates who created Microsoft; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who founded Apple; and Sergey Brin and Larry Page who launched Google. Except for Allen and Gates, these twosomes got along pretty well with each other, though there was always a healthy dose of creative conflict. But the complementarity of their differences—the fact that their differing perspectives and skill sets made each other stronger—was a huge factor in their early success.

I’ve coached larger business teams more frequently than two-person teams or partnerships, but the lessons are similar. Conflict makes the world go round. The expression of different viewpoints—in a team of any size—must not only be allowed, but encouraged. Creative dissent is a good thing. Of course that dissent needs to be managed and harnessed so it doesn’t blow the partnership apart.

How to manage it? By making sure the partnership has: a big enough game to play that keeps the focus on purpose and goals; ground rules for working together and dealing with differences; and basic communication tools for registering disagreements without getting personal.

Typical business partnerships have hired consultants to help them work through creative and personal differences, but musical duos usually have not. A few bands—such as Metallica—have worked with a “performing enhancement coach” to help mediate and manage their internal conflict, but this practice has not caught on. (It's too bad. I'm available.)

In a future post we can discuss the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney—a textbook case of creative conflict that could have been better managed in the later Beatle years.

And on another occasion we can discuss my favorite duo: Dunning Kruger. This twosome knows its limits.

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


  1. What would be really good to know is what was the state of the relationship when they did their best work? Did they (or one of them) write best when they were at loggerheads or enjoying eahc others' company? Did they sing together best when there was some spark of friendship between them?

    BTW: love the website overhaul... cool!

    1. The credit for the overhaul/update goes to Joel, a man of sundry (and sundried) talents, who translated my incoherent, techno-moronic requests into something useful. It's still a work in progress, but progress it is.

  2. Mark, one would hope that these artists were at their creative best when the competition was friendly and cooperative. (But I've heard that the Simon & Garfunkel rehearsals and recording sessions were often not, but they kept churning out quality stuff.) That's something I can explore in regard to Lennon & McCartney because their rehearsals, recordings, and performances were so thoroughly researched and documented.

    Nick, click on the Dunning Kruger link. (If you hover over the name you'll see the link.)

  3. 10 seconds before reading this I finished Chapter 2 of Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath." It discusses class sizes in schools. Inverted U, as most things are: too large and you have overworked teachers in mayhem.

    But too small, and teachers say there's more conflict, less enthusiasm, less shared learning.

    I know you've already discussed your views on the optimal band size, John, but it's interesting seeing it in action with these duos, and in my own experience knowing (though not performing with) some larger bands who maintained their own horn sections and multiple percussionists: they had to be run as parts of a machine, not individuals collaborating.

    In my work, I have the opposite problem: my wife and I agree on everything except Led Zeppelin and horseradish. Our work needs an injection of creative abrasion.

    1. Yeah, a horn section is its own team within a team. I heard that Blood Sweat & Tears had to find a board room to accommodate their meetings. I once fronted a band of 7 to 8. Getting them all back from the bar on time after each break was always a challenge.

      So you're the LZ fan? If so, you can admit it. I won't tell a soul.

      1. Long Beethoven joke about bars. Another time, perhaps.

        Yup, Zep fan. Sure, there are a few clunkers here and there (like almost the entire album "Presence") but for sheer having fun out loud, yeah.

        Also, watching Jimmy Page in "This Might Get Loud" is loads of fun. Watching The Edge and Jack White watch Jimmy Page is fun.

      1. Lessee, 2 mos....Does that qualify as a snappy comeback? I have a Silky chicken, Huey, who looks just like one of your guys there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »