For as long as pop music is heard, everyone will listen to Leiber and Stoller. Except Jerry Leiber
Friday 01 November 1996
"I've been tired of them for about 30 years," Jerry Leiber says, his loud New York voice rustling the palms in the Ritz Hotel. "There's an occasional record I would pull out: Mama Thornton, or Joe Williams playing `Kansas City', or Elvis Presley doing `Love Me'. But I'd rather listen to classical music, French impressionist music. I'd rather listen to just about anything than what we've written and produced."
"For me," says Mike Stoller, who is something of a diplomat, "seeing these songs in the theatre has created a new response."
Leiber and Stoller, it is rapidly apparent, form one of those creative partnerships in which a heap of things in common - both aged 63, same class, same school, same taste in the blues - gets radically magnetised by some fundamental differences of character. Leiber is voluble and feisty, a man whose jacket and black T-shirt seem to contain a barrelled chest built for arguments. Mike Stoller, meanwhile, is taller and slighter and smilingly mild-mannered and it's mostly his function to slide in the occasional witty sub-title. Like the moment when Leiber announces that their musical is due to tour the Far East shortly and Stoller says, almost inaudibly, "It will be good for our Korea," before pointing at his partner and saying, "It's a good job he writes the lyrics."
A sentimental - and, I assumed, entirely apocryphal - reputation proceeds them for completing each other's sentences and for arriving simultaneously at the same word. But they do. "You have a dog for long enough," Leiber says, "you get to look like it."
Leiber tells a story about the telepathy which informed the composition in 1966 of "Is That All There Is?", that masterpiece of comic disdain made thrillingly bleak by Peggy Lee. Together they had managed eight lines of a verse. Stuck for a refrain, Leiber went home. "When we got together the next morning, Mike had written note-for-note a refrain which matched what I had written, word for word."
Their collaboration has not always been so mysterious. They began in l950, in Stoller's living room at first, with Stoller sitting at an upright piano. "He would start jamming," Leiber says, "and I would start yelling. If it sounded good, we would stop for a minute and reconsider what it was. Then we would write it." Hey presto: "Jailhouse Rock". Leiber calls it, "spontaneous combustion. The forms were simple - eight- or twelve- bar blues - they came together quickly." Somewhere around 1960, Leiber says, they got a little more complicated - Stoller fitting melodies to the metric structure of Leiber's lyrics. Hey presto again: "Under the Boardwalk". "We got to a certain point," Leiber says, "where we had invented half the forms they were playing out there and we got sick of them. So we started looking backwards in history - Gershwin, Weil."
Leiber and Stoller mostly produced the records they wrote. In fact, they were among the first pop record producers to be credited as such on the label of their records. When they suggested this innovation to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, he told them, "What is a producer? You just sit in the studio and you say, `Take one'." It was in large part down to Leiber and Stoller's battling that the distinct art of record production received some respect. Later they would argue for, and be the first to get, a producer's royalty.
Leiber and Stoller's time under contract to Atlantic Records in the Fifties and Sixties was one of the most fruitful passages of their career but also one of the most fractious. Their desire to move beyond rhythm and blues into more melodically ambitious and instrumentally eclectic compositions - an ambition which eventually yielded the Latinate "Spanish Harlem", written by Leiber with the young Phil Spector and produced by Leiber and Stoller - met with resistance from their record company bosses.
When the pair delivered "There Goes My Baby" by the Drifters, replete with a string section, Jerry Wexler's remarks implied he had his doubts: "Get that out of here," he said. "I hate it. It's out of tune and it's phoney, and it's shit." All this said through a mouthful of tuna fish sandwich.
"We were never intimidated by anybody," Leiber says. "That doesn't sound very modest - but we weren't modest. We made more hit records than anybody else. Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun needed us. They called us night and day. And when the tuna fish came out of his mouth, I thought to myself, `Poor, poor fool. We'll take it somewhere else.' " They did, and the song went on to sell a million.
"We love Jerry," Leiber says.
"In his autobiography," Stoller says, "he's a very modest man."
The breaking point came in the early Sixties. Neither of the partnership's royalty arrangements with Atlantic, as songwriters and producers, had ever been formally written into a contract, much to the irritation of their accountant, who suggested a perfectly routine audit of Atlantic's books. The audit turned up an $18,000 shortfall. The bosses at Atlantic were affronted that the audit even took place: they interpreted it as a betrayal and an insult. They agreed to pay the $18,000, but only on the grounds they would never work with Leiber and Stoller again. Weighing $18,000 against the value of their careers at Atlantic, Leiber and Stoller - effectively intimidated on this occasion, at least - backed down.
Even then, astonishingly, Atlantic cut off Leiber and Stoller's work. Wexler phoned Leiber some time later and, Leiber says, accused the songwriter of "trying to pull some stuff with that audit". All the Atlantic acts they had worked on were distributed to other producers, including Leiber and Stoller's prized group, the Drifters. "This is my problem with Jerry Wexler," Leiber says. "No honour, at all. I would say it to his face, and do."
Gallingly, production on the next Drifters record was handed to Phil Spector - a producer whom Leiber and Stoller had helped groom. At the end of the Fifties, for around 18 months, Spector was a rookie on Leiber and Stoller's staff. "We gave him free sandwiches and let him hang around in the studio with us," Leiber says, "So he could learn how to produce. And so he could learn how to eat sandwiches. He was a strange combination of no self-esteem and enormous grandiosity. We were still pretty conservative dudes, but Spector would come out wearing white ruffle shirts, looking like George Washington."
Leiber says he last saw Spector two years ago in LA, where Spector was touting a movie about his life. "I said, `Phil, you look taller than you used to.' He gave me a look, like, what are you gonna say now? And then I looked down at his trousers and said, `Oh, there it is: you're wearing high heels again.' And that was the last time I saw Phil."
Leiber and Stoller were never likely to be affected by the wildness of the Sixties. "The poet Allen Ginsberg used to come to my house," Leiber says, "and fall on my piano with his elbows. He'd say, `Grooving, right man?' I'd say, `Get your fucking elbows off my piano, you'll knock it out of tune.' "
After the break with Atlantic, they had gone to United Artists and then formed their own company, Red Bird. (Ironically, Atlantic would bid, unsuccessfully, to buy up Red Bird some years later.) "I guess it was at least two years after that we got bored," Stoller says. Increasingly their work on records was organisational, executive. They could still pull off the occasional major pop success in the Seventies ("Pearl's a Singer" with Elkie Brooks, "Stuck in the Middle With You" with Stealer's Wheel) but settled in the Eighties and Nineties for lower profile musical and film work.
Shortly before his not widely lamented death, the critic Albert Goldman had approached them about writing their biography. Leiber hadn't read Goldman's hatchet jobs on Presley and Lennon, but Stoller had and he convinced Leiber that Goldman was someone "who would fry your brains on the sidewalk and feed them to his friends". So Goldman was declined. For now, then, it's left to the songs to speak for themselves, which they do, amply. For as long as pop music is heard, people will listen to Leiber and Stoller. Except Jerry Leiber
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