Leaders of the pack: Jerry Leiber and the jukebox generation
Jerry Leiber, who died this week, was one of the last of a breed of writers whose songs of romance and teenage longing helped define a generation. Nick Hasted pays his respects
Wednesday 24 August 2011
The death of Jerry Leiber on Monday breaks another link with a generation of 1950s songwriters who helped to define the teenage dream. With his writing partner, Mike Stoller, a long sequence of hits including "Hound Dog", "Jailhouse Rock" and "Stand by Me" acutely addressed adolescent romantic and rebellious urges. Rock'n'roll as it has played out over the past half-century made its seismic, still rumbling impact through the shocking sight and sound of performers such as Elvis Presley and his still wilder Southern peers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. But the jobbing, mostly Jewish and African-American young songwriters who put words in their mouths were equally vital. In the following decade, Bob Dylan and The Beatles would establish rock and teenage longing as more self-consciously serious forces, sometimes toying with literal rebellion. Leiber's generation found a language for and legitimised more primal concerns: hormonal frustration, girls, cars and dancing.
The year 1956 was when pop changed. In January, Frank Sinatra recorded Songs for Swingin' Lovers!, his definitive LP interpreting the songbook of the 20th century's first half. Songs such as Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick out of You" weren't lacking in excitement or implicit carnal thrills, but they plainly applied to the world of adult relationships inhabited by the besuited, 40-year-old singer. Like the mature cool of jazz artists such as Miles Davis, who would release his album of George Gershwin songs, Porgy and Bess, two years later, this was music for teenagers dutifully to grow into, not live their lives to.
Elvis's first US No 1 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel", came in February. The almost Gothic gloominess of its account of lovelorn depression, written by Florida schoolteacher Mae Axton and country singer Tommy Durden, is worthy of The Smiths. Although based on a newspaper account of the hotel suicide of a man consumed by existential despair, when sang by Elvis it could also be taken as a portrait of the absolutism of teenage crushes. The 21-year-old singer's version that year of his old Sun Records labelmate Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" then toyed with the life-and-death importance of teenage fashion, as he valued his beloved footwear over a house or car.
Elvis's recording of Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog", his third No 1 when it was released in July, added the earthy sexuality of the blues and R&B songs admired by its writers, high-school teenagers themselves when they wrote it. The duo, East Coast natives who paired up while at an LA high school, were adding to a long tradition of Jewish writers as conduits for black American culture. They also helped to ensure that the teenage future, in the US and then the world, would be a miracle of miscegenation. When teenagers had been dealt with at all in America's mainstream until then, they were the saccharine innocents of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies, and the bland, white-bread high-school adventures of Archie comic books. Leiber and Stoller added more illicit tastes from across the tracks. "Hound Dog" spoke of a raw world of sexual experience: thrilling hormonal dreams unavailable on Sinatra's songs of bar-room regret. The African-American Otis Blackwell, writer of "Don't Be Cruel", the ballad B-side of "Hound Dog", and "All Shook Up" (which, although allegedly the winning result of a bet that he couldn't write a song about a frothing coke bottle, gave a name to jittery teen mood swings), pushed the boundaries still further with 1957's "Great Balls of Fire". Jerry Lee Lewis worried recording its blatant sexuality would condemn him to Hell.
The flowering of rock'n'roll's first auteur was also seen in 1956. Chuck Berry was a less electric performer than Elvis, but wrote his own songs. "Roll Over Beethoven", based on his annoyance when his sister would play classical records instead of Berry's own modern favourites, announced a generational divide which in the 1960s would become open warfare. Like 1957's "Rock and Roll Music", it was an anthem of independence for the new culture. Berry, 30 in 1956, was an almost sociological student of teenage rituals and mores when crafting other songs, which set down a prosaic vocabulary of high-school longing, cars and crushes. Buddy Holly, a gawky, bespectacled 20-year-old from the flyspeck town of Lubbock, Texas when he wrote 1957's nervously stuttering love song "Peggy Sue", sang such feelings from the heart. James Dean put an angst-tortured face to this world in Rebel without a Cause (1955). Berry, Leiber and the rest gave it a voice.
Leiber and Stoller's success with Elvis found them in the Brill Building by the early 1960s – the New York home of a sophisticated school of hit-making, applying the professional craft of Cole Porter's generation to the buoyant teenage market they'd helped to establish. Bob Dylan's more confessional and confrontational style, and the violent youthquakes which climaxed with Woodstock and the murder at the Rolling Stones' Altamont gig at the decade's end, soon wiped them, and the performers they'd written for, from the new rock map. But as a teenager himself, Dylan had watched Holly with awe. The influence of the original rock'n'rollers and their songs on The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, and Lennon and McCartney and every other British 1960s great, was equally profound. It was the backbone of all their early sets.
Today, the first rock writers' great work lies almost 60 years in the past, as dustily far back as the late Victorian era was to them. Their original audience, and Dylan's, too, are pensionable, and rock has long stopped being a purely teenage rite. But their importance endures. Bruce Springsteen's almost operatically grandiose world of cars and girls in his run of songs from "Born to Run" (1975) to "I'm on Fire" (1985) is a sometimes bloated, mythical response to the simple verities coined in the 1950s, with an added veneer of adult disappointment, as those cars and girls let his protagonists down. Current US bands including The Hold Steady and The Gaslight Anthem loyally fan the same flame. Punk's teenage kicks were a more radical response.
In Britain, Oasis's 1994 debut, Definitely Maybe, was the most naive but most widely and deeply affecting album of the Britpop era, because Noel Gallagher songs such as "Cigarettes and Alcohol" and "Live Forever" spoke directly to the average habits and dreams of young people. Although now derided by the critics, these songs have inspired ongoing battalions of young bands to believe that picking up guitars and singing what they feel is still a legitimate reaction to the world, even in the 21st century. Youthful lack of experience is no barrier, since the adult world's restraining walls were knocked down by the sexual explosiveness of the first rock'n'rollers; and by workaday, accidental revolutionaries such as Jerry Leiber, who diligently crafted their means of expression.
Rock'n'roll, itself almost pensionable now, may well die in the end, as its creators inevitably continue to. But we live in a world where teenage longings are no longer derided, coded experiences which need cracking by songwriters, but the basis for desires for youthful sex and excitement which now pervade every generation. The after-effects of Jerry Leiber's great generation of post-war rock writers show no signs of stopping.
The songs that rocked the world
By Alice-Azania Jarvis
(Leiber/Stoller) – Elvis Presley
Originally performed by blues singer Big Mama Thornton, "Hound Dog" was given a pop-friendly makeover when Elvis Presley released his version in 1956. He debuted it on The Milton Berle Show, blending an up-beat version with a sultry, crooning close. The performance elicited a rapturous reaction from the teenage girls in the audience and prompted a press frenzy. "Elvis the Pelvis" had been born.
"Roll Over Beethoven"
(Chuck Berry) – Chuck Berry
"Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news," belts out Chuck Berry, as he rings in a new era of music: no longer do the public want to hear the classical songs of old – they want the "jukebox blowin' a fuse". The single, first put out by Chess Records in 1956, has been covered countless times – most famously by The Beatles in 1963. In 2003 it was selected to be one of 50 recordings to be added to the National Recording Registry in the United States.
"Stand By Me"
(Leiber/Stoller/King) – Ben E. King
Accounts of how Ben E. King's hit came to be written vary. Though it's been claimed that it was originally penned by King for The Drifters and then recorded on a whim, Mike Stoller has claimed otherwise. Whatever the real story, it has proven an enduring favourite, reaching number four in the US charts on its release in 1961 and returning to the top 10 several times since. It was the fourth most-performed song of the 20th century.
"Don't Be Cruel"
(Otis Blackwell) – Elvis Presley
Recorded during the same session as "Hound Dog" and released that year, Blackwell's pop song went on to become one of The King's most successful releases. It was his biggest selling single from 1956, with sales over six million by 1961. Covered by many artists, it was Jackie Wilson's version that most impressed Elvis. Indeed, he is said to have incorporated several of Wilson's mannerisms into his own performance.
(Holly) – Buddy Holly
Originally called "Cindy Lou", after Holly's niece, the song's title was changed to "Peggy Sue" before its release in 1957, after The Crickets' drummer, Jerry Allison, temporarily broke up with girlfriend, Peggy Sue Gerron. Allison and Gerron reconciled and were married, prompting Holly to write a sequel, "Peggy Sue Got Married". The original demo was found after Holly's death.
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