Jerry Leiber: Lyricist whose partnership with Mike Stoller produced some of the greatest popular songs of all time
Wednesday 24 August 2011
In 1956 the transatlantic passenger liner Andrea Doria was travelling to New York when it was struck on the side by another ship, doing immense damage and rendering many lifeboats unusable. Forty-six lives were lost and the songwriter Mike Stoller and his wife were amongst those who found themselves adrift in the Atlantic. They were rescued the following day and when they arrived in New York, Stoller's friend and songwriting partner, Jerry Leiber, was waiting on the quayside. The Stollers were exhausted but relieved to have survived, and Leiber burst out his greeting: "Great news, Mike, Elvis Presley's recorded 'Hound Dog'!"
Despite being argumentative, Leiber and Stoller were perfectly matched and were passionate about the music industry. Although they made their mark as producers and record company executives, it was as songwriters that they excelled. Churning out songs in the Brill Building for faceless artists might be considered hack work, but there are few throwaways amongst their 500 songs – and nearly every one has some quirk which defines it as their composition.
In 1963 Dion had a US Top 10 hit with "Drip Drop", originally recorded by The Drifters: it included Leiber's defiant line: "Listen here, friend, I tell you I'm hip, hip, hip". Indeed he was – and that edge helped make their songs so distinctive. Many of them, especially for The Coasters, summarised social problems in two minutes. With such compositions as "Jailhouse Rock", "Stand By Me", "Kansas City" and "Love Potion No. 9", it is doubtful that there is a record collection anywhere that does not contain something by Leiber and Stoller; but they remained modest about their achievements. Said Stoller, "We simply made records that we wanted to buy ourselves."
Both Leiber and Stoller were born into Jewish immigrant families in 1933. Leiber, six weeks the younger, was born in the slums of Baltimore, Maryland and his parents ran a general store. His father died when he was five, but his mother kept the store going and the young Leiber would undertake deliveries. He was fascinated by the black music he heard from radios in the tenements.
When Leiber was 12, his mother moved to Los Angeles and at 17 he was a student at Fairfax High, working part-time in a record store. He told a promotions man, Lester Sill of Modern Records, that he wanted to be a songwriter. He sang Sill "Real Ugly Woman", later recorded by Jimmy Witherspoon, and Sill told him that he needed a musician to write the lead sheet. He tried Jerry Horowitz, who also gave him drumming lessons, but Horowitz was too preoccupied. He recommended a pianist, a student at Los Angeles City College, Mike Stoller.
In 1950 Leiber arrived on Stoller's doorstep and Stoller was struck by his unusual eyes: one brown, one blue. Stoller looked through his lyrics and said, "These are the blues." There and then, they started writing. Their working methods rarely varied. Leiber would have a few lines of lyrics, Stoller would find a melody and they would shout out words and ideas until they were through. They wrote in heightened excitement and "Hound Dog" was written within half an hour. "I yelled and he played," is how Leiber described it.
In 1952 Sill introduced them to the bandleader Johnny Otis and they met his vocalist, the fearsome Big Mama Thornton, who had razor scars on her face. They wrote "Hound Dog" to capture her no-nonsense personality and "K.C. Lovin'" for Little Willie Littlefield, a song which became known as "Kansas City".
Sill created Spark Records for Leiber and Stoller. They recorded several black acts in 1954/55, including The Robins. They saw how their individual voices could tell stories in song, usually with a strong sense of humour. The Robins recorded songs about insurrection ("Riot in Cell Block No 9"), wrongful arrest ("Framed") and street life ("Smokey Joe's Cafe").
The pair's success was noted by Atlantic Records in New York and they dropped Spark Records and accepted a writing and production deal. They scored with "Ruby Baby" for The Drifters and brought The Robins to Atlantic, who were renamed The Coasters in 1956.
The songwriter Doc Pomus told me, "I had written 'Young Blood' for The Coasters and I gave it to Leiber and Stoller. They did a marvellous rewrite and made it absolutely perfect for them. Leiber and Stoller were able to use that group to convey their own wonderful comedic talents. Mort Shuman and I would love to have written more songs for that group, but Leiber and Stoller wrote those songs better than anybody."
Their songs for The Coasters incorporated teenage rebellion ("Yakety Yak", "Charlie Brown"), idling on street corners ("Three Cool Cats", "Girls, Girls, Girls"), social inequality ("What About Us?") and exotic dancing ("Little Egypt"). Leiber was inspired by old radio serials and he celebrated crime series in "Searchin'" and westerns ("Along Came Jones"). Leiber mimicked black patois in "Shoppin' for Clothes" and touched on sexual disease in "Poison Ivy". A common theme, sexual frustration, can be heard in "Love Potion No 9" for The Clovers.
After "Hound Dog", they had an entrée into Presley's world and they wrote for his films, including the title songs for Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958). Working to a tight schedule, they wrote the other songs for Jailhouse Rock, including "Treat Me Nice" and "Baby I Don't Care", in an afternoon. Their songs for Presley included the rebellious "Trouble", the upbeat "Bossa Nova Baby", the tender "Don't" and the lascivious "Santa Claus Is Back in Town".
Leiber and Stoller came unstuck when, in 1960, they suggested to Presley that they could write him a musical based on the dramatic book A Walk on the Wild Side. Presley's manager, Tom Parker, was furious that they had gone directly to Presley and cut them off.
Leiber and Stoller were fine producers, not only of their own songs. They produced the groundbreaking "Save the Last Dance for Me" for The Drifters and recorded idiosyncratic versions of standards ("Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" and "Bésame Mucho") for The Coasters. They established a solo career for The Drifters' lead singer, Ben E. King, and co-wrote his legendary UK No 1 "Stand by Me", also recorded by John Lennon. "They earned their cut with that introduction alone," says King today. Leiber also wrote "Spanish Harlem" with Phil Spector for King.
Their accountant knew they were being cheated over royalties and demanded an audit of Atlantic Records. The label manager, Jerry Wexler, told them to "call off the dogs" or never work for the label again. This prompted them to establish their own label, Red Bird, where they released hit records from The Dixie Cups and The Shangri-Las as well as writing and recording for several artists themselves.
During the British beat boom of the 1960s, many of their songs were recorded by the groups including "Some Other Guy" (Big Three), "Kansas City" (The Beatles), "Love Potion No 9" (The Searchers) and "Searchin'" (The Hollies). They wrote "On Broadway" for The Drifters and Shirley Bassey recorded "I (Who Have Nothing)", now a diva favourite. Leiber, with Billy Edd Wheeler, wrote the playful "Jackson" for Johnny Cash and June Carter. Peggy Lee recorded the provocative "I'm a Woman" (1963), while the existential "Is That All There Is?" (1969) was based on a short story by Thomas Mann.
Leiber and Stoller's work in the UK included producing hits for Stealers Wheel ("Stuck in the Middle With You", 1973) and Elkie Brooks ("Pearl's a Singer", 1977).
In 1980, their songs were celebrated in Only in America, directed by Ned Sherrin and David Yakir. One of the performers, Tim Whitnall, recalls, "I said that there was nothing about Kansas City itself in their song. Jerry said, 'It's a dump but there are sugar refineries'. The next morning he gave me a new verse:
"I'm going to Kansas City,
Kansas City here I come,
They got some superfine sugar there
And I'm gonna spoon me some."
In 1982 their songs were used in another London musical, Yakety Yak, which featured the McGann brothers and Darts. The duo hit the motherlode with Smokey Joe's Café, a Broadway and West End success in the 1990s. They spoke at the National Film Theatre, introducing a documentary about their work, Words and Music by Leiber and Stoller (2001). In the same year, they were honoured with an all-star tribute featuring Tom Jones and Meat Loaf at Hammersmith Apollo.
They wrote their engaging autobiography, Hound Dog, in 2009 – and it is hard to imagine what rock'n'roll and, indeed, popular music would have been without them.
Jerry Leiber, songwriter: born Baltimore 25 April 1933; married (three sons); died Los Angeles 22 August 2011.
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