Jerry Leiber: those oh so golden oldies

Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley and Jerry Leiber study sheet music for Jailhouse Rock in 1957

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand by me

My generation grew up to a soundtrack that consisted to a large extent of songs written by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, who died yesterday at the age of 78.

Leiber wrote the lyrics and his partner, Mike Stoller, added the music to create some of the most enduring classics in the history of rock ’n’ roll, including ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Yakety Yak’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘On Broadway’, ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care’, ‘Love Potion No. 9’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Riot In Cell Block No. 9’ (just a couple of the songs they wrote with a prison theme), ‘There Goes My Baby’, ‘Young Blood’, ‘I’m A Woman’, ‘Searchin’, ‘Some Other Guy’, ‘Kansas City’ and ‘Is That All There Is?’ to name but a few.

Jerome Leiber was born on 25 April 1933, in Baltimore, where his parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, ran a general store. When Jerry was 5, his father died and his mother tried, with little success, to run a small store in one of the city’s worst slums. When he was 12, she took him to Los Angeles.  It was while attending Fairfax High School in Los Angeles and working in Norty’s Record Shop that he met Mike Stoller, and the two began writing together.

Stoller later recalled the first call he got from Leiber:

When told me on the phone that he wanted to write songs, I envisioned some kind of song I didn’t like because I was into Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and also had developed an interest in serious music, and I thought he had in mind  something that I would find saccharine and uninteresting.  But when he came over, I could see that a lot of his stuff was blues, and I had always liked blues.’

In 1950, this definitely set Leiber, who was still attending school in a predominantly Jewish section of the city and working at a record store there after school, apart from the crowd. Stoller again:

I wouldn’t say that we were the only Caucasians interested in the blues, but generally speaking, it was unusual for teenage white kids to be involved, knowledgeable, and interested in black popular music

Leiber would contribute the streetwise lyrics while Stoller, a pianist, composed the catchy tunes rooted in rhythm and blues, to produce songs with black singers and groups in mind.  In 1950, at the age of 18, they sold their first two songs.  The Robins recorded ‘That’s What The Good Book Says’, while Jimmy Witherspoon cut ‘Real Ugly Woman’, a relic from the days when misogynistic lyrics were commonplace:

She’s a real ugly woman
Don’t see how she got that way
And every time she comes around
She runs all of my friends away

Their first hit composition was ‘Hard Times’, recorded byCharles Brown, which was a rhythm and blues hit in 1952. ‘Kansas City’, was first recorded in 1952 as ‘KC Loving’ by rhythm & blues singer Little Willie Littlefield, but later became a number 1 pop hit in 1959 for Wilbert Harrison, before being recorded by The Beatles on Beatles For Sale in 1964 . In 1952, they wrote ‘Hound Dog’ for blues singer Big Mama Thornton. The song was later an enormous hit for Elvis Presley in 1956, making Leiber and Stoller the hottest songwriting team in rock ’n’ roll. They went on to write ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Loving You’, ‘Don’t’, ‘King Creole’ and other songs for Presley, despite the fact that Leiber loathed his interpretation of ‘Hound Dog’:

To this day I have no idea what that rabbit business is about. The song is not about a dog; it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’ version makes no sense to me, and, even more irritatingly, it is not the song that Mike and I wrote. Of course, the fact that it sold more than seven million copies took the sting out of what seemed to be a capricious change of lyrics.

In the late 1950s, they moved to New York and joined the constellation of talents in the ‘Tower of Song’, the Brill Building.  There they wrote some of the most admired songs in the rock ’n’ roll canon which became hits for the Drifters, notably ‘On Broadway’, ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Spanish Harlem’.  They wrote a chain of hits for the Coasters, including ‘Charlie Brown’, ‘Young Blood’, ‘Shoppin’ For Clothes’, ‘Searchin’, ‘Poison Ivy’ and ‘Yakety Yak’. ‘Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots’, recorded by The Cheers in 1955 was covered by Edith Piaf as ‘L’ Homme a la Moto’.

At the piano: Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller. Standing, left to right: Atlantic's Nesuhi Ertegun & Jerry Wexler; The Coasters: Carl Gardner, Dub Jones, Billy Guy, Cornel Gunter; Atlantic's Ahmet Ertegun. (1959)

Stoller has rejected the notion that they were crafting songs specifically for the new teenage market:

We wrote to amuse ourselves. I guess we were talking over ideas some, but you’re influenced by everything that goes on around you, and I don’t think we ever made any conscious decision about what to write or how to write or what direction to write in. In fact, I know that we didn’t. If we were amused, if we really liked what we did, we had a pretty darn good shot at having a hit, because we were our audience, and we were, on some level or another, typical of the people who bought our records. Not necessarily that we were the same as they, but we were not that far removed. There was something universal about the humour, or the emotional content, that caught the teens.

You can say that again!

The hits continued into the early 1960s with classics such as ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Spanish Harlem’, but when the Beatles broke in America in early 1964, the music industry changed very quickly. Leiber and Stoller began concentrating on production, founding Red Bird Records, which turned out hit records by girl groups like the Dixie Cups (‘Chapel of Love’) and the Shangri-Las (‘Leader of the Pack’, ‘Walking in the Sand’).  They sold the label in 1966 but continued working as independent producers and writers. Two memorable songs from this period were recorded by Peggy Lee – ‘I’m a Woman’ (1963) and ‘Is That All There Is?’ (1969).  Their last major hit as producers was ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel in 1972, while one of their last major songwriting successes was ‘Pearl’s A Singer’, recorded by Elkie Brooks.

‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’, a 1954 hit written for the Robins, was adopted in 1995 as the title of a Broadway musical based on the Leiber and Stoller songbook.  To close, lets put a nickel in the jukebox and enjoy highlights from that magnificent songbook, the soundtrack for to the fifties and sixties:

Hound Dog – Big Mama Thornton with Buddy Guy

Classic live performance recorded in Germany in 1965 as the American Folk Blues Festival passed through.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe – The Robins

Young Blood – The Coasters

Shoppin’ For Clothes – The Coasters

Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots – The Cheers

Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley

You’re So Square – Buddy Holly

Kansas City – Wilbert Harrison

On Broadway – The Drifters

Spanish Harlem – Ben E King

Stand By Me – Ben E King

Is That All There Is – Peggy Lee

Pearl’s a Singer – Elkie Brooks

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller Documentary


2 thoughts on “Jerry Leiber: those oh so golden oldies

  1. Lieber& Stoller wrote and produced for Elkie Brooks. 1977 They produced Elkie’s album “Two Days Away” which produced two hit singles ” Pearls a Singer ” and Sunshine After the Rain”
    1979 they again produced another album for Elkie ” Live and Learn” Which was a chart success.

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