Jerry Leiber dies at 78; lyricist in songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller
Jerry Leiber, who with his songwriting partner, Mike Stoller, created a songbook that infused the rock ‘n’ roll scene of the 1950s and early ‘60s with energy and mischievous humor, has died. He was 78.
Leiber, the words half of the duo, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of cardiopulmonary failure, said Randy Poe, president of the songwriters’ music publishing company.
Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Leiber and his lifelong writing partner, Stoller, wrote hits that included Elvis Presley’s rat-a-tat-tat rendition of “Hound Dog” in 1956 and Peggy Lee’s 1969 recording of the jaded “Is That All There Is?”
But they may be best remembered for the ebullient, impudent hits written for black groups like the Clovers (“Love Potion No. 9"), the Drifters (“Ruby Baby”); the Cheers (“Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”), the Robins (“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “Riot in Cell Block No. 9") and, especially, a Robins’ spinoff group that Leiber and Stoller helped create, the Coasters (“Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown,” “Down in Mexico,” “Little Egypt”).
As Leiber-Stoller biographer Robert Graham wrote, the Coasters’ songs “were arguably the most enduring and hands-down funniest records of the rock ‘n’ roll era.”
With their sassy lyrics and playful melodies, the songs liberated American teenagers to enjoy their youth and poke fun at their elders.
“They corrupted us with pleasure,” critic and author John Lahr wrote of the songwriters in the introduction to Graham’s “Baby, That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller” (1978). “Dancing and laughing, we came of age to their songs.”
Dozens of other artists have recorded Leiber and Stoller songs: the Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and more. The songwriters’ most oft-recorded tune is the laid-back, bluesy “Kansas City,” which has been sung by such varied artists as Little Willie Littlefield in 1952 (as “K.C. Lovin’”) and Wilbert Harrison, whose 1959 hit with it is probably the best-known.
In 1995, a musical based on Leiber and Stoller songs, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” opened on Broadway and ran for more than 2,000 performances.
Besides writing and producing their own songs, the duo produced other artists’ music on Leiber-Stoller labels — Spark (with Lester Sill), Red Bird and others — and broke ground by becoming the first independent record producers at a major label, Atlantic Records.
Graham in his book on the duo points out that radio was mostly regional and TV had just started coming into American living rooms when Leiber and Stoller started writing for Ray Charles, Joe Turner and other black artists. It was only when Presley covered “Hound Dog” in 1956 that their music began crossing over into the mainstream, paving the way for rock ‘n’ roll to dominate the youth culture.
Theirs was an unusually long and compatible musical partnership. Yes, they bickered over a line in a song or whether a note should at one point go up or down, but they were buddies to the end, able to crack each other up and finish each other’s sentences.
They were, however, very different from each other. Stoller, the trained musician, was the quieter one. The restless Leiber was the big talker.
Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, writing in his 1993 autobiography, described Leiber as “Mr. Disorderly Conduct.”
He “was a charming mess — extravagantly verbal, always in a flamboyant dither,” Wexler wrote in “Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music” (with David Ritz).
When Leiber and Stoller met in Los Angeles in 1950 as teenagers, their talent for writing songs together was so immediate that they each described it as “spontaneous combustion.” It was not unusual for them to write a song in a matter of minutes, songs that to their surprise were still being sung and recorded four or five decades later.
They were barely 18 when they had their first brush with success with Charles Brown’s 1951 recording of “Hard Times.”
But it was a white singer who could sing R&B — Presley — who five years later gave Leiber and Stoller their first No. 1 hit on the pop charts, “Hound Dog,” a song they had written several years earlier for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, whom Leiber described as “the saltiest chick we’d ever seen.”
Leiber and Stoller — never were their names mentioned in the opposite order — were amazed that Presley chose a song told from a woman’s point of view about kicking out a no-account man. They didn’t like the way Presley sang it — too fast and nervous. And Leiber was not pleased that Presley picked up some erroneous lyrics: “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
“I’d never write such a dumb line,” Leiber later told the Chicago Tribune.
In a story the pair repeated often through their lives, Stoller learned of the Presley hit when he and his wife safely arrived in New York City after being rescued from the Andrea Doria when it collided with another ship off Nantucket. Leiber, carrying a dry suit of clothes for his partner, shouted from the dock that “Hound Dog” was all over the radio.
“By ‘Big Mama’?,” the surprised Stoller asked. No, Leiber replied, by “some white guy.”
“Hound Dog” not only placed them firmly into the early days of rock ‘n’ roll but Leiber-Stoller also hooked up with Presley, whom they grew to greatly admire.
“Once the rhythm section started to cook, he would just start singing,” Leiber said of Presley in a conversation with Joe Smith, author of “Off the Record: An Oral History of Pop Music” (1988). “And the man never made a bad take. One was better than the other, and different than the other. He was like an Olympic champion. He could sing all day.”
Leiber-Stoller wrote for several Presley movies, including “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole.”
To write songs for “Jailhouse Rock,” Leiber and Stoller flew to New York City, but they were having such a great time going to jazz clubs that the producer, Jean Aberbach, who with his brother Julian published Presley’s music, showed up at their hotel and demanded to know where his songs were. Not satisfied with their response, Aberbach shoved a sofa in front of the door, plunked down on it and said: “I’m not leaving until I get my songs.”
Five hours and four songs later, Aberbach left and Leiber and Stoller were back out on the town. The songs were “Jailhouse Rock,” “Treat Me Nice,” "(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care” and “I Want to be Free.”
Presley also recorded Leiber and Stoller’s “Don’t,” “Trouble,” “Love Me,” “Fools Fall in Love” and many other of their songs.
But eventually Leiber and Stoller grew tired of the imperious manner of Presley’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, whom Leiber later called “a foul, greedy man.” While writing songs for “King Creole,” they refused to sign a contract, walking away from what they called “a license to print money” that their association with Presley had meant to them.
The songwriting duo often said that they had their best time writing for the Coasters, whom they regarded as their “voice.” They wrote a string of “playlets” for the group: vignettes that were full of youth, rebellion and, as Leiber would say, “making mischief.”
“Charlie Brown” is about a juvenile delinquent: “He’s gonna get caught — Just you wait and see.” And everyone remembers Charlie’s reply, delivered by bass Will “Dub” Jones’: “Why’s ev’rybody always pickin’ on me?”
“Poison Ivy” is a sly allusion to a social disease: “You’re gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion.”
And the playful “Yakety Yak” captures perfectly a slacker youth who is indignant at parental authority.
“Yakety Yak” came about when Stoller was fooling around on the piano one day, and Leiber shouted out a line: “Take out the papers and the trash!”
Stoller bantered back: “Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash ... .”
The rest of the song came quickly, including these lyrics:
Get all that garbage out of sight,
Or you don’t go out Friday night.
Yakety Yak — don’t talk back!
In the Coasters’ original recording, the “don’t talk back” is delivered in a deep parental basso by Jones, and the song gets much of its comic feel from King Curtis’ saxophone playing.
“As discrete works of art — as records — the playlets were as original as anything that flowered in the ‘50s,” Graham wrote in “Baby, That Was Rock & Roll.”
Stoller, in a 2002 interview with National Public Radio, called the Coasters “really a comedy company.” Coaster baritone Billy Guy, especially, “had incredible comic timing and a great comic sense,” Stoller said.
Together in the studio, the songwriters and the Coasters had a ball.
“After reading the lyrics, Billy Guy would predict, ‘Man, they’re gonna hang us in Mississippi from the highest tree,’” Leiber said in Wexler’s “Rhythm and the Blues.”
Leiber and Stoller also wrote many songs with other songwriters. With Ben E. King, once of the Drifters, they wrote “Stand By Me,” rearranging it and adding an introduction that King said later “alone, was well worth their share.” And Leiber wrote the lyrics to Phil Spector’s music in “Spanish Harlem.”
In the early 1960s, Leiber and Stoller became part of the celebrated “Brill Building,” working as “senior advisors” to highly talented teams of songwriters such as Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and Carole King and Gerry Goffin. With Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, they wrote “On Broadway,” recorded by the Drifters.
It was in the Brill Building, said Richard Buskin, writing in Studio Sound magazine in 1999, that Leiber-Stoller created a sound that “still encapsulates the optimism of an era sandwiched in between the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll and the onset of psychedelia.”
When they produced “There Goes My Baby” — the Benjamin Nelson/Lover Patterson/George Treadwell song they helped write — they added strings. It was one of the first times an orchestral flourish of this kind was done on a pop song of the era.
“We were going for a different effect than anything we tried with the Coasters. It was an extravagant mode, what I call a Caucasian melody, a Rimsky-Korsakov-Borodin pseudo line,” Stoller said in Wexler’s “Rhythm and the Blues.”
But, as Leiber and Stoller recounted so often, it became known as the “tuna fish story.” When Wexler heard the song, he pronounced it “dog meat,” sputtering some expletives about its “muddy-swirling-string sound” while eating a tuna fish sandwich and demanding that it be changed. Leiber and Stoller took the song elsewhere, and it was a hit for the Drifters with Ben E. King singing lead.
Leiber and Stoller also produced other Drifters’ songs written by Brill Building songwriters, including “Up on the Roof,” “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
When Leiber and Stoller later became “bored” with the rock ‘n’ roll songs they had been writing and producing, they tried something more “adult,” creating “Is That All There Is?” for Peggy Lee, which hit the charts in 1969.
The song represented a sort of irony for Leiber and Stoller because, as Leiber told the New York Times in 1995, the two of them had a role in the decline in popularity of the sound they were now seeking to imitate. As Leiber put it: “We had helped to bring down that cathedral, and now we didn’t know where to pray.”
But by that time, they had already profoundly changed American music by being major players in bringing black R&B and rock ‘n’ roll into the main cultural current.
Jerome Leiber was born in 1933 in Baltimore, the son of a widow who ran a grocery store on the edge of the ghetto, and who was the only storekeeper in the area to extend credit to blacks. His musical influences were varied: Cole Porter and Irving Berlin as well as the music coming out of the black culture.
When his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a teenager, he wanted to be an actor, but by 16 he was writing songs, taking his cues from the blues and also from radio programs such as “The Shadow” and “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” the comedy and drama of which would later show up in the songwriters’ “playlets” for the Coasters.
The story of how Leiber and Stoller got together was told by them so often through the years that Leiber once stopped mid-interview to say: “If I have to tell this story one more time, my teeth are going to fall out.”
“Oh, I’d really like to see that,” Stoller deadpanned.
Here are the basics:
In 1950, Leiber was looking for someone to write music to set his words to and a friend, a drummer, referred him to Stoller, a trained pianist who was also enamored with boogie-woogie, jazz and other black music. So one day he called to chat and later showed up at Stoller’s door.
But Stoller wasn’t interested in writing music for “let-me-take-you-in-my-arms-and-thrill-to-all-your-charms” kinds of songs, and besides Leiber looked so unusual — he had one blue eye and one brown — that Stoller just stared at him, forgetting even to ask him in.
“I’d never seen anybody like that before,” Stoller told the Independent of London more than 50 years after their meeting.
When they finally got to talking, and Stoller took a look at the lyrics that Leiber had carefully written in a spiral composition notebook, Stoller said: “These aren’t songs, man; these are blues.” He sat down at the piano and started playing.
“He was very deliberate, methodical and precise,” Leiber told the Independent. “But when that damn piano started playing, I felt good right away.” They started writing songs together that afternoon.
Leiber, who was married and divorced twice, is survived by sons Jed, Oliver and Jake; two grandchildren and a sister.
Luther is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.
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