One half of a songwriting duo that changed American music died yesterday. If you think that this is an exaggeration, try erasing the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller from rhythm and blues, formative rock and roll, and blues tinged pop. You can’t do it. The hole would be too big. Whole genres might collapse.
Leiber died yesterday at the age of 78.
Raised in Baltimore in a Jewish family, Jerry Leiber was fascinated with Black music from an early age. He later said, “I felt black. I was as far as I was concerned. And I wanted to be black for lots of reasons. They were better musicians, they were better athletes, they were not uptight about sex, and they knew how to enjoy life better than most people.”
He found himself finishing High School in alien Los Angeles in 1950 when he met Mike Stoller, a freshman at Los Angeles City College who played piano and shared Leiber’s passion for Black music. The two teamed up and were soon spending hours collaborating on songs. Stoller mainly wrote the music and Leiber, with his ear for Black street talk, handled the lyrics, but their collaboration was so tight that both dabbled in the other’s area and often could not recall or tell who contributed what to a song.
Their first work was hard core blues. Within months of beginning their collaboration blues shouter Johnny Witherspoon became the first to record one of their songs, Real Ugly Woman. Their first hit was Hard Times which made the R&B Charts in 1952 for Charlie Brown. The same year they wrote K.C. Lovin’ for Little Willie Littlefield, a song that would later become a rock and roll hit for Wilbert Harrison under a new name—Kansas City.
In 1953 they penned Hound Dog for Big Mama Thornton, one of the last of the barrel house blues belters. Three years latter a relatively unknown Memphis singer named Elvis Presley would cover the song. It would explode into his first break-out hit and become a cultural phenomenon. Leiber was resentful that Pressley had tinkered with the lyrics and believed the song meant to be a bitter scold to a lazy gigolo had become a novelty song that people seemed to think was actually about a dog. None the less, as he observed, “…the fact that it sold more than seven million copies took the sting out of what seemed to be a capricious change of lyrics.”
The team would go on to work with Presley, who also was rooted in a love of Black Music, on several songs, most notably the ballad Loving You, King Creole, and Jail House Rock, the themes of Presley’s films.
In three short years the team was established enough to form their own label, Sparks Records. They began to specialize in music for doo wop inspired Black vocal groups like The Robins who recorded Riot in Cell Block #9 and Smokey Joe’s Cafe. They were branching out from song writing to producing. In doing so they did even more to shape the emerging sound.
Atlantic Records bought their label and gave them an unprecedented deal that also gave them the right to produce artists on other labels making them the among first independent producers. For The Coasters Leiber crafted novelty lyrics that struck home with a growing white audience including Yakety Yak, Charlie Brown, Along Came Jones, and Poison Ivy. The last song was not so innocent as it sounded—it was a song about getting the clap. The song writing duo penned a total of 24 songs on the R&B or rock and roll charts for the group.
The Drifters, another top group with a rotating cast of singers also befitted from Leiber and Stoller’s work. It was also the beginning of a fruitful relationship with Ben E. Nelson, later on known as Ben E. King. Hits included On the Boardwalk, Spanish Harlem, and Stand By Me on which they collaborated with King. As producers for the The Drifters, they made a breakthrough when they added strings and lush orchestration to There Goes my Baby by King, Lover Patterson and George Treadwell. The song was an enormous hit and influenced the emerging genre of soul music, a smooth and sophisticated update of R&B. A young musician named Phil Spector worked with Leiber and Stoller in the recording sessions and was influenced by it in his development of his wall of sound. Save the Last Dance for Me by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman developed the sound even more.
During these years with Atlantic records the songwriting team also worked with Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman’s former vocalist who had carved a niche as a jazzy, blues infused chanteuse. Is That All There Is? with its minor key and shifting, slow rhythm displayed a sophistication that surprised many. Lee also introduced I am a Woman which was destined to become a feminist anthem.
Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic in the early sixties for a period at United Artists where they wrote and produced Love Potion #9 for The Clovers. Then they started yet another label, Red Bird Records, where they concentrated on writing for and producing the girl groups who were topping the charts. Their first effort was Chapel of Love for The Dixie Cups written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. The Shangri-Las’ Leader of the Pack also streaked to #1 and introduced a whole new spate of dead teenager songs. Eleven of the 30 songs they produced on Red Bird reached the charts.
After a falling out with business partners at Red Bird, they sold their interest to concentrate on independent writing and producing. But the British Invasion was changing music and Leiber and Stoller’s R&B based sound was harder to sell. They continued to produce hits with Jay and the Americans, often using R&B songs intended for Ben E. King or other artists. The pairs last big hit was in 1975 with Smack in the Middle With You by Stealers Wheel, with a sound meant to mirror Bob Dylan’s electric period.
Despite falling off the charts the duo never stopped writing and continued to produce, including an albums for Elkie Brooks that sold well in Europe and album cuts for solo albums by Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald.
A new generation was introduced to the music of Leiber and Stoller in 1995 when the revue Smokey Joe's Café opened on Broadway. The show featured 39 of the duo’s songs. Set a record as the longest running review in Broadway history, closing after 2,036 performances. Touring countries sold out theaters across the country and the show opened in London 1n 1996. The show was nominated for several Tony Awards and the original cast album not only sold briskly, it won a Grammy.
As their contributions to American music were recognized, Leiber and Stoller were showered with honors in their later years including induction into both the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and dozens of awards and citations.
In 2009 were credited with writer David Ritz on Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography published by Simon and Schuster.
When Leiber died yesterday of heart failure, Peter Stoller, Mike’s son wrote on the Leiber & Stoller web page, “…[Jerry] would have said, “Let’s break out the booze, and have a ball…”