Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber plugging a song.
One half of a songwriting duo that changed American
music died on this date in 2011 at the age of 78. 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
Raised in Baltimore in a Jewish family,
Jerry Leiber was fascinated with Black
music from an early age. He later
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 hardcore 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
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.”
Despite dismay that Elvis Pressley changed the lyrics to Hound Dog, the duo went on to a successful association with the King of Rock and Roll with big hits from his movies.
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
At work in the Brill Building, ground zero for late Tin Pan Alley R&B and rock composers.
Records bought their label and gave them an
unprecedented deal that also gave them the right to produce artists on other
labels making them among the 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 as 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.
With The Coasters.
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 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.
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.
Leiber and Stoller produced Chapeil of Love for the Dixie Chicks.
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 Smokey Joe's Café opened
on Broadway. The show featured 39 of the duo’s
songs. It set a record as the longest running revue 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 but won a Grammy.
A new generation was introduced to Leiber and Stoller with Smokey Joe's Café, one of the first Broadway juke box musicals.
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.
died 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…”