JERRY LEIBER (By Colin Kilgour)
Born Jerome Leiber, 25 April 1933, Baltimore, Maryland Songwriter, Record Producer and Arranger. One half of the legendary Leiber and Stoller.
This is ostensibly a BTBWY piece on Jerry but the two of them are inseparable, plus they almost share their date of birth, so here they are, together as usual .....
Michael Stoller was born only weeks earlier than Jerry, on March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Queens, New York.
Mixed in with my own wordage here, I acknowledge the use of some of the fine writing from Dave Tianen and the dude from the mcportsmouth website which I quote later.
>From the beginning Leiber served as the sharp-witted lyricist, while the classically trained but jazz and R&B loving Stoller wrote the music. Both started to play piano before they were 10.
They put the growl in the hound dog, the rock in the jailhouse and the magic in "Love Potion Number Nine."
Ahmet Ertegun describes them as the first independent record producers in the business (first and best?).
They've penned more than 50 hits including "Kansas City," "Stand by Me," "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "Love Me," "Spanish Harlem," "Charlie Brown," "Treat Me Nice," "Young Blood," "I Who Have Nothing," "Is That All There Is?" and "There Goes My Baby".
The hits of The Drifters, the Coasters and Elvis Presley all drew heavily from the work of Leiber and Stoller. Other artists who have cut their tunes include The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lennon, Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, The Everly Brothers, John Mellencamp, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Conway Twitty, Joni Mitchell, Count Basie, Dion, Peggy Lee, The Monkees, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Neville Brothers, Johnny Mathis, Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin, Billy Eckstine, Ben E. King, Barbra Streisand, Luther Vandross and Donna Summer.
They were also innovators. Leiber and Stoller were among the first to use strings on R&B records and through such tunes as "Spanish Harlem" they were among the first to introduce Latin rhythms into rock 'n' roll.
Rock 'n' roll is said to have been formed from a fusion between black rhythm and blues and white entrepreneurship. If so, then the foremost of the fair-skinned founding fathers must be Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Record Producers Hall of Fame. In 1995 they added Broadway to their list of conquered realms when "Smokey Joe's Cafe: the Songs of Leiber and Stoller" opened and garnered seven Tony nominations. The production also won the Grammy for best musical.
"They just wrote plain great songs and their songs matched exceptionally well with the artists who recorded them," says Howard Kramer, assistant curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. "Their music was clever, it was thought-provoking. When they started out, people were basically just doing love songs. Leiber and Stoller wrote story songs about a kid getting yelled at by his parents. No one was doing that."
A major source of Leiber and Stoller's success and power was their ability to bridge both racial barriers and musical genres. Their funny and funky contributions to the Coasters stand in contrast to their ethereal "Dance With Me" (the Drifters, 1959) and the gospely "Stand By Me" (Ben E. King, 1961). The breadth is even evident in their association with their most famous single partner, Elvis Presley, who managed to ride some of Big Mama's rollick in "Hound Dog", to choreograph Leiber and Stoller's high-spirited title tune for his "Jailhouse Rock" film, then tame himself down to a genteel jump in "Treat Me Nice" and croon passionately on "Don't".
When he was five Jerry's father died and his mother took the insurance money and opened up a grocery store on the edge of the black ghetto. It became Jerry's job to deliver groceries to the homes of black customers. It was at these homes that he heard the rhythm and blues that would become an important part of his life. With his mother working from dawn to dusk, Jerry grew up on the streets.
At the age of nine he began taking piano lessons at his Uncle Dave's house. But Uncle David hated the sound of the boogie-woogie licks his nephew kept hammering away at and stopped the lessons. In 1945, his mother moved them out to Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus. At 13 there, he wanted to be an actor. When he was sixteen, he began working in a record store on Fairfax Avenue. He was listening to rhythm and blues and began jotting down his own blues lyrics in a series of notebooks. But he could not write music so he began searching for a collaborator.
Mike Stoller's mother took him to Broadway shows and his Aunt Ray gave him piano lessons. But after a few months, Mike gave up on the lessons. The summer he was seven, Mike heard black children playing boogie-woogie on an old up-right piano at an interracial summer camp. He began imitating the patterns, and around 14/15 he took lessons with the great stride pianist and jazz composer James P. Johnson who had tutored Fats Waller. Before long Mike drifted away from the lessons and went back to playing boogie and blues by ear. In 1949, the family moved to Los Angeles and Mike played in a Latino dance band.
Before the dawn of rock, in 1950, here they were then, both teenagers transplanted to L.A. from the East Coast. Stoller dug jazz but played with dance bands while attending Los Angeles City College. Through a drummer friend he met Leiber then a student at Fairfax High with that after-school job at a record store. They spent that summer writing songs that reflected their shared love of black pop music and before the year was out Jimmy Witherspoon had recorded and performed Leiber and Stoller's "Real Ugly Woman" in concert.
Their adopted rhythm-and-blues roots continued to serve the pair well when in 1952, Jerry came up with the words to " K.C. Loving," which was later retitled "Kansas City" and recorded by a staggering number of rock and rhythm-and-blues artists with Wilbert Harrison's ascending to the top of Billboard's charts. The team were just 19 years of age.
Around this time, L & S decided to relocated themselves back east to New York to be closer to the virtual teen pop factory centred in and around New York's Brill Building.
Leiber and Stoller were a leading force in the late 50s/1960s songwriting Mecca centred on the Brill. There they worked with and became mentors to such new leading song originators as Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Barry Mann and Carole King, Neil Sedaka, and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. They also provided a songwriting job for a hungry kid named Neil Diamond.
They yet again unwittingly furthered the evolution of rock by taking under their wings a young producer, Phil Spector, arguably under L & S, evolving the predecessor of his "wall of sound".
Nor did they limit themselves to composing. Leiber and Stoller have often been quoted as saying they didn't write songs, they wrote records On August 13, 1952, Leiber and Stoller became de facto producers when they supervised Johnny Otis band singer Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's recording of their song "Hound Dog."
Invited to a rehearsal, Leiber and Stoller ended up producing the session as well. "Hound Dog" shot to the top of the R&B charts and Leiber and Stoller were on their way. Presley's seminal number one hit with the song was still another three years away. Thornton's side sold well enough to elicit an "answer record" titled "Bear Cat" from Rufus Thomas, which helped jump start Sun Records, future home of rock pioneers Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins (+ Cashman).
Late in 1953, Jerry, Mike, and Lester Sill started Spark Records. Now Leiber and Stoller could produce records officially. Late in 1955, Atlantic Records became interested in Spark and its young masterminds. When Atlantic made their offer, Jerry and Mike decided that they hadn't really wanted to run a record company anyway and in 1956 they dissolved Spark. 1956 was the year that truly launched Leiber and Stoller. It started out when a 21-year-old sensation named Elvis Presley recorded a pumped-up version of "Hound Dog" and turned it into one of the biggest hits of the entire rock era. Following a two month trip to Europe, Stoller learned about Presley's recording after being rescued from the wreck of the Italian cruise ship Andrea Doria near New York. Leiber greeted him with the news at a dock there. At first, they hated the Presley version ....... "But we love it now" ......... Leiber added that "it grew on me, like a million dollar bond!"
"In the beginning, we did have a disdain for Elvis," Leiber admits. "Our respect for him grew over time. Our disdain was the disdain we felt for white people. We were pretty high hat about it. People who thought we were white just because we were white, didn't get it. We considered ourselves black. We thought all these white kids like Ricky Nelson were a joke." Qualifying the change of opinion regarding Presley, this came about as they realised that his love and depth of knowledge of R & B rivalled their own. Leiber says "He had an ear touched with magic and he had a musical soul that went everywhere. He was incredible and yet he was just a shit kicking country boy - go figure it out".
"Hound Dog" began an immensely profitable relationship between the two young songwriters and Presley who turned to them for a string of hits that eventually included "Jailhouse Rock," "Love Me," "Don't," "Loving You," "Treat Me Nice," "She's Not You," "Trouble" and "King Creole."
Although the money was great, Leiber and Stoller weren't necessarily enthralled with their role as movie-score contract writers. In 1957, Presley's song publishers sent the team to New York City to write the music for "Jailhouse Rock." Unfortunately, Leiber and Stoller spent a lot of time partying in Harlem and very little time writing. Finally, in desperation publisher Jean Aberbach cornered them in their hotel room, pushed a sofa in front of the door and demanded they start writing.
That afternoon Leiber and Stoller wrote four songs, including "Jailhouse Rock," and were back in the clubs by nightfall. The boys were brought in to produce the recording sessions for the Elvis movie "Jailhouse Rock". That was a great success but their liaison with Elvis would soon end.
It's a pity that L & S didn't extend their working relationship with Elvis. Certainly the Army intervened for Private 53310761 but Tom Parker's disrespectful and ignorant attitude towards the two writers, put paid to any further musical synergy from the combined wonderful talents of the three guys.
The April & May 1957 sessions for J Rock took place mostly at the Radio Recorders studio in Hollywood where the boys had cut Big Mama Thornton's original of 'Hound Dog'. Four songs (the exceptions were 'Don't Leave Me Now' and 'Young and Beautiful') were L & S compositions.
Jorgensen tells us that it was Jerry who was basically session boss (Ertegun has testified to Jerry's way of getting the best out of people). Owing to Bill Black's failure to nail it down, Elvis himself took control of Bill's new electric Fender bass to contribute the bubbly opening figure to 'Baby I Don't Care'. Mike Stoller played piano on the EP version of 'I Want To Be Free'.
Although a pair of Jewish white boys, both of them were immersed in the culture of the blues. They hung out in black clubs, had black girlfriends and considered themselves genuine hipsters.
Elvis was not the only Star on their agenda during the late 1950s; this was the period of their most intense creativity. Atlantic were desperate for a new success having lost a major player in Ray Charles. The Drifters became that act. On April 24, 1959, Atlantic released The Drifters "There Goes My Baby", produced by Leiber and Stoller and the first rock and roll hit which prominently featured strings. No drums, just that baio beat. It's a most wonderful fusion of many factors .......Ben E King's R & B 'Church' voice, tympani, Jewish Stan Applebaum's plaintive string arrangement - all combining to make a stunning, original sound.
Atlantic's Jerry Wexler hated it at first, calling it "an exercise in cacophony ....... like two radio stations cross-tuned". He later came around.
A disc which is maybe easy to 'forget' or take for granted is Ben's 'Spanish Harlem'. Revisit this ...... great imagery of that rose growing up through the concrete city jungle and a sound like it's from another planet. A L & S produced gem. In the dying minutes of the 'Harlem' session, Mike and Jerry quickly completed a song Ben E had brought them and the anthem 'Stand By Me' was created. In the excellent L & S Biography TV Channel documentary 'Words and Music', King tells how strange it felt in the studio to be surrounded by cellos, kettle drums etc. - outpourings of the musical imaginings of the dynamic duo that was Leiber & Stoller.
The most successful Leiber and Stoller collaboration however was with the Atlantic recording group the Coasters. L & S wrote, produced and even played on such Coasters hits as "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Young Blood," "Searchin'," "Little Egypt," "Poison Ivy" and "Along Came Jones".
"The Coasters were an extension of our personalities," Leiber says. "The other artists like the Drifters were themselves but the Coasters were our persona. They were good singers for sure but they were great comedians".
Forty years later the memories still glowed for Coaster Billy Guy ...... "We had more fun than any group. That was the most fun in the world, the studio. I hated the stage. In the studio we had King Curtis on sax. We had a crew that wouldn't quit. We just had a ball. Every time you went in there was no doubt it was going to be a hit. That was when music was fun". In 1961, L & S's accountant suggested a standard audit of Atlantic which revealed unpaid royalties. This was a shock, their 'family' had let them down. It was a sad end to a 6 year relationship and the team soon cut a deal with United Artists. They quickly began to rebuild and hardly missed a beat. The calibre of artistes wasn't as high but acts like Jay and the Americans & The Exciters kept them busy.
About a year along there was a reconciliation with Atlantic who had suffered a musical drought in their absence. The magic soon hit back home as L & S transformed the Mann/Weil 'On Broadway' into a classic.
Having formed their first label Spark, during the early pre-rock stage of their career, Leiber and Stoller began shifting more of their attention from writing to producing with their formation of Red Bird in 1964. It became a hit factory. Although they also issued blues on their Blue Cat subsidiary, Red Bird served as a nest for "girl groups" such as the Dixie Cups and Shangri-Las, as well as for the prolific husband and wife song writing duo of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Girl groups were passing out of style by the time Leiber and Stoller sold Red Bird in 1966 for one dollar. This was mainly as a result of dodgy dealing by their business associate there, him being one bad hombre (in the TV i/view, the guys said he cast no shadow and had no reflection in a mirror!).
The boys had become bored with the Red Bird roster but whilst in residence, they did turn down Sam and Dave, The Rascals and Steely Dan so maybe their halos were slipping.
The Golden Age of rock and roll had also come to an end but the genre was soon to be reborn under the guidance of Spector, their former apprentice.
Leiber and Stoller relaxed from their hectic pace of making records in the late '50s and early '60s, reappearing briefly by producing " Stuck In the Middle With You (Stealers Wheel,1972=Gerry Rafferty of 'Baker Street' fame). The song hit commercial heights again in 1993 when included on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. But for the two multi-talented songwriters, the term 'rock royalty' should mean something more than just the money they continue to collect from their numerous hits generated during rock's first decade.
They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and most of the above-mentioned tunes (and a few lesser known) are currently being showcased in the stage show Smokey Joe's Cafe. . . The Songs of Leiber and Stoller. If you see the show it will surely help remind you how much fun rock used to be.
Although his son co-wrote "Forever Your Girl" with Paula Abdul and another son plays guitar for Rod Stewart, Jerry Leiber admits he doesn't listen to contemporary rock much. Randy Poe, who works in their office, says that Stoller mostly listens to jazz and Leiber to Debussy. "In the main what is out there now is built on technique," Leiber says. "The writing is a bit thin. The writing is not as important as it used to be, because of television and videos. The song is being illustrated for you. When music was an audio experience, you had to be able to see the story in your head. A lot of the humour has been lost, but that's because the world's not that funny anymore".
Selected Discography: Elvis Presley-- King of Rock 'n' Roll (RCA) Ben E. King-- Anthology (Rhino) Drifters-- Very Best of (Rhino) Phil Spector-- Back To Mono (ABK) There's a Riot Goin' On: The Rock & Roll Classics of Leiber & Stoller (Rhino) The Coasters: 50 Coastin' Classics (Rhino) Elvis Presley Sings Leiber and Stoller (BMG) Rockin' and Driftin' with the Drifters (Rhino) Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller (Atlantic Theatre) Joel Kaye and Chuck Kaye are pseudonyms for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The name Elmo Glick is a pseudonym for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller jointly.
Some quotes: They were amazing Groove Makers (unattributed) They took chances ...... stepping into new territory - Ben E King The most exciting producers I ever saw in a studio - Burt Bacharach Clearly these 2 guys were and still are, an entire act in themselves ..... any time, any place! - Colin Kilgour
It seems Jerry is on his second triple by-pass and still raising hell at any opportunity. He once described the pairing this way ....... "Mike is the guy that has no engine and Jerry is the guy that has no brakes".
Some team they made.
They are great raconteurs who seem amazed that the songs they wrote and/or produced to glory, have survived.
It seems they didn't expect them to be destined to live much beyond a six-week chart span. We know different.
Website: http://www.mcportsmouth.freeserve.co.uk/a/all.htm be sure there to view. Click here to see the FULL list of Leiber and Stoller songs
Reading: Robert Palmer, Baby That Was Rock & Roll : The Legendary Leiber and Stoller. New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978 but this seems elusive!
Steve Walker told us a few weeks back (from a Mike Stoller letter in the bumper 20th anniversary edition of NDT) that the voice on the two bridges on The Coasters' "That Is Rock And Roll" is none other than his partner-in-crime, Jerry Leiber
For further information, in the SAO archive for March 13, 2002 you can also read Dik's BTBWY piece on Mike Stoller.
Oh yes, and as if he weren't exceptional enough, Jerry Leiber has one brown eye and one blue one!
Happy Birthday to them both, Jer.
Colin Kilgour - April 2003
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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