01 September 2011

Jerry Leiber (Part Two)

Some Cats Know . . .

Jerry Leiber

The Rock 'n' Roll Legacy of Jerry Leiber
A Remembrance by Donny Jacobs
Contrary to some reports, Leiber and Stoller’s creative input at Red-Bird (and its sister label, Blue Cat) was usually limited to executive roles. That said, the dynamic working environment they provided to their employees made chartbusters like “Chapel Of Love”, “Leader Of The Pack”, “Iko Iko” “I Wanna Love Him So Bad”, “New York’s A Lonely Town”, “Come Back, Baby” “Hold On, Baby” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” possible. They did keep a hand in, though, producing a large number of masters including The Ad-Libs’ 1965 chart-topper “The Boy From New York City.” The Red-Bird hit parade ended abruptly after producer George Goldner, their partner in the venture, linked the label to Mafia interests they wanted to no part of. The hitmaking duo sold their shares in the company for one dollar and went off to work with Tennessee Williams (on a theatre project that was aborted) and Peggy Lee (on recording projects that came to glorious fruition). Jerry Leiber's work with Ms. Lee resulted in “Is That All There Is?” one of the most sophisticated Pop records of the ‘60s.

That record’s evocative production values were as responsible for its success as the song. Naturally, Leiber and Stoller supervised the recording session. Jerry Leiber was also a master producer; those who’ve learned at his elbow include major hit makers like Burt Bacharach, Bert Berns, Artie Ripp, Jerry Ragovoy, Van McCoy, and the aforementioned Jeff Barry, Shadow Morton and Artie Butler. In partnership with Mike Stoller, Jerry began producing records in 1953; they were two of the first freelance A & R men, never affiliated with any one record company. R & B star Linda Hopkins was their maiden artist, and from her waxing of “Three Time Loser” on the tiny Crystalette label, the duo went on to score a truckload of chart hits for Big Top, United Artists, Scepter/Wand, Kapp, Capitol, Columbia/Epic, RCA Victor, Red-Bird/Blue Cat, and especially Atlantic/Atco Records artists, many of them with Leiber-Stoller compositions.

In addition to the Ad-Libs, their magic touch in the studio benefited The Robins (“Riot In Cell Block Number Nine”), Sammy Turner (“Lavender Blue”), Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”), LaVern Baker (“Saved”), Jay and The Americans (“She Cried”), Mike Clifford (“Close To Cathy”), The Exciters (“Tell Him”), Chuck Jackson (“I Keep Forgettin’), Alvin Robinson (“Something You Got”), Big Mama Thornton (the original version of “Hound Dog”), Stealer’s Wheel (“Stuck In The Middle With You”), The Clovers (“Love Potion Number Nine”) and The Drifters (a legendary hit streak including “There Goes My Baby”, “Save The Last Dance For Me”, “Up On The Roof” and “On Broadway”). To say that these records were influential would be a gross understatement; A & R men in locales as far away as Münich, Germany mined their grooves for ideas and pimped Mike and Jerry’s production style. The Latin rhythms found on most of the Drifters and Ben E. King sides touched off a Habanera Rock craze that dominated Pop/Rock arrangements for nearly a decade.

Coasters Greatest Hits

Leiber and Stoller’s best-known productions are arguably those waxed with The Coasters, a vocal group spun off from The Robins. “The Coasters were (Leiber and Stoller’s) creation and, in many respects, their alter egos,” observed writer James Ritz. “They produced, arranged, rehearsed, coerced and through sheer symbiotic charisma modeled (the group) into the premier musical comedy act of their generation.” Their classic Atco sides bear out Ritz’s claim: “Searchin’”, “Young Blood”, “Yakety Yak”, “Charlie Brown”, “Along Came Jones”, “Poison Ivy” and “Little Egypt” provided an irreverent soundtrack to the lives of many a teenager in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A steady stream of Coasters cover versions both preceded and followed the revival of their catalogue in 1995 via the Tony Award-nominated musical revue Smokey Joe’s Café.

Jerry and Mike logged sessions with artists as diverse as T-Bone Walker, Roy Hamilton, Jack Jones, The Shirelles, piano wizards Ferrante and Teicher, actress Leslie Uggams, actor/singer/songwriter Anthony Newley and Jazz legend Chris Connor. Without credit, Leiber and Stoller supervised soundtrack sessions for the Elvis Presley movies Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. Their final charting Pop production, Elkie Brooks’ self-titled 1976 album, contained the maudlin “Pearl’s A Singer” and other favorites featured in their Broadway show.

Take my word for it: If you see the words “A Leiber-Stoller Production” emblazoned on a record label, nine times out of ten, the quality of the music will be excellent. Part of the excellence was how Leiber interacted with studio musicians. “(Jerry) always made you feel important, even if you were just the background singer,” recalls producer and former session vocalist Ron Dante, who logged a few Leiber-Stoller sessions. “He was a wonderful human being (and) a true legend of the Brill Building. He made history with his partner, Mike.” However history-making his work in the studio was, though, Jerry Leiber would no doubt call his three sons Jake, Jed and Oliver Leiber (the latter two having followed him into the music industry) his most excellent productions of all.

When a dude’s name can be found both on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you know you’ve lost a major talent when he dies! The RROF induction took place in 1987; the Walk of Fame star was laid in 1994.  Leiber had entered the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1985. Jerry also received the National Academy of Songwriter’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the NARAS Trustees Award, the Johnny Mercer Award from the National Academy of Popular Music(most appropriate, since Mercer was another White man could write and “sing Black”), and the Ivor Novello Award.

In 1995, the aforementioned Smokey Joe’s Café took Broadway by storm, selling out night after night and winning a Best Cast Album Grammy award(the cast album was a Leiber-Stoller Production, of course). It went on to become the longest-running revue ever featured on the Great White Way, and will probably never stop being produced in regional theatres. Wherever it plays, the classic songs bring audiences to their feet.

A joint biography with Mike Stoller, Hound Dog, was published by Simon and Shuster in 2009. Unfortunately, Jerry's longtime desire to mount a show about 19th century British humorist Oscar Wilde went unrealized; Mike Stoller still hopes to find backers. In addition to his priceless legacy of songs, stage works and recording sessions, Jerry Leiber leaves behind Jake, Jed, Oliver, and two beloved granddaughters, Daphne and Chloë.

Having suffered heart problems for several years, Leiber knew the time he had left was probably short. He ended his 2009 autobiography with these words: “If my next medical report is (bad), then this is my plan: I’m going to buy a fifth of Maker’s Mark bourbon, a carton of Camels, and as many Billie Holiday records as I can carry.” Quoting one of the most famous lines from “Is That All There Is,” he promised: “I’m going to break out the booze and have a ball . . . if that’s all there is.”

But that’s not all there is; not by a longshot! When you’re responsible for as many enduring hits as Jerome Leiber created in his lifetime, the music never ends. In 1975, Peggy Lee committed to wax the some of the steamiest lyrics he ever wrote:

Some cats know how to stir up the feelin’
They keep foolin’ round ‘til you’re halfway to the ceilin’
Some cats know how to make the honey flow
But if a cat don’t know
A cat don’t know!*

Jerome Leiber was the kind of a cat who knew! He not only knew how to make the honey flow; he knew how to keep it flowing. You can believe what Laura Pinto says: The spicy and sweet taste he added to American popular music will certainly last forever.

Hound Dog

*Excerpts from “Nosey Joe” and “Some Cats Know”, words and music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, ©copyright 1952, 1972 Sony/ATV Songs LLC (BMI)

Numerous Leiber and Stoller songbook compilations have been released over the years, but if you want to get a good overview of their songwriting work, these are the best:

There’s A Riot Goin’ On: The Coasters On Atco (Rhino M2 7740, 2007); The Leiber & Stoller Story: Hard Times (UK Ace Records 1010, 2004); The Leiber & Stoller Story: On The Horizon (UK Ace Records 1116, 2006); The Leiber & Stoller Story: Shake ‘Em Up And Let ‘Em Roll (UK Ace Records 1156, 2007); Elvis Presley Sings Leiber and Stoller (RCA Records 3026-2-R, 1991); There’s A Riot Goin’ On: The Rock & Roll Classics of Leiber & Stoller (Rhino 70593, 1991); Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller(Atlantic Theatre 82765-2, 1995).

Special thanks to Artie Butler, Ron Dante, Laura Pinto and Peter Stoller for proofreading and other contributions.


Jerry Maneker said...

What a wonderful obituary and tribute to this musical genius! Thanks so much for warming the hearts of all of us who read it.


Thanks for the kind words, Jerry. Somebody has to hold the torch for good music, and it might as well be me.