Some Cats Know . . .
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Legacy of Jerry Leiber
A Remembrance by Donny Jacobs
Jerry Leiber was one-half of a legendary songwriting team whose collaborations are so much a part of the DNA of life, it's impossible to visualize a world without them. Leiber's partnership with Mike Stoller endured for more than sixty years, longer than most marriages; longer than many friendships, in fact! They complemented one another perfectly; Leiber's words clicked into place with Stoller's music like the pieces of a puzzle. Try to imagine no "Hound Dog" or "Jailhouse Rock"! No "Stand By Me" or "Yakety Yak". No "Love Potion Number 9"; no "On Broadway"! You can't do it. Leiber and Stoller not only defined the songs of a generation, they changed its course irrevocably.
Jerry and Mike enjoyed their own special brand of synergy and uniqueness. Leiber himself was a unique physical specimen, in possession of one brown eye and one blue eye. The talent that resided in the brain behind those eyes blessed the world with a catalog of tunes that will endure for many years, written from the heart as well as the mind. Jerry Leiber was on this planet for 78 years, yet it doesn't seem long enough somehow. He will live on forever through his songs, but at this juncture, all I can do is ask with sadness: "Is That All There Is?" Rest in peace, Mr. Leiber . . . and thank you.
founder of the Pop Culture Cantina and proprietor of Oldies Connection
One of the Godfathers of Rock ‘n’ Roll died on 22 August 2011. He was there in the early 1950s, when baby Rock was just emerging from the womb. Culturally, he anticipated a postwar generation of young people who rejected “White” Pop sounds as insipid, thrilling instead to the raw energy of “Black” Rhythm and Blues. “I felt Black,” Jerry Leiber often claimed. “I was, as far as I was concerned, and I wanted to be Black for lots of reasons. (The Black people I knew) were better musicians; they were better athletes; they were not uptight about sex; and they knew how to enjoy life better than most people.” A big part of enjoying life in the Black community had to do with the homegrown music. Leiber was aware of this and trained himself to write song lyrics in an authentically African-American vernacular. He preferred that his songs be interpreted by Black artists, so much so that when the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, covered his R & B chart-topper “Hound Dog”, he complained that it sounded “too White!”
No, Jerome Leiber wasn’t Black. He just had an affinity for Black cultural idioms. He didn’t invent Rock ‘n’ Roll. He just put his own indelible mark on it. He didn’t invent the Brill Building Pop sound. He just lit a fire under it. He didn’t invent independent record production. His highly commercial productions just helped make it the industry norm. Nor did Leiber make stars out of Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, The Drifters or any of the other big stars he worked with. He just made their stars shine a lot brighter.
The star shine man was born 25 April 1933 in Baltimore, Maryland. Raised by a widowed mother, he worked in her grocery store and interaction with her African-American customers exposed him to the Blues. Jerry fell head-over-heels for its rough-hewn sound, and soon found himself longing to write and sing tunes in that style. Accordingly, he took a few music lessons from his uncle. However, the uncle disapproved of his stylistic inclinations, so those studies didn't go very far! When Jerry's mother moved the family to Los Angeles in 1945, he took his love for the Blues with him. Going to work in a Fairfax Avenue record store, he began scribbling Blues songs on his breaks. However, his musical abilities were so meager at the time, he was obliged to seek out collaborators. After one songwriting partner deserted him for lack of interest, he took up with a semi-professional teenage piano player who was immersed in classical composition studies.
Michael Stoller resisted the collaboration, but he was unable to dissuade the eager Jewish boy with mismatched eye colors. Jerry Leiber had a wicked twinkle in both orbs and wicked tenacity to match. Recalling their first meeting to journalist Robert Palmer, Stoller revealed: “To me, songs meant a lot of junk you heard on the radio like hold me in your arms/and let me thrill to all your charms. I was very negative! ‘I don’t want to write songs,’ I told him . . . but he was very persistent.” Jerry showed Mike his notebook filled with Blues lyrics. Suddenly, the mood changed in the room. “I didn’t know you were talking about the Blues,” the 16-year-old piano prodigy exclaimed with undisguised delight. “I like the Blues.” He took Leiber’s notebook to his piano, sat down and started doodling. They began writing together that day in 1950, and their partnership lasted six decades.
Lieber had met Modern Records staffer Lester Sill while working at the music shop. Through Sill, the fledgling duo got a chance to audition their songs for some of Modern’s R & B acts. Before the end of 1950, Jimmy Witherspoon had waxed “Real Ugly Woman”, and by early 1951 The Robins had cut “That’s What The Good Book Says”. By the time they placed their first chart hit with R & B crooner Charles Brown (“Hard Times”) two years later, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had earned the reputation of a hot new songwriting team. They were known as “the White boys who could write Black”. Leiber could even sing Black, doing so on demo recordings like “Shake ‘Em Up And Let ‘Em Roll”, and odd guest vocal turns like the rollicking 1959 Coasters B-side, “Baby, That Is Rock And Roll.” His gut-bucket snarl of a singing style might’ve taken him far in Blues clubs. However, it was as a lyricist on spicy numbers like Bull Moose Jackson’s “Nosey Joe” . . .
There’s a man in town all the women know
He goes by the name of Nosey Joe
Don’t care if they’re married
He takes his pick
As long as they’re women,
He’s ready to stick
His big nose in their business
His big nose in their business
That’s Nosey Joe
The nosiest guy I know*
. . . that Jerry Leiber would find his fame. Early efforts by Jackson, Little Esther (“Mainliner”), Milt Trenier (“Squeeze Me”), Wynonie Harris (“Destination Love”) and Little Mickey Champion (“Lovin’ Jim”) were very spicy indeed! Double entendre-laden songs like “Poison Ivy” notwithstanding, the innuendo toned down somewhat when Leiber and Stoller began writing for The Coasters in 1956. Understandably so, because by that time their songs were appealing to a largely White and teenage audience. Rock ‘n’ Roll was the latest trend in popular music, and Leiber/Stoller songs fit right into the new groove.
Jerry Leiber’s legendary collaborations with Mike Stoller include “Kansas City”, “Black Denim Trousers And Motorcycle Boots”(originally recorded by The Cheers and unexpectedly covered by legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf), “Drip Drop, “Ruby Baby”, “I’m A Woman”, “Lucky Lips”, “DW Washburn”, “Framed!”, “Girls! Girls! Girls!”, “Fools Fall In Love” and the following million-sellers either written for or covered by Elvis Presley: “Hound Dog”, “Love Me”, “Loving You”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Treat Me Nice”, “Baby, I Don’t Care”, “Don’t!”, “King Creole”, “Trouble”, “Santa Claus Is Back In Town”, “She’s Not You” and “Bossa Nova Baby”. What a haul!
Never exclusively partnered with Stoller, Jerry Leiber also scored best-sellers in collaboration with other composers: Phil Spector (Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem”), Billy Edd Wheeler (June Carter and Johnny Cash’s “Jackson”), and Artie Butler and Shadow Morton (The Shangri-Las’ “Past, Present And Future”). With Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, he co-wrote the Drifters smash “On Broadway” and Jay and The Americans’ “Only In America.” The BMI database assigns him credit for penning The Monkees favorite "She Hangs Out" with Stoller, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. With Stoller and the aforementioned Mr. Wheeler, he updated the folk air “The Reverend Mr. Black”, providing both Johnny Cash and The Kingston Trio with chart singles, decades apart. To an original melody by Italian songwriter Carlo Donida Labati, he and Stoller wrote English lyrics to the mother of all angst-ridden ballads, “I Who Have Nothing”; and with Ben E. King and other co-writers(some of them rather dubious!), they kicked off The Drifters’ run of Top Forty radio favorites with “There Goes My Baby” and “Dance With Me.”
Jerry Leiber developed into a master songwriter, in every sense of the word. He mentored many of the young writers he collaborated with. To British compilation producer Mick Patrick, Billy Edd Wheeler described the process of crafting tunes with him: “He wouldn’t let me write lines down too soon. We’d come up with a line and I’d say: ‘That’s it! That’s perfect.’ But he’d say: ‘Wait a minute’ . . . and he would go back to previous lines, in his head, rewrite one of them and then come back to the line I said was perfect and improve it. Finally, I would be allowed to scribble the lines down on my yellow (legal) pad. Even then, we kept changing them and polishing them.”
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, one of the best teams in the business with a 50-year track record of hits, were equally impressed with Leiber’s composing skills. “(Writing with him) was very exciting,” Mann told author Ken Emerson. “The way he just kept throwing lines out, and then he’d take them back! ‘Try this line!’ Then he’d say: ‘Let’s go to the third verse or the second verse.’” Weil chimed in: “It was like going to songwriter’s school!” Posting at the Leiber-Stoller website, Mike Stoller’s son Peter confirms: “Jerry (helped) elevate other good songwriters . . . (he) set a high bar at which to aim, if never to reach. Jerry’s balance of natural talent and hard-won craftsmanship, of lightning wit and serious purpose, of compact form and complex content, made him not just the quintessential Rock ‘n’ Roll lyricist, but the quintessential lyricist, period! In the history of popular songwriting, he has few equals (and) no superiors.”
Artie Butler, who worked with Leiber both as co-writer and music arranger, strongly concurs. “Jerry Leiber was one of the greatest American Pop music lyric writers of all time,” he declares. “Together with his partner, Mike Stoller, he created a treasure chest of musical magic . . . how lucky was I that I got to see much of their magic show unfold daily on a firsthand basis, when they gave me my start (in the business) at the age of sixteen?”
Although the Leiber-Stoller team seemed to crank out hit after hit, for every Gold record there were dozens of stellar near-misses like The Isley Brothers’ “Your Old Lady” and “Teach Me How To Shimmy”; Jay and The Americans’ “Drums” and “It’s My Turn To Cry”; The Soul Brothers’ “Keep It Up”; Gene Pitney’s “Take It Like A Man”; The Shangri-Las’ “Bull Dog”, Dino and Sembello’s “Neighborhood” and a sizzling withheld-from-release recording of “You’re The Boss” by Elvis and Ann-Margret, deleted from the soundtrack of Viva Las Vegas. Jerry Leiber never ran out of ideas; there are enough exceptional rarities floating around to keep reissue labels busy past the end of the century.
Leiber and Stoller owned five record labels during the years they were active in the music industry: Spark Records, founded in 1954 as a vehicle for their R & B songs, was the first. After two years, an offer they couldn't refuse led to them closing Spark down; Atlantic Records contracted the team to write and produce for its artists into the early 1960s. When that deal fizzled, Jerry and Mike tried the independent route again. In 1962, they launched Tiger Records and its subsidiary label, Daisy. Although both were unsuccessful, by 1964 Tiger and Daisy had evolved into the powerhouse Red-Bird imprint. That’s where young songwriters like Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Steve Venet, Shadow Morton and Chip Taylor, all groomed under Leiber and Stoller’s tutelage, scored a two year run of major chart records. Because Jerry and Mike’s song publishing firm (Trio Music) was housed in Broadway’s Brill Building, Rock historians call this creatively fertile period the height of the Brill Building Pop era.
MIKE STOLLER and JERRY LEIBER
“Some Cats Know . . . ” concludes with Part Two.