Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jerry Leiber, 1933-2011

I clearly remember the first time I heard rock and roll. It was 1956 and I was ten, riding in our car with my father on a two lane road through the pine woods of the Florida panhandle, listening to radio from one of the nearby towns (Crestview? DeFuniak Springs? Niceville?). I'd heard of Elvis Presley, even seen a photo--I think in TV Guide--of him, with his carefully coiffed ducktail, spit curl dangling over his forehead, wearing a frilly shirt that may even have been lavender. I knew girls went crazy over him, and supposed he must be a crooner in the manner of Frank Sinatra. So, when the deejay said, "And now, here's Elvis Presley," I expected a romantic ballad. Instead, I heard "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," in a voice that was between a bellow and a snarl. "This is a song this guy did as a joke," I thought, "but I love it."

I didn't wonder about the provenance of the song; indeed, I may not even have known the word "provenance" at the time. If I'd been asked, I'd probably have guessed that Elvis wrote it, or that it was a folk song from that mysterious state a little to the west, Mississippi, where Elvis grew up, and which must have lots of really pretty women, since it seemed to produce more than its expected share of Miss America finalists. If I'd been told it was written by two Jewish guys in L.A., I'd have been surprised. Elvis might have been, too. It had previously been recorded by African American blues singer "Big Mama" Thornton, and Elvis would likely have thought it was of African American origin, like his earlier local Memphis hit, "That's All Right", written by Delta bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

Those two guys in L.A. were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Both came from the East Coast--Leiber from Baltimore and Stoller from Long Island--and met in Los Angeles after their families moved there. Leiber was the lyricist; Stoller the composer. They met at a record store, and became friends because of their shared love for rhythm and blues. "Hound Dog" was one of their earlier joint efforts; "Big Mama" had a minor hit with it on the R&B charts in 1952. They went on to become the most influential songwriters and record producers in American pop music over the second half of the past century. They produced the Drifters' 1959 hit "There Goes My Baby", which introduced production techniques into R&B, such as the use of strings, that foreshadowed Phil Spector's "wall of sound"--Spector got his start in the music business working for Leiber and Stoller--and thereby determined the quality of much of pop music in the early to mid 1960s. Leiber and Stoller also co-wrote, along with former Drifters lead singer Ben E. King, the R&B classic "Stand by Me", which became a number one hit on the R&B charts, and number four on the pop charts, for King in 1961.

Leiber and Stoller didn't limit their work to R&B. They wrote "Is That All There Is", the "existentialist song" with which Peggy Lee went to number eleven on the pop charts, number one on the "adult contemporary" chart, and won the Grammy for best pop vocal by a female singer in 1970. They also wrote "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots", a 1955 hit for the Cheers. Considered part of the teenage tragedy genre popular in the late 1950s, it doesn't have the maudlin quality of some later hits like "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning or "Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Peterson (misspelled "Paterson" on the linked video). I was surprised to learn that "Black Denim Trousers" was translated into French with the title L'Homme à la Moto and, as such, was recorded by Edith Piaf. In 1979 contemporary art music composer and pianist William Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, recorded an album, Other Songs by Leiber and Stoller, that features, along with "Is That All There Is", some of their lesser-known works in which, in the words of a Gramophone review, "the simplicities of rock are abandoned in favour of giving an American accent to approximately the sort of music that was heard in the artistic cabarets of Berlin and Paris during the 1920s."

When I think of Leiber and Stoller, though, I think mostly of their work with the group with whom they are most closely associated, a four man R&B ensemble called the Coasters. They had a string of hits, all written by Leiber and Stoller, from 1957 through 1961. Their songs had wacky, engaging lyrics, mostly done in an upbeat style and featuring occasional spoken breaks. I was a great fan during my junior high and high school years. The clip above is of "Yakety Yak", their only number one hit. This is the original 1958 version, featuring a terrific, snarly sax break by King Curtis.

Jerry Leiber died last Monday, at the age of 78. Mike Stoller survives. As I noted in an earlier post, the people who shaped popular culture in my youth are dying at an increasing rate. Jerry Leiber wrote the lyrics to much of the soundtrack of my salad days.

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