Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Late Great Jerry Leiber

Jerry Leiber, who with Mike Stoller wrote hits for artists ranging from Elvis Presley to The Coasters to Jay and the Americans, passed on Monday, 22 August 2011 at the age of 78. Arguably Leiber and Stoller numbered among the greatest song writing teams of the 20th century.

Jerry Leiber was born on 25 April 1933 in Baltimore. His mother ran a grocery on the edge of the ghetto. As a result Mr. Leiber's musical influences ranged from the mainstream pop music of the Thirties to the early African American precursors to rhythm and blues. Mr. Leiber's family moved to Los Angeles when he was a teenager. Initially he wanted to be an actor, but by 16 he was already writing songs. In 1950, while a senior at Fairfax High in Los Angeles, Jerry Leiber was looking for someone with whom to write songs. A mutual friend referred to him to a pianist who was currently a freshman at Los Angeles City College, Mike Stoller. Upon meeting the two discovered they each had a love both blues and rhythm and blues. They started writing songs together the very day that they met. It was not long before they sold their first song, "Real Ugly Woman," in 1950. It was originally recorded and performed by Jimmy Witherspoon.

In 1952 Leiber and Stoller would have their first hit, "Hard Times." Recorded by Charles Brown, the song went to #7  on the rhythm and blues chart. That same year Little Willie Littlefield recored "Kansas City" under the title "K.C. Lovin'." Under its original title and performed by Wilbert Harrison, it would go to #1 on the charts. It was also in 1952 that Leiber and Stoller wrote another of their signature songs. "Hound Dog" was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It spent seven weeks at #1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart. In 1956 Elvis Presley recorded "Hound Dog" as the B-side to "Don't Be Cruel." Despite being the B-side, "Hound Dog"  topped the Billboard pop, R&B, and country charts. Along with "Don't Be Cruel" it was the first song ever to do so.

With such success, Leiber and Stoller formed their own record label along with their guide and mentor Lester Sill in 1953. In its roster Spark Records included The Robins, who would record the Leiber and Stoller songs "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Riot in Cell Block #9." Sparks Records and The Robins met with such success that Atlantic Records offered Leiber and Stoller an independent production contract if they would produce The Robins for the label.  With only two of The Robins willing to make the move to Atlantic, a new rhythm and blues group would emerge, The Coasters. The association of song writers Leiber and Stoller with the vocal group The Coasters would prove to be one of the most successful in the history of American music. Among the Leiber and Stoller songs The Coasters recorded were "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Along Came Jones," and "Poison Ivy."

Of course, Leiber and Stoller did not write exclusively for The Coasters. Indeed, they are also well known for their association with Elvis Presley. With the success of Elvis's cover of "Hound Dog," Leiber and Stoller would go onto write songs for him. Among the Leiber and Stoller songs which Elvis covered or which were originally written for him are "Love Me," "Jailhouse Rock," "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care," "Don't," "King Creole," and "Bossa Nova Baby."

Leiber and Stoller would continue to have hits after they left Atlantic Records and well into the Sixties. They wrote The Clovers' biggest hit, "Love Potion #9," which topped the charts in 1959. They produced many of The Drifters' songs and wrote some of them, including "There Goes My Baby." Among their most fruitful associations of the Sixties was one with Ben E. King. Jerry Leiber wrote "Spanish Harlem" with protégée Phil Spector, and Leiber and Stoller produced the song. The song went to #10 on the Billboard pop charts. The success of "Spanish Harlem" would be followed by Leiber and Stoller compositions, including "Stand by Me," "I (Who Have Nothing)," "Yes," and "Gypsy." Leiber and Stoller would also write for other artists. The Exciters recorded "It's So Exciting." Jay and the Americans recorded "I'll Remember You," "It's My Turn to Cry," and "Only in America," among other songs.

In 1964 Leiber and Stoller founded Red Bird Records. While owned by Leiber and Stoller the label produced such hits as "Chapel of Love" by The Dixie Cups and "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las. Leiber and Stoller sold the label in 1966, as they wanted to concentrate on song writing. In the latter half of the Sixties Leiber and Stoller would have hits with "Is This All There Is (Peggy Lee's cover charting in 1969)," "D. W. Washburn (by The Monkees)," "Do Your Own Thing (by Brook Benton)," and others. They wrote songs for the movie The Phynx (1970), about a fictional rock band of the same name.

In the Seventies Leiber and Stoller would write such songs as "Been Down So Long (by Eddie James)," "The Best Thing (by Dino & Sembello)," "Dancin' Jones (by Dino & Sembello)," "The Girls I Never Kissed (by Arthur Prysock)," "Humphrey Bogart (by Joan Morris & William Bolcom)," and others. Leiber and Stoller produced the Elkie Brooks album Two Days Away, released in 1977.  Leiber and Stoller wrote several songs on the album, including its first single, "Pearl's a Singer" with Ralph Dino and John Sembello. In 1995 Smokey Joe's Cafe, a musical revue based on the songs of Leiber and Stoller, opened on Broadway. It ran for 2035 performances.

It is difficult to assess the total impact of song writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In fact, songwriters who wielded the sort of influence that they did can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand (Livingston and Evans, Lennon and McCartney, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin). It is not simply that they produced some of the biggest hits of the late 20th Century, but they also produced rhythm and blues standards and rock 'n' roll standards that have stood the test of time. Among the songs they wrote were such legendary tunes as "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock," "Searchin'," "Stand by Me," and "On Broadway." And while Leiber and Stoller were known for their sense of humour, particularly evident in the songs they wrote for The Coasters ("Along Came Jones," "Yakety Yak"), they were also capable of writing a wide variety of other sorts of songs. Throughout their long career they wrote everything from pure rock 'n' roll ("Jailhouse Rock") to soulful ballads ("Spanish Harlem") to epic, nearly Bondian love songs ("I (Who Have Nothing)." Their songs would be covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to The Beatles to Tom Jones. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were among the most successful songwriters of all time. With Jerry Leiber's passing, a giant in the world of popular music is gone.

1 comment:

Jim Marquis said...

I love that the name of the first song they sold was "Real Ugly Woman". How funny.