You say that music’s for the birds,
You can’t understand the words.
Well, honey, if you did,
You’d really blow your lid.
Cause, baby, that is rock and roll.
—”Baby, That Is Rock and Roll” by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Leiber and Stoller were rock ‘n roll. Anyway, they wrote the best primal rock, rhythm and blues and every musical genre in between and beyond. “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Kansas City,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Ruby Baby,” “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” dozens of rude immortals. Ballads too: Elvis’s “Loving You,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway” and (Leiber’s words, Phil Spector’s melody) “Spanish Harlem.” L&S wrote and produced the Coasters’ run of comedy smashes (“Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown”); produced the Drifters’ catalogue of gorgeous love songs; godfathered Spector, Carole King and the other gifted Brill Building brats; and wrote and produced the Peggy Lee anthems “I Am Woman” and “Is That All There Is?” They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, its second year. All we can think of is: Why the wait?
Stoller was the composer, running dozens of cunning variations on the traditional 12-bar blues; Leiber wrote the words that never stopped resonating in the ears of generations of arrested teens. The two, born six weeks apart in 1933, were teenagers themselves when they met in Los Angeles in 1950: Stoller, a Long Island transplant, was a first-year student at L.A. City College, and Leiber, from Baltimore, worked in a record store while still a senior at Fairfax High School. They made hits for black R&B performers before they were 20, and kept at it for 60 years. Now their collaboration is complete. Jerry Leiber died Monday of cardiopulmonary failure in L.A. The primal poet of rock was 78.
The live wire to Stoller’s steady ground wire, the young Jerome Leiber was, like Stoller, a Jewish boy who loved the blues. “Red-hot songs were born on the black streets of Baltimore,” he recalled in the oral history Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, “where I delivered five-gallon cans of kerosene and ten-pound bags of coal.” A piano teacher named Yetta Schlossberg taught Jerry to play boogie-woogie, until his father — “a door-to-door milkman who died penniless” — burst in, bellowing, “Take this music back to the gutter where you found it!”
That scene might have come straight from The Jazz Singer, the Al Jolson hit movie about a stern cantor and his blues-loving son, but it reflected the tension between any immigrant parent, wanting traditional success for his children, and the child attracted to the all-American risk and musk of indigenous art. The generation of Jewish-American songwriters before L&S had navigated that same rough rite-of-passage. In the first great Broadway musical, Show Boat in 1927 (same year as The Jazz Singer), Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein had been inspired by African-American themes and argot for such hits as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Ol’ Man River.” They translated the black music of church halls and barrooms into sophisticated songs that were at once true to the original spirit and acceptable to a mainstream audience.
For Leiber and Stoller, though, that acceptability was a fluky byproduct of their urge to write for the “race music” market. Within months of their meeting, they’d sold a song, “Real Ugly Woman,” to R&B star Jimmy Witherspoon, and had a local hit with “Hard Times,” recorded by Charles Brown. L&S didn’t dilute their material for white listeners: rather, the mainstream diverted itself to reach their fertile backwater. Their “K.C. Lovin’,” a race hit for Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, took seven years to become a No. 1 record, now called “Kansas City,” for Wilbert Harrison. “Hound Dog,” which they wrote for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1952, was heard only by blacks and blues connoisseurs until Elvis covered it four years later, selling millions of 45s by snarling what, to white city kids, must have seemed an esoteric insult: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog / Cryin’ all the time. / You ain’t never caught a rabbit / And you ain’t no friend of mine.”
COASTING TO THE TOP
In 1953, L&S got national attention with “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a cautionary tale about a guy who’s pleased when a hot woman sits next him in a diner, then terrified when he learns she belongs to Smokey Joe — “a chef hat on his head and a knife in his hand.” Performed by the team’s L.A. discoveries the Robins, the song features an almost maniacally comic attack by lead singer Carl Gardner, in a vocal that could have come right off the Chitlin Circuit of black vaudeville; imagine Mantan Moreland as a great belter. L&S’s full, clear and incorrigibly boppin’ production caught the ear of Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun back in New York. Buying the national rights for distribution by Atlantic, Ertegun was smart enough to know he wanted not just the record but its begetters. So he hired the boys as independent producers — the first in music-biz history.