Remembering Jerry Leiber, the ‘Hound Dog’ Poet of Rock ‘n’ Roll

With his partner, Mike Stoller, the lyricist created many of rock's lushest, most foundational, most irresistible hits

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Songwriters and producers Jerry Lieber, right, and Mike Stoller pose during a portrait session in Beverly hills in 1980. The duo worked with Elvis and other famous pop musicians, and penned hits including "Stand By Me," and "On Broadway."

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.”

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.

Arriving in New York, they brought Gardner and one of the other Robins east, hired two other singers and called the new assembly The Coasters. Stoller’s uptempo bluesy charts (usually 12-bar blues) found the ideal blend of honking sax solos by King Curtis and the four singers, who sold the lyrics like charismatic street peddlers. Each Coaster had a distinct comic personality: Gardner’s lead tenor in a vaudeville vibrato of fear and trembling, Bobby Guy’s smart-guy growl (a nastier version of the Ray Charles tout-voice), Dub Jones’ mineshaft bass breaking in at climactic moments to deliver cool catchphrases.

Thus was born not just a group but also a genre: rock musical comedy. Leiber called his Robins-Coasters songs “radio playlets”: menacing narratives in blues settings. The postwar airwaves crackled with the exploits of tough, sassy private eyes like Philip Marlowe and Richard Diamond. Leiber assimilated those hard-boiled tales and gave them an adrenaline shot of urban wit, not caring whether his young listeners caught all the references. Most kids didn’t know that the Shadow was a ’30s radio hero (voiced by Orson Welles), but they couldn’t help laughing at Leiber’s threatening rhymes: “You’d better mind your P’s and Q’s/ And your M’s and N’s and O’s / Because… the Shadow knows.” Blacks knew too: unlike the radio character, L&S’s shadow spoke in their voice.

In the Coasters’ first national hit, “Searchin’,” a man tracking a lost girlfriend adopts the guise of his favorite radio detectives:

Well, Sherlock Holmes and Sammy Spade got nothin’, child, on me.
Sergeant Friday, Charlie Chan and Boston Blackie.
No matter where she’s a-hiding, she’s a-gonna hear me a comin’.
I’m gonna walk right down that street like Bulldog Drummon’.

A later, greater Coasters hit, the 1958 “Along Came Jones,” was inspired by the them-current glut of TV Westerns, and took its title from a 1945 Gary Cooper movie, but Leiber’s cliffhanger scheme was indebted to the Saturday-matinee serials he must have seen as a child:

I plopped down in my easy chair and turned on Channel 2.
A bad gunslinger called Salty Sam was a-chasin’ poor Sweet Sue.
He trapped her in the old sawmill and said with an evil laugh,
[Bass voice:] “If you don’t give me the deed to your ranch, I’ll saw you all in half!”

And then he grabbed her ([tremulous falsettos:] and then?)
He tied her up (and then?)
He turned on the buzz saw (and then? and then?)

And then along came Jones,

Tall thin Jones,

Slow-walkin’ Jones,
Slow-talkin’ Jones,
Along came long, lean, lanky Jones.

Often, though, the peril was scarier than any movie fantasy. In the Robins’ “Framed,” the narrator is picked up by cops, fingered by a stool pigeon, railroaded by the prosecuting attorney. It’s lumpen tragedy amped up to farce level, but with an implicit warning for their black listeners: life’s not fair to the underclass. As Leiber says in the book What’d I Say, a history of Atlantic Records, “A lot of this had to do with being a white kid’s take on a black person’s take on white society.”

At the time, Leiber and Stoller were among the few white songwriters working the black side of the segregated music business. But as the rock broke through the color barrier with crossover hits by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard in 1955-56, Leiber started writing Coasters lyrics for a new underclass: the white teenager. Now any authority figure, parent or teacher, was “the man,” making life miserable for kids. The class cutup in “Charlie Brown” wonders, “Why is everybody always pickin’ on me?” In “Yakety Yak” a parent barks out orders: “Take out the papers and the trash, / Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash. … / Tell all your hoodlum friends outside/ You ain’t got time to take a ride.” And when a chorus of kids shouts, “Yakety Yak,” the bass-voiced father barks, “Don’t talk back.”

(See TIME’s top 10 teen idols.)

There weren’t many June moons in the lurid Leiber landscape; it was a night town of train wrecks (“Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”), knife fights (“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”) and countless jailbreaks. To the propulsive musical setting Stoller wrote for Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock,” with its immortal opening salvo of guitar, then drums, Leiber provides a jaunty wit and possibly the first gay come-on in rock history — “Number 47 said to Number 3 / That you’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see” — unless the facility is coed. But that’s a happy-Hollywood version of “Riot in Cell Block #9,” which L&S wrote for the Robins in 1954:

The warden said, “Come out with your hands up in the air.
If you don’t stop this riot, you all gonna get the chair.”
Scarface Jones said, “It’s too late to quit.
Pass the dynamite — cause the fuse is lit.”

There’s a riot goin’ on,
There’s a riot goin’ on,
There’s a riot goin’ on
In cell block #9.

Then Leiber and Stoller turned around and masterminded the lushest, most romantic and inventive music that rock had yet heard: the Drifters’ songbook. The group had been evolving for almost a decade and had some hits (a doo-wop “White Christmas”) with front-man Clyde McPhatter. The new lead singer, Ben E. King, wrote a song called “There Goes My Baby,” which is still one of pop’s weirdest records: a standard doo-wop lament that has four violins and a cello sawing away (a jarring innovation back then) and, like a distant war drum, a timpani that no one knew how to tune and so hits one note no matter what the chord change. When Atlantic Records co-chairman Wexler first heard this bizarre melange, he was more than disappointed — he was furious. “It sounds like three stations playing at the same time coming through on one very bad car radio,” he fumed, insisting that the number be junked. Ertegun overruled him, and “There Goes My Baby” was a top-five pop and R&B hit.

(Watch TIME’s video on the best and worst summer songs.)

“We don’t write songs,” Leiber and Stoller have often said. “We write records.” The declaration underlines their roles as producers; and over the next five years, while managing an ever-drifting roster of Drifters personnel, Leiber and Stoller made gorgeous records. They got three particularly inventive pieces from songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman: “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me” and the can-never-be-played-too-often “Sweets for My Sweet.” L&S also encouraged the young songwriters in Broadway’s Brill Building — Gerry Goffin and Carole King (“When My Little Girl Is Smiling,” “Some Kind of Wonderful”), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway”), who were all in their late teens or early 20s — to write plangent pop ballads. These were the Broadway songs that Broadway couldn’t bring itself to write.

Not everything involving the Drifters was some kind of wonderful. The singers were shamelessly exploited by their manager, George Treadwell. He owned the group outright; the members received a salary of about $500 a month, and no royalties from their hit records. When Ben E. King confronted Treadwell for a raise, he was booted out of the group. Leiber and Stoller helped him establish King’s solo career, but they weren’t exactly angels. Though the early L&S songs had an underdog acerbity, the pair’s determination to produce hit after Drifters hit made them cautious with other writers’ songs. Mann and Weil had written “Only in America” as a scathing denunciation of civil inequity: “Only in America/ Land of opportunity/ Do they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me.” Leiber and Stoller rewrote the lyric as a straightforward, Horatio Alger anthem. The meaning was lost; worse, it was twisted.

When L&S and their team did make music, it was beautiful. “This Magic Moment,” for example, begins with violins doing giddy, hurricane-force arpeggios. The chorus is musically and lyrically ordinary, but that’s just to lull you before the surprise of a great bridge. An acoustic guitar goes Latino in a minor key, and King sings gently: “Sweeter than wine/ Softer than the summer night…” Then the melody returns to its dominant chord, backing singers join in for an open-throated “Aaaah” and King declares: “Everything I want I have/ Whenever I hold you tight.” Four lines that express gentle love, consuming love.

“Save the Last Dance” is a perfect record, with its unusual ten-beat verses, its rising notes and the emotion soaring as King tenderly warns, “Don’t forget who’s takin’ you home/ And in whose arms you’re gonna be” (possibly the greatest relative-pronoun clause in pop music) and the promise that the last dance will be the most intimate of all. The song is even lovelier if you know the story behind its creation. “Doc was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life,” Leiber notes in What’d I Say?, “so he couldn’t dance. He was married to this gorgeous blond woman [Broadway and TV actress Willi Burke], and … he’d say, ‘Yeah, we go out, that’s cool — I like to watch her.’ That’s the song.”

Besides producing the Drifters’ hits with Stoller, Leiber wrote one masterpiece that his partner had nothing to do with. Transferring the simile in the Robert Burns poem “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” to uptown Manhattan, he composed the lyric of “Spanish Harlem”: “With eyes as black as coal / It looks down in my soul / And starts a fire there and then I lost control. / I have to beg your pardon. / I’m going to pick that rose / And watch her as she grows / In my garden.” Stoller being unavailable, Leiber gave the word sheet to the 20-year-old Spector, then serving as the pair’s assistant. The wunderkind somehow poured a symphonic melody into the 12-bar blues structure and “solved” the challenge of the run-on lyrics in the middle of the verse. When King recorded the song, as his first single, Stoller added the plaintive “la-la-la” underscoring to help create an improbable, and angelic, hit. Stoller performed another form of magic — the dominant bass line — on King’s second solo hit, “Stand by Me.” Both records have the same impact today as they did 50 years ago: heavenly.

Rock ‘n roll is a young man’s game, on both sides of the recording-studio glass. Spector enjoyed his biggest hits with the Wall of Sound in a three-year blast that lost its kick when he was 25; late in that decade, when he came by to produce the Beatles’ last album Let It Be, he was already the strange old dude. When Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic in 1963 to form their own label, Red Bird, they were just 32. There, under L&S’s supervision, other people wrote and produced the hits: “Chapel of Love,” “Leader of the Pack,” “(Remember) Walking in the Sand.”

As composers, they soon ceased writing hits. But their catalog was so rich that it kept generating them. Dion covered two Drifters songs, “Ruby Baby” from 1955 and “Drip Drop” from 1958, and had hits with both. At least five L&S oldies became later Top 10 hits: the Ben E. King “I (Who have Nothing)” for Tom Jones, “I’m a Woman” for Maria Muldaur, “On Broadway” for George Benson, “Spanish Harlem” for Aretha Franklin and “There Goes My Baby” for Donna Summer. In the curio category are a rendition of “Stand by Me” by one Cassius Clay in 1964 and Bruce Willis’ 1987 cover of “Young Blood.” In 1986, with a hit movie as impetus, King’s original of “Stand by Me” returned to the charts, and went to No. 1. And across the Atlantic, Edith Piaf would translate “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” which L&S had written in 1955 for the white novelty trio The Cheers (featuring future game-show host Burt Convy), into “L’homme â la Moto.”

It’s possible that, after more than a dozen years making records about young people in trouble, the pioneers decided it was time to work with adults. So they turned to the mature, ever-cool Peggy Lee, for whom Leiber wrote love lyrics that sounded like taunts. Consider the female empowerment in the 1963 “I’m a Woman,” which the singer purrs mostly in recitatif. The verses comprise various domestic boasts: “I can scoop up a great big dipper full of lard from the drippin’s can, / Throw it in the skillet, go out and do my shopping, be back before it melts in the pan.” (How can she do all this? “Cause I’m a woman. W-O-M-A-N. I’ll say it again.”) In the final verse she acknowledges that someone, gender M-A-N, is listening, and she snarls, “I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you.” Pop music was supposed to be kid stuff; Leiber gave it a stiff drink and made it grow up fast and strong.

(Read about Leiber passing away.)

The last L&S original hit, for Lee in 1969, twisted bravado into blasé. The singer reminisces about being saved from a burning building, being taken to the circus, falling in love with a man who leaves her — and each time her response is the same: “Is that all there is? Is that all there is? / If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. / Let’s break out the booze and have a ball / If that’s all there is.”

Both “I Am Woman” and “Is That All There Is” were French-accented ballads that could have given heft to any musical play. Broadway seemed the logical step for them, as it had been for other ambitious pop songwriters. But though L&S songs appeared in such shows as Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ in 1978 and Lee’s own Peg in 1983, they never had an original musical on Broadway. The closest they came was the 1995 Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a vivacious songbook show of their greatest hits; it ran for nearly five years and either reminded the geriatrics of rock’s age-old vitality or introduced a new generation to the impudent wit — and… can I say genius? — of rock’s own Rodgers and Hart.

Today, on the Leiber-Stoller website, Mike Stoller’s son Peter posted this notice: “Jerry Leiber passed quickly and with minimum discomfort, surrounded by his family. He is survived by his three sons, Jed, Oliver, and Jake, and his two granddaughters, Chloe and Daphne. You can honor his memory by committing your life to excellence and joy. Of course, Jerry would never have said anything like that. He would have said: ‘Let’s break out the booze, and have a ball…’

“That works, too. L’chaim, Unca Jer.”

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