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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George Rose / Getty Images

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."

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.

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