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."

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.

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