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."

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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