RIP: Jerry Leiber

Posted August 23, 2011 by J Matthew Cobb in News

Songwriter of rock ‘n roll classics “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak” and “Stand By Me” passes away at the age of 78

Songwriting duos seem to be the most exceptional and practical way to crafting a great pop song. Throughout the growing field of American music, the songwriting duo concept, usually assembling the brainy, musical forces with an ear for a hit – has matured  immensely over the course of time.

In that extensive list, you can find tag teams like Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, John Lennon & Paul McCartney, Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Nick Ashford & Val Simpson, Donald Fagen & Walter Beckner, Burt Bacharach & Hal David and Jerry Goffin & Carole King.

Not to discredit the aforementioned, but all of these pop hit makers with their zeal to encourage the growth of music by expanding the formats beyond their regular social demographics needed their influential origins to look back on. At the core, Jerry Leiber (words) and Mike Stoller (music) – the unsung heroes behind some of rock ‘n roll’s finest – should be herald as inspirations for the popular ‘songwriter duo’ concept.

At their peak, Leiber & Stoller paved the way for a king. Elvis Presley‘s roll of hits really started when he picked up a Big Mama Thornton R&B hit called “Hound Dog.” The song was recorded successfully in 1953 by the robust blues singer, but remained penned down to the R&B charts, which was called “race music” at the time. Elvis picked up the song in 1956, shaking  it up a little by tossing in his rockabilly sound and more of his sexual energy. After performing the song on The Milton Berele Show and showing off his pelvic action, RCA released it as a B-side single in 1956. It became a national hit (#1 country-and-western, #1 pop and #1 rhythm-and-blues) and the heart of rock n’ roll was born

The rage for Elvis also boosted business for Leiber & Stoller. As independent record producers, the pair helped develop hits for The Drifters and The Coasters, among others. Songs like “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak (Don’t Talk Back),” “Poison Ivy,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Stand By Me” (co-written with Ben E. King) and “On Broadway” (co-written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil). Leiber, along with his writing buddy Mike Stoller, also continued writing hits for Presley, including “Jailhouse Rock.”

Recalling his work relationship with his writing partner, Mike Stoller says it wasn’t easy working with his hard-headed friend. “We started fighting the moment we met,” Mike Stoller once said of his songwriting partnership with Jerry Leiber. “We fought about words, we fought about music. We fought about everything.” But the magic was there to make hits and the two found a way to work together to keep their vision alive. The late, great legendary record producer Jerry Wexler, who worked with the pair during their stay at Atlantic Records, praised both men about their chemistry. “They were the poets, producers and visionaries who took the business into a whole new dimension.”

In a 1990 interview with Rolling Stone, the two opened up further about their brutal songwriting process.  “In the early days we’d go back and forth note for note, syllable for syllable, word for word in the process of creating,” Stoller explained. “We’re a unit,” Leiber added. “The instincts are very closely aligned. I could write, ‘Take out the papers and the trash’ [“Yakety Yak,” by the Coasters], and he’ll come up with ‘Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash.'” 

No one really knew that Leiber and Stoller were white men with an ear for R&B. They were very much aware of what their music was doing on the surface of pop, although they made it their intention to keep R&B at the forefront of their work. In Leiber’s words with Rolling Stone,  he said: ‘Our songs did not transcend R&B. They were R&B hits that white kids were attracted to.’ The music also seemed to affect their own lifestyle. They even had black girlfriends. They admitted to Rolling Stonethat they thought many times that they were black. With their infectious soulful music, they helped pop music get a little more blacker. In their hands, this metamorphosis didn’t make it feel awkward. Instead, the country heard their songs and ate it up.

The pair have received numerous awards, including a Grammy Award for Peggy Lee’s “Is There All There Is?” in 1969 and would later be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Hound Dog” was also chosen as a Grammy Hall of Fame contender. Though their hits slowed up by the 1970’s, Leiber & Stoller remained on the hearts of music makers and lovers for their extraordinary contributions to what we call pop music.

Jerry Leiber died at the age of 78 from cardio-pulmonary failure. The diagnosis is normally translated as cardiac arrest. He is survived by his sons Jed, Oliver and Jake. And his dear friend and writing partner Mike Stoller. “He was my friend, my buddy, my writing partner for 61 years,” said the beloved songwriter. “We met when we were seventeen years old. He had a way with words. There was nobody better. I am going to miss him.”

This week, we also unfortunately lost Nickolas Ashford, one-half of the powerful R&B songwriting team Ashford & Simpson, after a long battle with throat cancer.

Sean Daly, music critic at the St. Petersburg Times, wrote in his respects to the deceased that “it’s no hyperbole to say that Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford are two of the most vital pop songwriters of all time. Without their heads, without their ideas, the rest of us are dancing a whole lot less, that’s for sure.”

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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