- Tom Silva
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Leiber and Stoller Wrote America’s Songbook
The recent death of Jerry Leiber at age 78, the lyricist who, with partner, Mike Stoller, wrote some of the most memorable classics in the history of rock ’n’ roll, including “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and “On Broadway” marks a time to think about the duo’s enduring impact on American music since the 1950s. Their contributions to music during past decades reads like the nation’s playlist of the 1950s and 1960s in particular.
“Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written some of the most spirited and enduring rock ’n’ roll songs,” according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Leiber and Stoller advanced rock ’n’ roll to new heights of wit and musical sophistication.”
“He was my friend, my buddy, my writing partner for 61 years,” Stoller said. “We met when we were 17 years old. He had a way with words. There was nobody better. I am going to miss him.”
According to the Los Angeles Times’ “Pop and Hiss” Music blog, “It would be easy to fill an ode to lyricist Jerry Leiber, entirely with stories culled from his and longtime writing partner Mike Stoller’s songs. The volume of American classics that the team created over the years is astounding, but more impressive is the inventiveness, vision and laugh-out-loud love of language of the team’s best work, as anyone who’s ever sung along to the words ‘You’re going to need an ocean of calamine lotion’ understands. There are few means of better capturing pop culture at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll than examining the lyrics of Jerry Leiber. The best of his story-songs captured life with a poet’s eye for detail and a short fiction writer’s precision — and suggested a generational shift without clumsily calling for social upheaval, but by questioning authority and advancing social mores one seemingly innocuous line and internal rhyme at a time. Among the high points: A slice-of-life moment about the heartless snubbing of three cool cats by three cool chicks that inspired the Beatles on their first 1962 demo; ‘Smokey Joe’s Café,’ a classic tale of geeky cowardice that became the namesake of a hit Broadway musical.”
“When they wrote ‘Hound Dog’ for Big Mama Thornton, they had to have their contract co-signed by their parents,” according to their publicist, Bobbi Marcus. The song’s inspiration came when Leiber started beating a rhythm on the roof of Stoller’s 1937 Plymouth with one hand and tapped on the dashboard with the other. “I kinda liked the beat and it felt good,” Leiber said. “I started yelling, ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog!’ Stoller said, ‘I like that.'” Leiber and Stoller worked quickly when the spirit moved. In just one day, they wrote four songs that ended up on the soundtrack to the 1957 Presley movie “Jailhouse Rock” — the title track, its B-side single “Treat Me Nice,” “I Want to be Free” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.”
Despite Elvis’ resounding success with “Hound Dog,” Leiber was unhappy with changes to the lyrics. “I didn’t like the way he did. The song isn’t about a dog, it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis just played with the song; Big Mama nailed it.” Leiber later admitted that sales of seven million records “took the sting out of” the lyric changes.
Writing in the Rolling Stone, Andy Greene says that “Leiber was extremely irritated by the changes that Presley made to the original lyrics. ‘To this day I have no idea what that rabbit business is about,’ he said. Despite their success with Presley, most of the acts that Leiber and Stoller worked with were black. ‘I felt black,’ Leiber said in 1990. ‘I was as far as I was concerned. And I wanted to be black for lots of reasons. They were better musicians, they were better athletes, they were not uptight about sex, and they knew how to enjoy life better than most people.’”
Leiber and Stoller wrote about their lifelong partnership, which Leiber termed “the longest running argument in show business,” in their 2009 memoir, Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography. The duo’s writing skills and influence over the recording industry as ground-breaking independent producers earned them induction into the non-performer category of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. “The music world lost today one of its greatest poet laureates,” said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “Jerry not only wrote the words that everyone was singing, he led the way in how we verbalized our feelings about the societal changes we were living with in post-World War II life. Appropriately, his vehicles of choice were the emerging populist musical genres of rhythm and blues and then rock and roll.”
Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said that Leiber and Stoller shaped the music of the 1950s and ‘60s. “Together, they were an extraordinary team that generated a rich and diverse musical catalog that leaves an indelible imprint on our cultural history,” he said.