One half of the prolific songwriting partnership that wrote major hits for everyone from Elvis Presley to Ben E KingLEGENDS: Jerry Leiber, Gladys Knight and Mike Stoller in Beverly Hills in 2001
Published 28/08/2011 | 05:00
Jerry Leiber, who died last week aged 78, was one half of the prolific songwriting partnership that produced some of the 20th Century's biggest popular music hits, arguably inventing rock and roll.
Leiber wrote the lyrics, and with Mike Stoller as his tunesmith created a vast catalogue of songs that defined the genre, including Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, Yakety Yak, Stand By Me and On Broadway. Their golden touch endured two decades, from Hound Dog, which they wrote in 1953, to Stuck in the Middle with You.
The achievement was all the greater given that, for Leiber, English was a second language (Yiddish being the first). Undeterred, he rattled out wry and inventive lyrics, laden with references to sex, but which were nonetheless meticulously crafted.
Their influence on the popular songwriters of the Sixties -- including The Beatles -- was significant; both John Lennon and Paul McCartney acknowledged the way Leiber and Stoller songs shaped their own material.
Leiber was hyperactive and impetuous, unlike the more reflective Stoller. But they were both white, Jewish and middle-class, subverting the established order in the largely black milieu of Fifties rhythm and blues.
But it was precisely this ability to sauce their white Jewishness with the blues that gave their hits mass appeal. Beneath Leiber's shock of curly red hair glittered one blue eye and one brown ("assorted", according to his passport). Drawn to Marxist politics as a young man, he always relished the whiff of subversion.
The pair wrote quickly, sometimes as many as five songs in an afternoon: famously, Yakety Yak was written in the time it took Leiber to boil a kettle to make tea. While Stoller was riffing at the piano, Leiber "just started yelling: 'Take out the papers and the trash!'" Typical of his ability to effortlessly come up with lyrics, the words for Spanish Harlem (1960) came to him at his townhouse on the Upper West Side while Stoller was in the kitchen grilling a hamburger.
Their creativity sprang from such spontaneity. Leiber conceded that his songs were "not really terribly thoughtful. They're basic primitive expressions". Although a natural humourist, he could also write poignantly of death ("that final disappointment") and offer a shrewd running commentary on what one devotee remembered as "the manifold miseries of being teenage".
They had commercial nous too, and were always aware that radio airplay was the key to success ("We don't write songs, we write records").
Jerome Leiber was born on April 25, 1933, in Baltimore, Maryland, into a Yiddish-speaking family in a mainly Catholic neighbourhood. His father died when he was five, and in 1945 his mother, who ran a grocery store, moved the family to the west coast.
Unusually for a Jewish child, Leiber (like Mike Stoller, originally from the Queens area of New York) grew up around black people. As a young boy he had delivered groceries for his mother to black families in Baltimore, which was then racially segregated.
By 1950, when he was 17, Leiber was a pupil at Fairfax High School, Los Angeles, with ambitions to be an actor but working part-time as an assistant in a record store, scribbling blues lyrics in an exercise book. A mutual friend suggested he meet Stoller, with a view to forming a songwriting partnership.
Stoller, who played jazz piano, was not keen, but Leiber persisted and later, after dropping out of Los Angeles City College, the two teenagers began to write songs together, hawking their wares to the publishers and producers around the 'music row' of Sunset and Vine.
In 1953 they formed the Spark record label to release material by the doo-wop quartet The Robins (later The Coasters), describing the songs they wrote for the group as "playlets"; The Robins' biographer went further, identifying "a string of individual morality plays into which they distilled a neat and witty combination of guts and well-observed narrative".
Not all their hits were so nuanced. Leiber and Stoller took less than 15 minutes to compose Hound Dog for Willie Mae Thornton; despite (or perhaps because of) its vernacular lyric -- "You ain't nothin' but a houn' dog/Cryin' all the time" -- it eventually became one of the defining popular songs of the 20th Century.
When first recorded by Thornton in 1953, the song topped the R&B charts for a modest seven weeks. Later, Elvis Presley heard a comedy version of the song in a show at Las Vegas and decided to cover it as a rock and roll number. He recorded 31 takes before he was satisfied. Stoller, who had sailed for Europe on a belated honeymoon, was unaware of this development. But on his return, in July 1956, Leiber was waiting for him on the dockside at New York to greet him with the news that they had scored their first major hit.
Based on the success of Hound Dog, Leiber and Stoller were hired to write more songs for Presley, as well as the score for his film Jailhouse Rock. By then Spark had been bought out by Atlantic Records, and in October 1957 Leiber and Stoller moved to New York as independent producers, setting up an office in the celebrated Brill Building.
Leiber crafted a succession of precision-made lyrics in simple verse form, including a controversial "gay" verse in Jailhouse Rock: "Number forty-seven said to number three/You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see/I sure would be delighted with your company/Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me."
Working in the Brill's own studios, their most notable productions were for The Drifters and their lead singer Ben E King: classics such as There Goes My Baby, Stand By Me and On Broadway were released on Atlantic. They also began working for major labels like Capitol and RCA Victor (which released Presley's hits) as well as newly created independents.
On leaving Atlantic after a row over money, they produced a remarkable series of hits for the record division of United Artists, including Love Potion Number Nine, recorded by The Clovers.
In 1964, with George Goldner, they set up the Red Bird and Blue Cat record labels on which, among other songs, they released The Shangri-Las' Leader of the Pack.
Taking a break from production, Leiber and Stoller bought the King record group and created the cabaret-style songs for Peggy Lee's album Mirrors (1976).
They returned to mainstream pop briefly in 1972, producing two albums for the British folk-rock duo Stealers Wheel and another for Elkie Brooks, for whom they produced and part-wrote her hit Pearl's A Singer. In semi-retirement in the Seventies, Leiber and Stoller developed Only In America, a stage show featuring 30 of their songs. A musical based on their compositions, Yakety Yak, was staged in London.
A second musical of their work, Smokey Joe's Cafe, was a Broadway hit, running from 1995 until 2000. In 2005 Leiber and Stoller released a remixed and expanded version of the Peggy Lee's Mirrors album, retitled Peggy Lee Sings Leiber and Stoller. The pair received Grammys for Is That All There Is? and for the cast album of Smokey Joe's Cafe, which was also nominated for seven Tony awards.
Jerry Leiber lived in latter years at Venice Beach, California, and was a collector of art, including paintings by Lucian Freud.
He was twice divorced, and is survived by two sons.