How Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tapped into the soul of '50s
Americaand made it sing
By Wesley Yang
July 2, 2009
Though it has been the subject of history textbooks and PBS
documentaries for decades, rock and roll still retains the power to
make the learned things said of it seem hopelessly pedantic. It is,
on the one hand, a slight musical endeavor: three chords; four
accented beats; bass, guitar, and drums; an excitable front man who
will carry on shouting for three minutes; a simple verse-chorus
structure; repetition; overpowering volume; rhyming couplets, most of
them unswervingly fixated on the subject of sex between teenagers
(or, let's face it, statutory rape). On the other hand, everything
thrilling and grotesque about America is implicated in the rise of
this vernacular art. It was the sound of America's poorest, most
despised peopleslaves who became sharecroppers who migrated north to
became tenement dwellers in Memphis, Chicago, and Kansas City, and
trashy whites from the brawling culture of the Appalachian mountains.
It turned out that America's most despised people were also its most
creative, and that some of them weren't upright and God-fearing
(though many of them were), but in fact mischievous, irreverent,
impulsive, drunken, and sex-obsessed. Through the medium of
television and recording, the sound of their erotic delirium became
the common property of its white middle-class teenagers, and through
these exemplary consumers, the world.
It was the instrument of a revolution in bourgeois manners and mores.
What other country would dress its privileged children in the garb of
its sharecroppers and coal miners, or school them, three minutes at a
time, in the sexual mores of the ghetto, selling them commercial
fantasies of freedom and authenticity that would seduce the young
everywhere? The industry spawned by the music has long since grown
(like the old Elvis) cynical, corpulent, corporate, and corrupted;
and (like the aging Michael Jackson) inhumanly strange, sequestered
in appalling opulence, frozen in childhood, and besieged by
creditors. But as with all things that go wrong on a grand scale,
rock and roll was once, like the young Elvis, extraordinarya vision
of a miscegenated American future as compelling as the linked arms of
Freedom Fighters that were then rising up across the South.
It was the early 1950's and America was changing. Who would serve as
the vanguard of this change? You would need people eager to embrace
the new, able to serve as intermediaries linking black and white,
high and low, sensitive enough to hear joy where others heard only
squalor, clever enough to hear opportunity where others only heard
noise, alive to the mordant humor of the ghetto, heedless of existing
prejudices and conventions, enterprising enough to invent an industry
where none had existed before. You needed Phil and Leonard Chess in
Chicago; Syd Nathan at King Records in Cincinnati; Lester, Jules,
Saul, and Joe Bihari at Modern Records in Los Angeles; Leo and Eddie
Mesner at Aladdin Records just down the road; and Alan Freed on first
the Cleveland, then the New York City airwaves. You needed Jerry
Wexler and Herb Abramson at Atlantic Records in New York; a teenaged
Michael Bloomfield playing in the first integrated electric blues
band in Chicago in 1963; and the former Robert Zimmerman in the cafes
of Greenwich Village. You needed people who could operate at the
bloody crossroads where commerce, art, and social change were
converging. All of which is to say that you needed Jews.
Here is how Lester Sill, national sales manager for the independent
blues label Modern Records explained it to a teenaged Jerry Leiber,
("Kid, I think you're going to like this music," Sill told Leiber
before handing him a recording of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie
Chillun,") then a part-time clerk at Norty's, a little record shop in
Los Angeles that sold Frankie Laine records and cantorial music from
Russia and Poland:
"'The big labels,' explained Lester, 'like RCA, Columbia and Decca
are ignoring the really great popular Negro artists because they just
don't understand or care about the music. They don't think it's
worthwhile, artistically or commercially. Well, I don't have to tell
you how wrong they are.'"
The voice reminiscing above belongs to Jerome Leiber, who would go on
to become one half of the songwriting team that wrote and produced
some of the most important and best rock and roll singles ever,
including "Kansas City," "Stand By Me," "Poison Ivy," "Yakety-Yak,"
"This Magic Moment," "Spanish Harlem," "Searchin'," "Jailhouse Rock,"
and "Hound Dog." Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller began writing songs in
1951, at the age of 18, for a label producing what were then known as
"race records" for Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, the
Robins, the Drifters, Big Joe Turner, and Ruth Brown. By 1958, at the
age of 25, Leiber and Stoller had been dubbed "the Gilbert and
Sullivan of rock and roll," and "the Grandfathers of Rock and Roll."
They would go on to write and produce the major hits of the Drifters
and the Coasters, establish themselves as the first independent
record producers in the industry, and nurture the talent of one Phil Spector.
Hound Dog, the Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, just released by
Simon and Schuster, is a slight volume of edited interviews that
recapitulates much of what was already known about the songwriting
duo, and some delightful new anecdotes of uncertain veracity. The
first third of the book captures the excitement of those early days
when the music was still unknown to white audiences and the big
record companies had no regard for it. For anyone remotely
susceptible to the heartbreaking innocence of that period, the sly,
keen, slightly-outdated hip patois recorded in that book is an
"Like Lester, many of the label owners were Jewish. 'Look at the way
the big iron and steel companies threw the scraps to the Jews,' said
Lester. 'That's how Jews started in the scrap metal business. Same
thing in music. The majors see a great artist like Jimmy Witherspoon
as scrap. They don't want to deal with what they consider junk. Well,
some of these small labels were actually junk dealers before they got
into the music game. Through experience, they learned what some see
as junk might actually be precious jewels.'"
Jerry Leiber first heard black music in homes where he delivered
"five-gallon cans of kerosene and ten-pound bags of soft coal," as an
errand boy for his mother, who owned the only grocery store willing
to extend credit to blacks in the neighborhood. His father had been a
"door to door milkman who died penniless," when Leiber was five.
Leiber's first language was Yiddish; his earliest attempt to play
boogie-woogie on piano ended when his Uncle Dave, "without warning,
violently slammed down the wooden keyboard cover," in the midst of a lesson.
Mike Stoller's aunt was a child prodigy who graduated from the Vienna
Conservatory at 12, but his introduction to boogie-woogie came under
the gentle direction of the stride pianist James P. Johnson. Stoller
grew up listening to Richard Strauss, Shostakovitch, and Sibelius,
but "it was black music," he explains, "that excited my deepest
passion. I heard the lyricism in Richard Strauss, I felt the elegance
of Bach, but boogie-woogie really reached my eight-year old soul."
Where music had been, for his mother's German Jewish family, the
hallmark of social superiority, young Stoller's interest in music
"was purely visceral." Is there a clearer illustration of the Old
World's cultural hierarchies succumbing to the blandishments of the
New World's freedom to reinvent oneself in any guise?
Stoller would write the music, noodling along on the keyboard while
Leiber tossed out phrases off the top of his head. Many of their hits
were written in fifteen minutes or fewer. The story of their ascent
within their field is rapid and untroubled. "Our interest was in
black music and black music only," Stoller declares. His own musical
vocabulary spanned the blues, R&B, avant-garde jazz and classical
music of his day, but he deployed all of it in search of the most
immediate impact, and without any consciousness that the music they
were making was other than ephemeral. "If you had asked me and Mike
back then," Leiber says about the great Robins song "Smokey Joe's
Cafe," we would have said that we loved the recording, that it might
even be a hit, but we assumed that in a few months the songand, for
that matter, all our songswould be, like a pile of old comic books,
discarded and forgotten." Stoller observes that when he was writing
hit songs "stratification of popular music was absolute. At the top
were giants like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. At the bottom
were guys like us." Leiber quotes Random House's co-founder politely
inquiring: "Why did you write something called 'Hound Dog'?" The
"highbrow view of the day" was that "rock and roll was trash." The
view had something to recommend it, according to the sexual mores of
the day. Leiber wrote the lyrics with a vocabulary, as Stoller puts
it that was "black, Jewish, theatrical, comical," telling stories, as
Leiber tells it, about "heartache and pain, but also unrestrained joy
and unrestrained sex."
"She wasn't built for power
She wasn't built for speed
But she was built for comfort
And that's what I need."
In 1953, Leiber and Stoller wrote a song for Big Mama Thornton called
"Hound Dog," which became a hit on the R&B charts. At one point
during the session Leiber encourages Thornton to "attack" a certain
part of the song. Thornton interrupts him. "'Come here boy,' she
said, motioning me to stand even closer to her. 'I'll tell you what
you can attack. Attack this…' she added, pointing to her crotch." The
opening lyric, as Thornton had sang it, went like this:
You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Quit snooping 'round my door
You can wag your tail,
But I ain't gonna feed you no more"
In 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show singing
You aint' nothing but a hound dog
Crying all the time
You ain't never caught a rabbit
And you ain't no friend of mine"
"The song is not about a dog," Leiber observes. "It's about a man, a
freeloading gigolo. Elvis's version makes no sense to me," going on
to opine that "there's no comparison between the Presley version and
the Big Mama original. Elvis played with the song. Big Mama nailed
it." Nonetheless, Presley's choice of the song made Leiber and
Stoller, as Leiber puts it "awfully goddamn lucky," to be placed at
the forefront of "the bigger commercial revolution in American music:
teenage rock and roll."
The book then settles into the rhythm of professional success,
punctuated by conflict, as the duo negotiates the treacherous waters
of the music business. They go on to write Peggy Lee's signature
mid-life crisis hit "Is That All There Is?" in which the aging singer
faces mortality with resignation that is at once cheerful, rueful,
and mordant. The book ends with the obligatory flourish of showbiz
gratitude for blessings bestowed by fate, but ends on a note struck
all those decades ago by the nihilistic chanteuse. Leiber and Stoller
began life as "horny teenagers" obsessed with the sound, rhythm, and
preoccupations of the lustful music emerging from the black
underground. They managed to make being a horny teenager into a
profitable vocation, and became rich, honored, and successful men,
carving out a permanent place in American cultural history for the
ephemeral songs they wrote in 15 minutes or fewer. Facing mortality
and clinging to life amid failing health, Leiber admits that he
thinks back "to the days of cognac and tobacco with deep nostalgia."
Aging and mortalitythe insistent facts for which rock and roll has
no reply. And he tells his interlocutor that:
"If my next medical report is 'Leiber, you've run out of options.
You've got a month at most to put your affairs in order,' then this
is my plan: I'm going to buy a fifth of Maker's Mark bourbon, a
carton of Camels, and as many Billie Holiday records as I can carry.
I'm going to break out the booze and have a ball."
"If that's all there is."