RIP Jerry Leiber: half of one of rock's greatest songwriting teams
Take the songs of Jerry Leiber, who died Monday at age 78, and his longtime songwriting partner, Mike Stoller, out of the book of early rock ‘n’ roll and you’d be left with a Grand Canyon-sized hole.
The New York-based songwriting and production team was responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of hits over the first decade of rock’s history, and their legacy continues to be felt more than half a century later.
Just the Leiber-Stoller songs that Elvis Presley recorded would constitute a cornerstone of early rock: starting with “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” on through “King Creole,” “Don’t,” “Loving You,” “Dirty, Dirty Feeling,” “She’s Not You,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Trouble,” “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care),” “Bossa Nova, Baby,” and even “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.”
They crafted hits for the Coasters (“Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy,” “Searchin’,” “Along Came Jones,” “Young Blood”), the Drifters (“On Broadway,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Dance With Me”) , LaVern Baker (“Saved”), Ben E. King ("Stand By Me," "Spanish Harlem," “Gypsy,” “I [Who Have Nothing]”), The Clovers (“Love Potion #9), Peggy Lee (“Is That All There Is,” “I’m a Woman”) and Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood (“Jackson”).
As well-rounded musicians who also scouted and developed talent and produced recordings—well before the term “record producer” entered the lexicon—they landed what’s considered the first independent production deal with Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
“Hound Dog” alone has been recorded by more than 250 different acts, from the original R&B hit version by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Burl Ives, Conway Twitty, Macy Gray, Rockin’ Dopsie & the Cajun Twisters, Jimi Hendrix and the London Festival Orchestra.
Ertegun, as fabled a figure as the record business has ever produced, once said, “I fashioned myself as something of a writer and producer—until I saw Jerry and Mike at work. They redefined the art.”
And Ray Charles himself commented: “I knew all about Leiber and Stoller. They were those bad white boys who wrote the blackest songs this side of Mississippi. I loved what they did.”
Photo of Mike Stoller, left, Elvis Presley and Jerry Leiber at MGM Studios in Culver City in 1957. Credit: Crackerjack Photography.