Jerry Leiber, one of the most important songwriters in the history of rock & roll – whose 60-year partnership with Mike Stoller produced “Stand By Me,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Young Blood,” “On Broadway,” “Yakety-Yak” and countless other classics – has died of cardiopulmonary failure. He was 78.
“When Jerry and I started to write, we were writing to amuse ourselves,” Stoller told Rolling Stone in 1990. “It was done out of a love of doing it. We got very lucky in the sense that at some point what we wrote also amused a lot of other people.”
Leiber met Stoller in Los Angeles in 1950 when he was still a senior in high school. They had a mutual love of R&B, blues and pop, and began writing music together almost instantly, with Stoller mostly handling the music and Leiber mostly handling the lyrics. “Jerry was an idea machine,” Stoller says in their 2009 memoir Hound Dog. “For every situation, Jerry had 20 ideas. As would-be songwriters, our interest was in black music and black music only. We wanted to write songs for black voices. When Jerry sang, he sounded black, so that gave us an advantage . . . His verbal vocabulary was all over the place – black, Jewish, theatrical, comical. He would paint pictures with words.”
In the early days, they pulled 12-hour days writing on an upright piano in Stoller’s house. “We’re a unit,” Leiber told Rolling Stone in 1990. “The instincts are very closely aligned. I could write, ‘Take out the papers and the trash,’ and he’ll come up with ‘Or you don’t get no spending cash.'”
Within three years of meeting each other, Leiber and Stoller were the hottest songwriters in the business –writing hits for the Drifters, Coasters and the Robins and many other R&B groups of the era. In 1956, their career went to a higher level when Elvis Presley took “Hound Dog” – which they wrote for Big Mama Thornton four years earlier – and turned it into a gigantic hit.
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 in 2009. “The song is not about a dog; it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’ version makes no sense to me, and, even more irritatingly, it is not the song that Mike and I wrote. Of course, the fact that it sold more than seven million copies took the sting out of what seemed to be a capricious change of lyrics.”
Despite their success with Presley, most of the acts that Leiber and Stoller worked with were black. “I felt black,” Leiber told Rolling Stone 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.”
Not all of their songs were as innocent as they seemed. “Pure and simple, ‘Poison Ivy’ [a 1959 hit they wrote for The Coasters] is a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease – or the clap – hardly a topic for a song that hit the Top Ten in the Spring of 1959,” Leiber said in 2009. “But the more we wrote, the less we understood why the public bought what it bought.”
The hits continued into the early 1960s with such classics as “Stand By Me” and “Spanish Harlem,” but when the Beatles broke in America in early 1964, the music industry changed very quickly. The duo never stopped working together, and in 1972 they produced “Stuck In The Middle With You,” which was recorded by Stealers Wheel. In 1995, their catalog of hits was turned into the Broadway musical Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and this past May, American Idol devoted an entire evening to their music.
Listen to “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me” and More Leiber and Stoller Hits: