You canít understand the words.
Well, honey, if you did,
Youíd really blow your lid.
Baby, that is rock and roll.
Leiber and Stoller for the Coasters, 1959
A few days ago, Bill Clinton opened up shop in Harlem, and gave a speech so buoyant and well-received it seemed like the first salvo in a grass-roots campaign to repeal the 22nd Amendment. When the once-and-perhaps-future President finished speaking, he locked arms with Chuck Schumer and Charlie Rangel and sang along to the tune that might have been his theme song for a turbulent quarter-century in politics: "Stand By Me." The song was a metaphor for racial harmony in more ways than Clinton knew; for it was written and recorded, in about a half-hour one December day in 1960, by the R&B singer Ben E. King and his record producers, two Jewish hepcats named Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller.
"Stand By Me" could represent the growth, modifications and moderation that took place at Atlantic Records, and in popular music, from the beginning to the end of the Ď50s. The song along with another all-timer, "Spanish Harlem" was recorded in Kingís first solo session after leaving The Drifters, a group that had been at Atlantic, with many personnel permutations, from its inception as a support staff for singer Clyde McPhatter in 1953. Since 1958, when the remnants of the original quintet were replaced by Kingís group, the Five Crowns, their songs had been produced by Leiber and Stoller, in a smooth Latinate ballady groove that was new to both the Drifters (who had specialized in R&B) and their producers (who had made their rep with funky, catarrhal blues records).
"Stand By Me," and even less the ethereal urban love song "Spanish Harlem," couldnít be designated as R&B, or blues, or rock. But pop was mutating faster than a B-movie monster. Leiber and Stoller were orchestrating those changes; King and the Drifters and a dozen other soloists and groups were giving them voice. The godfather of this strange, beautiful new creature was Atlanticís co-founder, Ahmet Ertegun. And his adopted family was a handsome one indeed. In the late Ď50s he had the top of the pops: ballad group (The Drifters) and comic group (The Coasters), R&B shouter (Ray Charles) and Sinatra heir-apparent (Bobby Darin).
Before Leiber and Stroller came to Atlantic, Ertegun did a little of everything: scouted and signed acts, produced sides, wrote songs. But the lyrics werenít exactly sophisticated (example: "Donít you know I love you, love you so/ Donít you know I love you, love you so/ Donít you know I love you so/ And Iíll never let you go/ Donít you know I love you, love you so") and the production values came up a little short in the jizz category.
In 1950 the Joe Morris band provided a couple of entertaining exceptions: "The Applejack" had the saxes booming out thunderous elephant farts, and "Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere" featured a piercing vocal by Little Laurie Tate that suggested Butterfly McQueen attempting a soul tune while having her hand hammered. But the Atlantic oeuvre was more notable for good intentions than radical R&B, let alone crossover pop-rock.
Ertegun and his partner Jerry Wexler needed three things: a performer to summarize and transcend the blues form; a white singer the kids could call their own; and a writer-producer team to synthesize black music for the mass market that didnít even know it needed a seismic sonic jolt. With these elements, Ertegun and Wexler knew, they could revolutionize musicmaking and, more important, music listening. Just their luck, and their smarts, they got all three.
Blinded at six by glaucoma, schooled in classical, gospel and every form of popular music, Charles came to Atlantic in 1953, when Ertegun bought his Swingtime Records contract for $2,500. Ray brought with him a pioneering blend of gospel melodies, R&B raunch, a suavely swinginí piano groove ŗ la Nat Cole and the imposing sound of a big band behind him (though typically he worked with only six sidemen). Oh, and an epochal vocal style that would make him the dominant and longest-lived soul singer of the century. Was Charles, as one of his own albums proclaimed, a "genius"? Eh, whoís to say. But at Atlantic he was the genie let out of their R&B bottle. The cork got lost, and American popular music was never the same.
Henry Pleasants, in his ear-opening book "The Great American Popular Singers" (a 1974 work that deserves to be back in print), gets to the heart of Charlesí vocal achievement: "Sinatra, and Bing Crosby before him, had been a master of words. Ray Charles is a master of sounds. His records disclose an extraordinary assortment of slurs, glides, turns, shrieks, wails, breaks, shouts, screams and hollers, all wonderfully controlled, disciplined by inspired musicianship, and harnessed to ingenious subtleties of harmony, dynamics and rhythm... It is either the singing of a man whose vocabulary is inadequate to express what is in his heart and mind or of one whose feelings are too intense for satisfactory verbal or conventionally melodic articulation. He canít tell it to you. He canít even sing it to you. He has to cry out to you, or shout to you, in tones eloquent of despair or exaltation. The voice alone, with little assistance from the text or the notated music, conveys the message."
Ertegun and house arranger Jesse Stone had to prod the new guy to drop the crooning (on some early recordings, like "It Shouldíve Been Me" and "Greenbacks," he adopts the nasal whisper of a race tout) and get forceful. Charles also learned that he was his best composer. His first pieces were every bit as primitive as Ertegunís, but his renditions were way more primal. On "Donít You Know" the lyric boasts a banality worthy of Ahmetís efforts ("Donít you know, baby/ Child, donít you know, baby/ Donít you know, baby/ Little girl, little girl, donít you know/ Please listen to me, baby/ Girl, Iím in love with you so"). But those are just words: the first sound on the cut is a wild falsetto field whoop, then a plaintive "well" exactly an octave lower as if he were a woman in ecstasy and a man hurting from its lack. His voice rasps like a man whose heart is in his throat, and itís just been broken.
After four verses of 12-bar blues, the song rollicks into some of Charlesí swinginí lounge piano, then returns to the vocal, in a squealing release "Say, have you heard, baby/ Ray Charles is in town/ Letís mess around till the midnight hour/ See what heís puttiní down" that prefigures no fewer than three Atlantic songs: Charlesí own "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Mess Around" and Wilson Pickettís "In the Midnight Hour." The song ends with generic barks ("Come on! Come on, child!") that are pretty much grunts with consonants. A listener needs no English to understand what Pleasants calls the message: a manís desperate yearning in the tantalizingly remote face of God or Woman.
Whatís the difference between religious and sexual ecstasy, between philosophical and emotional anguish? In the Church of Charles, not much. As Donald Clark observes in his grand sweep of pop, "The Rise and Fall of Popular Music," several Charles songs were blues adaptations of gospel airs: from "Talkiní ĎBout Jesus" to "Talkiní ĎBout You," from "This Little Light of Mine" to "This Little Girl of Mine," from "How Jesus Died" to the Doc Pomus composition "Lonely Avenue." The first number was Charlesí most popular tune thus far; the second was covered, and nicely revamped as rockabilly, by the Everly Brothers; the third ("My covers, they feel like lead/ And my pillow, it feels like stone/ Well Iíve tossed and turned so every night/ Iím not used to beiní alone") stands as the potent plaint of a man bereft.
Charlesí edge toward popularity in the late Ď50s coincided with a shift from the 12-bar format to popís favorite descending chord pattern (C, C7, F, F-minor) in the choruses of "Ainít That Love," "Swanee River Rock" and "Thatís Enough" and the release of "This Little Girl of Mine" and his sensaysh cover of Sy Oliverís "Yes Indeed." We came to expect the revival-show tambourine (rattled by co-producer Jerry Wexler on some sides), the backing girl group (the Cookies, later known as the Raelettes) offer response to his call, the bluesy-jazzy sax solos by David "Fathead" Newman. This was irrepressible, good-timey music, as if the early Charles had been absolved of sin and guilt and was finally permitted to express unmitigated joy. In Charlesí gravelly vocals, joy sounds like the residue of a lifetime of pain. Itís not whatís been gained; itís whatís left.
In 1959 he got back to basics the 12-bar blues in a song so uptempo and alluring, and so memorable, that it serves as the title for Ertegunís gigantic memoir book: "Whatíd I Say." There was nothing revolutionary in the lyric, except its daring to be loose ("Hey, mama, doncha treat me wrong/ Come and love your daddy all night long," etc.). Nor was the notion of releasing a jazzy, largely instrumental number in two parts; the year before, Cozy Cole (whose drumming career had stretched from Jelly Roll Morton to Charlie Parker, and who had recorded a Leiber-Stoller number as "Hound Dog Special" in 1954) enjoyed a two-sided hit with "Topsy." What was unusual was the four-part structure: three verses of piano, then four verses of blues patter, then the "Whatíd I say" chorus, and finally two minutes of boy-call-and-girl-response foreplay leading to the orgasm of the "Whatíd I say" chorus augmented by horns and the Raelets. After five minutes, whatíd you say? Whew! and Wow!
Anyway, thatís what I said when the record came out. Something of an obsessive in my youth, I must have played "Whatíd I Say" a thousand times on my plastic 45 in the third-floor back bedroom. (My parents, indulgent and slightly deaf, were two floors away.) I think even then I responded as much to the musical craft of the piece as to its hedonistic invitation to "shake that thing." Itís break from earlier Charles work was evident from the first note on an electric piano that sounded like a guitar with a mitten muffling the strings. It was blues, all right, but (like so much other Atlantic music of the period) with a Latin accent, thanks to great cymbal, conga and stick work by Milt Turner. It featured his urgent vocal, but not until almost 50 seconds into the song. And where was Fatheadís mandatory solo? Withheld; he played the final choruses, behind the Raelets, on part ". The complex simplicity of the number made it seem both roughhouse and pristine.
"Whatíd I Say" was Charlesí biggest hit at Atlantic the company must have issued three or four versions of the song, including on an album called "Do the Twist With Ray Charles" and the conclusion of his career segue from rhythm to rock. But he was just getting started. His really big band LP, "The Genius of Ray Charles" (with arrangements by Ralph Burns and the young Quincy Jones), teamed him with veterans of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington outfits, and he proved he could play with the big boys, winning their respect after initial skepticism. It also showed he could lay his easy, tortured vocal style on such chestnuts as Irving Berlinís "Alexanderís Ragtime Band" and the Arlen-Mercer "Come Rain or Come Shine." Then he was gone away from Atlantic, off to ABC Paramount, for the life of an interpretive rather than creative artist. Ray Charles sings country? Well, why not? But not at Atlantic, where Ertegun had to be asking, "Whereíd he go?"
How much had changed since 1947, when Ertegun founded the company; or even since 1954, when Big Joe Turnerís "Shake, Rattle and Roll," an Atlantic song covered and euphemized for white folks by Billy Haley, ushered in what became known as rock Ďn roll. An artistic and commercial restlessness sent agreeable tremors through the industry. As Leiber and Stoller could simultaneously produce the Coasters and the Drifters, a performer like Darin could quickly switch from rocker to saloon singer.
Darin (born Walden Robert Cassotto in 1936) had cut a few sides for Atco, the Atlantic subsidiary, with little impact. Herb Abramson, head of Atco, wanted to drop him, but Ertegun overruled the decision. Ahmet and ace engineer Tom Dowd supervised the kidís next session, using their new Ampex eight-track recording system; out of this came two 1958 hits, "Splish Splash" and "Queen of the Hop." The first song, which Darin had written in 12 minutes, begins with water-bubble sounds, cueing its novelty nature; but it had drive and its narratorís tough-guy befuddlement at finding "a party going on" outside his bathroom. "Queen of the Hop," with Darinís tentative, occasionally flat vocal submerged beneath a guitar and a sax that both beat a hard rhythm, was choked with references to recent songs ("Peggy Sue," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," "Sugartime," "Short Shorts," "Lollipop," "Sweet Little Sixteen") and dances (the chicken, the stroll), with a commercially canny citation of Dick Clarkís "Bandstand."
After three hits (the third was Doc Pomusí "Plain Jane"), Darin could have been pegged as a smarter Bronx version of Frankie Avalon and other Philadelphia Italians Clark was promoting; or maybe a less handsome relative of teen throb James Darren. But Bobby had two things they didnít: a facility for songwriting and the old-fashioned ambition to go legit. The first hint of Darinís staying power was "Dream Lover," a lovely potpourri of pop modes: the plinking rhythm of "Little Darliní" (done pizzicato by violins here), the release from "This Little Girl of Mine" and a Don Costa-like mixed chorus, with women singing the heavenly-choir "ooo"s and men answering this siren call with a goofy but musically beguiling "wadda-wadda." Darinís vocal is much more assured, as if heíd just learned not only how to sing, but why. He wrote a sweet song about pining, and it still sounds fabulous.
No rock Ďn roll star before Darin had declared his itch to be a nightclub headliner. Bobby said that, and a bit too much more: he expressed the thought that, by 25, heíd eclipse Sinatra. Darin wasnít quite saying he was bigger than Jesus, but the boast betrayed a young manís arrogance. Then he released a Sinatra-style swinger, the Brecht-Weill "Mack the Knife," which had enjoyed four Top 10 interpretations in the previous four years, including Louis Armstrongís. Well, damned if Darinís "Mackie" wasnít the yearís top single, selling more than any single Olí Blue Eyes had cut to that time; won Darin a Grammy too. With a simple, one-key modulation after every verse, and solid underscoring of reeds and horns by arranger Richard Wess, Darin evinced a subtler understanding of lyrics: he gets nicely slurry on the line "And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor," as if imitating a drunken sailor. And his attack has more power. He sings like a grownup.
Thereafter, Darin hopped from big-band treatments (a jaunty version of Charles Trenetís "Beyond the Sea") to rock revivals of standards ("You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Lazy River," "Irresistible You") to original pop stuff ("Iíll Be There," "Multiplication"). A 1973 concert, available on video as "Bobby Darin: Mack Is Back," shows that Darin finally got his wish: if not to be Sinatra, then at least to do him. There he is in his tux, tie eventually unraveled in the Sinatra style, singing some of his old hits and a few of other peopleís. Ladies and gentlemen, Bobby Darin a premature Vegas oldies act. Alas, he never got to become a true oldie. He had suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, and his heart was never as strong as his ambition. He died during heart surgery on December 20, 1973. The rockiní crooner was 37; Sinatra would outlive him by nearly a quarter century.
In the early Ď50s, Atlantic occasionally bought the national rights to local R&B hits. One of these was Leiber and Stollerís "Smokey Joeís Cafe." A lurking melodrama in the "Hernandoís Hideaway" fashion (but written a year before that Broadway tune), itís sung by L&Sí L.A. discoveries the Robins. It features an almost maniacally comic attack by lead singer Carl Gardner. The vocal could have come right off the Chitlin Circuit of black vaudeville; imagine Mantan Moreland as a great belter. The production is full, clear and incorrigibly boppiní Leiber and Stoller, out by the Pacific, showing the Atlantic boys how itís done. Ertegun was smart enough to know he wanted not just the record but its begettors. So he hired L&S as independent producers the first in music-biz history.
"Smokey Joeís Cafe" was the first of what Leiber called "radio playlets": menacing narratives in blues settings. "Riot in Cell Block #9" (later speeded up and jollied up for Elvis as "Jailhouse Rock"); "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" (about a moto-madman who "hit a screaminí diesel that was California-bound"); and "Framed" (in which the narrator is picked up by cops, fingered by stool pigeon, railroaded by prosecuting attorney). Lumpen tragicomedies, they had an implicit warning for their black listeners: that life was unfair to the underclass. As Leiber says in the "Whatíd I Say" book: "A lot of this had to do with being a white kidís take on a black personís take on white society." And most of their songs were written for black groups, on the regional black labels, with little expectation of a crossover that didnít yet exist.
By the time they arrived at Atlantic, L&S had already written songs that would be revived as monster hits in the rock era. Wilbert Harrison had a #1 hit with "Kansas City" in 1959, seven years after Little Willie Littlefield recorded it as "K.C. Loviní." "Hound Dog," written for Big Mama Thornton, and "Love Me," for Willy and Ruth, were covered by Elvis Presley (whose Sun contract Ertegun had tried to buy, in 1955, for $25,000; RCA, which outbid him by $20,000, got a quick and lasting return on its investment). And somewhere beyond the sea, Edith Piaf would translate "Black Denim Trousers," which L&S wrote for The Cheers (featuring future Broadway "Cabaret" star and game-show host Burt Convy) into "LíHomme ŗ Moto." When they created some of these numbers, L&S (both born in 1933) were still barely old enough to vote.
Arriving in New York, they brought Gardner and one of the other Ravens east, hired two other singers and dubbed the new assembly The Coasters. Thus was born not just a group but a genre. It was a wrinkle on the radio playlet: the two-minute rock musical comedy. "Searchiní," "Charlie Brown," "Along Came Jones," "Little Egypt" the whole raucous, joyous bunch of pastiches bubbled over with sharp point-of-view writing and obscure movie and radio references. Scarface Jones? Bulldog Drummond? Salty Sam and Sweet Sue (in their masterpiece, "Along Came Jones")? Most kids didnít know that the Shadow was a Ď30s radio hero (voiced by Orson Welles), but they couldnít help laughing at Leiberís threatening rhymes: "Youíd better mind your Pís and Qís/ And your Mís and Nís and Oís / Because... the Shadow knows."
Leiberís parodies "aural cartoons," Donald Clarke calls them were also social criticism; they sounded black but could apply to alienated whites too. Stollerís uptempo bluesy charts (usually 12-bar blues) found the ideal blend of honking sax solos by King Curtis and the singers, who had distinct comic personality: Gardnerís lead tenor in a vaudeville vibrato of fear and trembling, Bobby Guyís smart-guy growl (a nastier version of the Ray Charles tout-voice), Dub Jonesí mindshaft bass delivering the cool catchphrases (as parent: "You better leave my daughter alone" and "Donít talk back!"; as Charlie Brown: "Why is everybody always pickiní on me?") The Coastersí hits were loud, terse, vivid and un-sit-down-to-able: baby, that is rock Ďn roll.
Then Leiber and Stoller turned around and masterminded the lushest, most romantic and musically inventive genre rock had yet heard: the Driftersí song book. Their first effort, the King composition "There Goes My Baby," is still one of popís weirdest records: a standard doo-wop lament that has four violins and a cello sawing away (a jarring innovation back then) and, like a distant war drum, a timpani that no one knew how to tune and so hits one note no matter what the chord change. When Wexler first heard this bizarre melange, he was more than disappointed he was furious. "It sounds like three stations playing at the time coming through on one very bad car radio," he fumed, insisting that the number be junked. Ertegun overruled him, and "There Goes My Baby" was a top-five pop and R&B hit.
"We donít write songs," Leiber and Stoller have often said. "We write records." Over the next five years, while managing an ever-drifting roster of Drifters personnel, Leiber and Stoller made gorgeous records. They got three particularly inventive pieces from Pomus and his new writing partner Mort Shuman: "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me" and the can-never-be-played-too-often "Sweets for My Sweet." L&S also encouraged the young songwriters in Broadwayís Brill Building Gerry Goffin and Carole King ("When My Little Girl Is Smiling"), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil ("On Broadway"), who were all in their late teens or early 20s to write plangent pop ballads. These were the Broadway songs that Broadway couldnít bring itself to write.
Not everything involving the Drifters was some kind of wonderful. The singers were shamelessly exploited by their manager, George Treadwell. He owned the group outright; he paid the members a salary of about $500 a month, which covered payment for all recording dates and an exhausting tour schedule and they received no royalties from their hit records. When Ben E. King confronted Treadwell for a raise, he was booted out of the group.
If Leiber and Stoller werenít responsible for the Driftersí indenture, they also didnít bother to force its change. And though the writer-producersí early work had an underdog acerbity, their determination to produce hit after Drifters hit made them cautious with other writersí songs. Mann and Weil had written "Only in America" as a scathing denunciation of civil inequity: "Only in America/ Land of opportunity/ Do they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me." Leiber and Stoller rewrote the lyric as a straightforward, Horatio Alger anthem. The meaning was lost; worse, it was twisted.
There was enough assonance in the Driftersí story for an episode of "Behind the Music." But when L&S and their team did make music, it was beautiful. "This Magic Moment," for example, begins with violins doing giddy, hurricane-force arpeggios. The chorus is musically and lyrically ordinary, but thatís just to lull you before the surprise of a great bridge. An acoustic guitar goes Latino in a minor key, and King sings gently: "Sweeter than wine/ Softer than the summer night..." Then the melody returns to its dominant chord, backing singers join in for an open-throated "Aaaah" and King declares: "Everything I want I have/ Whenever I hold you tight." Four lines that express gentle love, consuming love.
"Save the Last Dance" is a perfect record, with its unusual ten-beat verses, its rising notes and the emotion soars as King tenderly warns, "Donít forget whoís takiní you home/ And in whose arms youíre gonna be" (my very favorite relative-pronoun clause in pop music) and the promise that the last dance will be the most intimate of all. The song is even lovelier if you know the story behind its creation. Leiber, in the book: "Doc was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life, so he couldnít dance. He was married to this gorgeous blond woman [Broadway and TV actress Willi Burke], and ... heíd say, Yeah, we go out, thatís cool I like to watch her.í Thatís the song."
Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic in 1963 to form their own label, Red Bird. As composers, they soon ceased writing hits. But their catalog was so rich that it kept generating them. Dion covered two Drifters songs, "Ruby Baby" from Ď956 and "Drip Drop" from Ď958. At least five L&S oldies became later Top "0 hits: "I (Who have Nothing)" (Tom Jones), "Iím a Woman" (Maria Muldaur), "On Broadway" (George Benson), "Spanish Harlem" (Aretha Franklin) and "There Goes My Baby" (Donna Summer). In the curio category are a rendition of "Stand by Me" by one Cassius Clay in 1964 and Bruce Willisí 1987 cover of "Young Blood." In 1986, with a hit movie as impetus, Kingís original of "Stand by Me" returned to the charts, and went to #1. And in 1995 Leiber and Stoller finally made it to Broadway, with the long-running show "Smokey Joeís Cafe."
For me, the great period of Atlantic concluded in the mid-í60s, after Charles and Darin and Leiber and Stoller left the label. I acknowledge that later Ď60s Atlantic music can get to me: I still do choke up at the church-organ screaming solemnity of "When a Man Loves a Woman." I have a sneaking fondness for early BeeGees, and not only sneaking: that first album has a half-dozen Beatles-worthy tunes on it, and "To Love Somebody" has stood the test of time as a magnificent Australo-American R&B wailer. But the late Ď60s canít compete for my affections with the decade before it, when record after record from the Ertegun empire spoke to me, sang to me. Maybe itís an age thing: Atlantic, me, Leiber and Stoller: weíre only kids once. And Atlanta provided the electrolytes in my young blood.