Remembering Jerry Leiber, the 'Hound Dog' Poet of Rock 'n' Roll

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George Rose / Getty Images

Songwriters and producers Jerry Lieber, right, and Mike Stoller pose during a portrait session in Beverly hills in 1980. The duo worked with Elvis and other famous pop musicians, and penned hits including "Stand By Me," and "On Broadway."

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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; the members received a salary of about $500 a month, and no royalties from their hit records. When Ben E. King confronted Treadwell for a raise, he was booted out of the group. Leiber and Stoller helped him establish King's solo career, but they weren't exactly angels. Though the early L&S songs had an underdog acerbity, the pair's determination to produce hit after Drifters hit made them cautious with other writers' 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.

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 that's 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 soaring as King tenderly warns, "Don't forget who's takin' you home/ And in whose arms you're gonna be" (possibly the greatest 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. "Doc was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life," Leiber notes in What'd I Say?, "so he couldn't dance. He was married to this gorgeous blond woman [Broadway and TV actress Willi Burke], and ... he'd say, 'Yeah, we go out, that's cool — I like to watch her.' That's the song."

Besides producing the Drifters' hits with Stoller, Leiber wrote one masterpiece that his partner had nothing to do with. Transferring the simile in the Robert Burns poem "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose" to uptown Manhattan, he composed the lyric of "Spanish Harlem": "With eyes as black as coal / It looks down in my soul / And starts a fire there and then I lost control. / I have to beg your pardon. / I'm going to pick that rose / And watch her as she grows / In my garden." Stoller being unavailable, Leiber gave the word sheet to the 20-year-old Spector, then serving as the pair's assistant. The wunderkind somehow poured a symphonic melody into the 12-bar blues structure and "solved" the challenge of the run-on lyrics in the middle of the verse. When King recorded the song, as his first single, Stoller added the plaintive "la-la-la" underscoring to help create an improbable, and angelic, hit. Stoller performed another form of magic — the dominant bass line — on King's second solo hit, "Stand by Me." Both records have the same impact today as they did 50 years ago: heavenly.


Rock 'n roll is a young man's game, on both sides of the recording-studio glass. Spector enjoyed his biggest hits with the Wall of Sound in a three-year blast that lost its kick when he was 25; late in that decade, when he came by to produce the Beatles' last album Let It Be, he was already the strange old dude. When Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic in 1963 to form their own label, Red Bird, they were just 32. There, under L&S's supervision, other people wrote and produced the hits: "Chapel of Love," "Leader of the Pack," "(Remember) Walking in the Sand."

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 1955 and "Drip Drop" from 1958, and had hits with both. At least five L&S oldies became later Top 10 hits: the Ben E. King "I (Who have Nothing)" for Tom Jones, "I'm a Woman" for Maria Muldaur, "On Broadway" for George Benson, "Spanish Harlem" for Aretha Franklin and "There Goes My Baby" for Donna Summer. In the curio category are a rendition of "Stand by Me" by one Cassius Clay in 1964 and Bruce Willis' 1987 cover of "Young Blood." In 1986, with a hit movie as impetus, King's original of "Stand by Me" returned to the charts, and went to No. 1. And across the Atlantic, Edith Piaf would translate "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots," which L&S had written in 1955 for the white novelty trio The Cheers (featuring future game-show host Burt Convy), into "L'homme â la Moto."

It's possible that, after more than a dozen years making records about young people in trouble, the pioneers decided it was time to work with adults. So they turned to the mature, ever-cool Peggy Lee, for whom Leiber wrote love lyrics that sounded like taunts. Consider the female empowerment in the 1963 "I'm a Woman," which the singer purrs mostly in recitatif. The verses comprise various domestic boasts: "I can scoop up a great big dipper full of lard from the drippin's can, / Throw it in the skillet, go out and do my shopping, be back before it melts in the pan." (How can she do all this? "Cause I'm a woman. W-O-M-A-N. I'll say it again.") In the final verse she acknowledges that someone, gender M-A-N, is listening, and she snarls, "I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you." Pop music was supposed to be kid stuff; Leiber gave it a stiff drink and made it grow up fast and strong.

The last L&S original hit, for Lee in 1969, twisted bravado into blasé. The singer reminisces about being saved from a burning building, being taken to the circus, falling in love with a man who leaves her — and each time her response is the same: "Is that all there is? Is that all there is? / If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing. / Let's break out the booze and have a ball / If that's all there is."

Both "I Am Woman" and "Is That All There Is" were French-accented ballads that could have given heft to any musical play. Broadway seemed the logical step for them, as it had been for other ambitious pop songwriters. But though L&S songs appeared in such shows as Bob Fosse's Dancin' in 1978 and Lee's own Peg in 1983, they never had an original musical on Broadway. The closest they came was the 1995 Smokey Joe's Cafe, a vivacious songbook show of their greatest hits; it ran for nearly five years and either reminded the geriatrics of rock's age-old vitality or introduced a new generation to the impudent wit — and... can I say genius? — of rock's own Rodgers and Hart.

Today, on the Leiber-Stoller website, Mike Stoller's son Peter posted this notice: "Jerry Leiber passed quickly and with minimum discomfort, surrounded by his family. He is survived by his three sons, Jed, Oliver, and Jake, and his two granddaughters, Chloe and Daphne. You can honor his memory by committing your life to excellence and joy. Of course, Jerry would never have said anything like that. He would have said: 'Let's break out the booze, and have a ball...'

"That works, too. L'chaim, Unca Jer."

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