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Inseparable

The songwriting team of Jerry Leiber, left, and Mike Stoller was synonymous with early rock 'n' roll. Then, long bouts of silence. Zev Chafets finds them, still best friends, still composing music. Only you won't get to hear it unless you're invited into 'the vault.'

March 19, 2006|Zev Chafets | Zev Chafets is the author of nine works of fiction and nonfiction. He also co-wrote the Hebrew doo-wop song "Boi Motek."

One day last year, while fooling around on the Internet, I discovered that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had an office on Sunset Boulevard. You could just ring them up, like a law firm or a dry cleaner.

To me, it was like finding out William Shakespeare was alive and well and listed in the Stratford phone book. Leiber and Stoller were legendary figures, songwriters who practically invented rock 'n' roll. I had assumed they were long gone.

But if they weren't gone--if they were still together, still collaborating at age 72--where was the music? What had they been doing all these years? Could it be that they had another "Hound Dog" or "Kansas City" buried somewhere?

Naturally, I called their office. I'm a sucker for a good mystery.

Harry Truman was in the White House when Leiber and Stoller started out, two 17-year-old Jewish kids from L.A. Stoller liked to goof off from his classical piano studies by playing boogie-woogie. Leiber wrote blues lyrics during class at Fairfax High. They were destined to meet, and they did in 1950 through a mutual friend. Soon they put together words and music.

Their first famous hit, in 1953, was Big Mama Thornton's rendition of "Hound Dog." Then came Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City" and a string of rock comedy smashes by the Coasters: "Young Blood," "Searchin,' " "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown" and "Poison Ivy." For the Drifters and Ben E. King, they turned out "On Broadway" and "Stand by Me." Elvis Presley recorded almost two dozen of their songs, including "King Creole" and "Jailhouse Rock." Over the next 15 years they would go on to log more than 150 chart hits.

But Leiber and Stoller were more than songwriters. They were pioneers in business as well as in music. They cut a deal with Atlantic Records that made them the industry's first independent producers. They were among the first arrangers to put strings on an R&B record (with the Drifters' "There Goes My Baby"). They mentored Phil Spector, Carole King and a long list of others. They founded a label in New York, Red Bird Records, and put out girl-group hits by the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups that presaged the explosion of instruments and echo that came to be known as Spector's Wall of Sound.

Eventually, they were the first nonperforming songwriters inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which described them as "pop auteurs who wrote, arranged and produced countless recordings" and who "advanced rock and roll to new heights of wit and musical sophistication."

In 1966, Leiber and Stoller abruptly sold their stake in Red Bird to their partner, George "The Mambo King" Goldner, for $1. Rumors were that Goldner, a chronic gambler, was in trouble with the Mob, and Leiber and Stoller suspected that he was stealing from the company to cover his debts. In any case, they wanted out--and fast.

They'd write one final hit three years later: "Is That All There Is?" a cabaret-style ode to disillusionment sung by Peggy Lee for Capitol Records. But by then, their rock 'n' roll days were over.

"These are very private guys," Marilyn Levy, Leiber and Stoller's secretary, told me when I first called. "Write them a letter. Maybe they'll answer. Maybe they won't."

So I wrote, and several weeks later Leiber phoned. "How are you?" I asked. It seemed like a stupid question, but I had to start somewhere.

"Not so great, not so freilich," he answered. "I was just in the hospital. My pacemaker ran out of gas." There was some Columbo in his voice, and some Mel Brooks too.

"English isn't your first language, is it?"

"No, Yiddish. How did you know?"

Jerome Leiber was born in Baltimore shortly after his parents arrived in the U.S. from Poland. When he went to school, the kids laughed at him because he didn't know the English word for "fork." Twelve years later he was writing musical vignettes of black ghetto life so pitch-perfect that critic Nelson George compared him to Langston Hughes.

We talked that first day for almost an hour, Leiber's voice getting stronger as he went along. He's a storyteller, and I was a fresh and eager audience--a perennial teenager whose 33 years of living in Israel had suspended me, musically anyway, in the Detroit of my youth, circa 1965.

He told me how his mother left her little ghetto grocery in Baltimore and took him out to L.A. on a Greyhound bus. He told me about hearing bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon on the radio, and realizing that he wanted to make up songs too. He told me about how he had once met Irving Berlin on the lot of a movie studio. "Irving Berlin was the greatest songwriter of all time," Leiber said. "I was in awe of him. But his music wasn't my music. My music was the blues."

As a conversationalist, Leiber is actually more of a jazzman, full of tasty asides and abrupt digressions. He was in the midst of an anecdote about high school when he lapsed into an odd little story about his cousin Paul.

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