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Jerry Leiber dies at 78; lyricist in songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller

Leiber and Stoller's first No. 1 hit was Elvis Presley's 'Hound Dog.' They also wrote for the Coasters, the Drifters, Ben E. King and many other artists. A popular musical based on their songs, 'Smokey Joe's Cafe,' opened on Broadway in 1995.

August 23, 2011|Claudia Luther, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Rock 'n' roll songwriters Jerry Leiber, right, and Mike Stoller pose at the Grammy Foundation's Starry Night gala in Los Angeles.
Rock 'n' roll songwriters Jerry Leiber, right, and Mike Stoller… (Fred Prouser / Reuters )

Jerry Leiber, who with his songwriting partner, Mike Stoller, created a songbook that infused the rock 'n' roll scene of the 1950s and early '60s with energy and mischievous humor, has died. He was 78.

Leiber, the words half of the duo, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of cardiopulmonary failure, said Randy Poe, president of the songwriters' music publishing company.

Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Leiber and his lifelong writing partner, Stoller, wrote hits that included Elvis Presley's rat-a-tat-tat rendition of "Hound Dog" in 1956 and Peggy Lee's 1969 recording of the jaded "Is That All There Is?"

But they may be best remembered for the ebullient, impudent hits written for black groups like the Clovers ("Love Potion No. 9"), the Drifters ("Ruby Baby"); the Cheers ("Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots"), the Robins ("Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Riot in Cell Block No. 9") and, especially, a Robins' spinoff group that Leiber and Stoller helped create, the Coasters ("Searchin'," "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," "Charlie Brown," "Down in Mexico," "Little Egypt").

As Leiber-Stoller biographer Robert Graham wrote, the Coasters' songs "were arguably the most enduring and hands-down funniest records of the rock 'n' roll era."

With their sassy lyrics and playful melodies, the songs liberated American teenagers to enjoy their youth and poke fun at their elders.

"They corrupted us with pleasure," critic and author John Lahr wrote of the songwriters in the introduction to Graham's "Baby, That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller" (1978). "Dancing and laughing, we came of age to their songs."

Dozens of other artists have recorded Leiber and Stoller songs: the Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and more. The songwriters' most oft-recorded tune is the laid-back, bluesy "Kansas City," which has been sung by such varied artists as Little Willie Littlefield in 1952 (as "K.C. Lovin'") and Wilbert Harrison, whose 1959 hit with it is probably the best-known.

In 1995, a musical based on Leiber and Stoller songs, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," opened on Broadway and ran for more than 2,000 performances.

Besides writing and producing their own songs, the duo produced other artists' music on Leiber-Stoller labels — Spark (with Lester Sill), Red Bird and others — and broke ground by becoming the first independent record producers at a major label, Atlantic Records.

Graham in his book on the duo points out that radio was mostly regional and TV had just started coming into American living rooms when Leiber and Stoller started writing for Ray Charles, Joe Turner and other black artists. It was only when Presley covered "Hound Dog" in 1956 that their music began crossing over into the mainstream, paving the way for rock 'n' roll to dominate the youth culture.

Theirs was an unusually long and compatible musical partnership. Yes, they bickered over a line in a song or whether a note should at one point go up or down, but they were buddies to the end, able to crack each other up and finish each other's sentences.

They were, however, very different from each other. Stoller, the trained musician, was the quieter one. The restless Leiber was the big talker.

Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, writing in his 1993 autobiography, described Leiber as "Mr. Disorderly Conduct."

He "was a charming mess — extravagantly verbal, always in a flamboyant dither," Wexler wrote in "Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music" (with David Ritz).

When Leiber and Stoller met in Los Angeles in 1950 as teenagers, their talent for writing songs together was so immediate that they each described it as "spontaneous combustion." It was not unusual for them to write a song in a matter of minutes, songs that to their surprise were still being sung and recorded four or five decades later.

They were barely 18 when they had their first brush with success with Charles Brown's 1951 recording of "Hard Times."

But it was a white singer who could sing R&B — Presley — who five years later gave Leiber and Stoller their first No. 1 hit on the pop charts, "Hound Dog," a song they had written several years earlier for Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, whom Leiber described as "the saltiest chick we'd ever seen."

Leiber and Stoller — never were their names mentioned in the opposite order — were amazed that Presley chose a song told from a woman's point of view about kicking out a no-account man. They didn't like the way Presley sang it — too fast and nervous. And Leiber was not pleased that Presley picked up some erroneous lyrics: "You ain't never caught a rabbit, and you ain't no friend of mine."

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