Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Songwriters and producers Jerry Leiber (b 25 April 1933, Baltimore; d 22 August 2011, Los Angeles) and Mike Stoller (b 13 May 1933, Belle Harbor, NY). Both black music fans, they met in Los Angeles in 1950, where their families had moved post-war. Their early songs were recorded by Amos Milburn, Jimmy Witherspoon, Floyd Dixon (pianist, singer; aka 'Skeet'; b 8 February 1929, Marshall TX). Their first national R&B hit was 'Hard Times' by Charles Brown; they were still in their teens. The patronage of Johnny Otis was important (though he later lost a court case when he claimed credit for 'Hound Dog', written for his singer Big Mama Thornton). They formed the Spark label '53 with Lester Sill (legendary promo man who worked for Modern Records, later with Lee Hazlewood, then Phil Spector; Sill d 31 October 1994 in Los Angeles aged 76). They chose the Robins (who'd backed Little Esther on three big Otis hits '50) as protégés for their 'playlets' (Leiber's term for songs whose humorous lyrics read like stories): 'Riot In Cell Block No. 9', 'Smokey Joe's Cafe', 'Framed' led to Atlantic buying the label, re-forming some of the Robins as the Coasters (see that entry) and hiring Leiber and Stoller as independent producers, among the first in the business.

At Atlantic they worked with Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, etc and the Drifters. Leiber told Rolling Stone, ' ''You want the Drifters? They're cold now, we don't know what to do with them.'' They'd been dead for two years; that's why they gave 'em to us.' They restarted the Drifters with their biggest hits 'Save The Last Dance For Me', 'Up On The Roof', 'On Broadway'; they relied on Brill Building songs, Pomus and Shuman etc because they were doing so much producing they couldn't fill the demand for songs; the introduction of strings and Latin rhythms was an innovation, taken over wholesale by black groups; the bass pattern on Ben E. King's 'Stand By Me' was another standout: they said, 'We don't write songs, we write records.'

Meanwhile Elvis Presley's hit with 'Hound Dog' '56 led to more work: 'Love Me', score for Jailhouse Rock '57, etc and the wheel had come full circle with Jewish boys who wrote black writing songs for a white boy who sang black. They left Atlantic; records on their Daisy and Tiger labels disappeared, released during the period of the JFK assassination. Realizing that they knew how to make records but not how to sell them, they formed Red Bird label '64 with George Goldner, who had gambled away every label he ever had but knew how to spot hits and sell them: the Dixie Cups' 'Chapel Of Love' sold a million, setting a precedent for girl groups with whom the label was identified, but they got tired of it and gave it to Goldner '66 (there was a four-CD set The Red Bird Story on Charly UK). They hooked up with the Coasters again and made good records for CBS's Date label but CBS didn't know how to promote them or didn't bother. With partners they bought the Starday/King labels '71 (including Deluxe, Federal etc) complete with staff, studios, printing and pressing plant, but this only lasted a couple of years.

Over 200 of their compositions were recorded 1951-72; there were 24 chart hits by the Robins/Coasters alone: they had taken R&B from the ghetto into the mainstream and created pop classics transcending musical and racial categories. They continued freelance producing in the '70s with artists like Elkie Brooks, Procol Harum, T-Bone Walker, Stealer's Wheel ('Stuck In The Middle With You') etc.

They had also worked with mainstream artists Jaye P. Morgan, Steve Lawrence, Perry Como etc and it turned out they wrote songs as well as records. They had written 'I'm A Woman' for Peggy Lee '62, and then 'Is That All There Is?' '69, inspired by the Thomas Mann novella Disillusionment; it was arranged by Randy Newman, then unknown, and Johnny Mercer said to Leiber, 'Kid, you finally wrote a good song.' Lee's album Mirrors '75 on A&M included nine of their songs. They had started out with profound admiration for writers like Gershwin and Cole Porter, but thought all the standards had been written; having written scores of pop hits, they now applied their theatrical sense and a wider musical vocabulary to other genres. 'Is That All There Is?' and 'Longings For A Simpler Time' were intended for an experimental play '60s; 'Humphrey Bogart', a send-up of movie idolatry, and 'I Ain't Here', about a black domestic working in a white middle-class home, were meant for another production. 'Tango', about a murder, was 'provoked' by an obituary for actor Ramon Navarro. 'I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues', they said, was 'as simple and straightforward a song of joy as Jerry Leiber is capable of writing'. These and others were recorded by William Bolcom and Joan Morris on Other Songs By Leiber And Stoller '78 on Nonesuch; their later work hasn't made as much money, but the songs remain to be discovered.

See entries for the Coasters, the Drifters and Elvis Presley for quotes. Smokey Joe's Cafe '95 was a Broadway show made around their work; the only Grammy they ever won was for 'Is That All There Is?' until the original cast recording of the show won another. Leiber's son Oliver wrote songs for Paula Abdul's Forever Your Girl, including the title track.