Leiber-Stoller: perhaps the greatest rock & roll song writers of all

Mike Stoller (left) with Jerry Leiber in the 1970s
Just as most non-classical music came from the
blues, so one of the truly landmark song-writing partnerships began
specializing solely in blues songs. I’m talking, of course, about the American rock
& roll/R&B composers-supreme, Jerry Leiber (words) and Mike Stoller
My last post touched on Leiber-Stoller’s massive
contribution to the birth of British blues rock, especially with all the
R&B songs they wrote for the Coasters. When you hear about early British
bands playing early American rock & roll before the Beatles broke, Leiber-Stoller
songs were a great part of what they played. This included the Beatles
themselves whose recording debut in January 1961 (famously rejected by Decca)
included covers of the Coasters’, “Searchin” and “Cool Cats”, both written in
the 50s, as mentioned, by Leiber-Stoller.
Leiber-Stollers’ Kansas City featured on Beatles For Sale.
 The Beatles cut their teeth on Leiber-Stoller songs

The Beatles also recorded, on their 1964 “Beatles
For Sale” album, Leiber-Stoller’s 1952 classic, “Kansas City”, written in
homage to the marvellous Kansas blues shouter and rock & roll pioneer, Big
Joe Turner. First recorded by the boogie woogie pianist-cum-vocalist, Little
Willie Littlefield, as “K.C. Lovin’” in 1953, “Kansas City” has become one of
the most covered songs in history. Its over 300 versions include those by James
Brown, Brenda Lee, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters and Little Richard.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine almost
25 years ago, Jerry Leiber said the success of “
Kansas City” had totally surprised him. “I had a big fight
with Mike (Stoller) about Kansas City. I originally sang a traditional blues
turn on it, like Howlin’ Wolf might have sung it. Mike said, ‘I don’t want to
write just another blues. There are a thousand numbers out there like it. I got
a tune for it.’ I told him it sounded phony.
“I gave him all sorts of
garbage. And he won out. When we did it with Little Willie Littlefield, I
thought it was all right. It didn’t kill me. Then, when Wilbert Harrison came
out with it, then it sounded right. But it took all that time to convince me
that he (Mike Stoller) was right about that
Wilbert’s version of KC sounded right, said Leiber

melody.” And here it is, friends.
On the link below:

Leiber-Stoller’s Kansas City by Wilbert Harrison. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vE0T-EA1294
Jerry Leiber from Baltimore, and Mike Stoller
from Long Island, were just 19-year-old kids, based in Los Angeles, when they
wrote “Kansas City”. Other classics the pair wrote in 1952 included “Hound Dog”
written for Big Mama Thornton, and made world-famous by Elvis Presley, and
their first hit, “Hard Times”, for Texas blues singer Charles Brown, which
reached number seven on the R&B charts. Here’s another historic Leiber-Stoller
track for your perusal.
first hit, Hard Times:
Even earlier, both aged 18, Leiber & Stoller
had written their first recorded song, “That’s What The Good Book Says”, for
the influential L.A. R&B group, Bobby Nunn and the Robins in 1951. Check
the link and take a listen to rock & roll history.
& Stoller’s first recorded song
: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUoS7hZI_0k
With two members of the Robins later forming the
Coasters, you can see the importance of song writers knowing the artists
they’re writing for. Other Leiber & Stoller pearls made famous by the
Coasters included “Poison Ivy”, “Love Potion No. 9” (given to The Clovers
first), “I’m A Hog For You (Baby)”, “Along Came Jones”, “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety
Yak”. Just some of many.
Jimmy Witherspoon
But let’s step back a moment to the second Leiber-Stoller
song recorded, “Real Ugly Woman” by jump blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, also released
in 1951. This was decades before political correctness, remember.
Ugly Woman, also from 1951:
In 1953, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller struck
gold with one of rock’s milestones, the 12-bar blues “Hound Dog”, written
especially for the 26-year-old comedienne turned blues singer, Willie Mae ‘Big
Mama’ Thornton. It sold two million copies, spending seven weeks topping the
R&B charts. Big Mama, Leiber told Rolling Stone, “looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever
see. And she was mean, a ‘lady bear’, as they used to call ‘em.
She must have been 350 pounds, and she had all these scars all over her face. I
had to write a song for her that basically said, ‘Go fuck yourself’; but how to
do it without actually saying it?”
The message behind “Hound Dog”, said Leiber, was
‘You ain’t nothin’ but a mother fucker’.

A big pic for a Big Mama
Big Mama, added Stoller, “was a wonderful blues singer, with a great moaning style.
But it was as much her appearance as her blues style that influenced the
writing of ‘Hound Dog’ and the idea that we wanted her to growl it; which she
rejected at first. Her thing was ‘Don’t you tell me how to sing no song!’”
“Hound Dog”, cut in August 1952, was the first
record Leiber and Stoller produced totally by themselves. Not bad for a pair of
19-year-olds. They should have been supervised by Johnny Otis but convinced
Otis to play the drums as the session drummer couldn’t get the rhythm they
wanted. During the rehearsal, says the RS interview, “Leiber
objected to Big Mama crooning the song “like Frank Sinatra in “The Wee Small
Hours of the Morning”.
“And I’m looking at her, and I’m a little
intimidated by the razor scars on her face, and she’s about 280-320 pounds, and
I said, ‘It don’t go that way’. And she looked at me like looks could kill and
said – and this was when I found out I was white – ‘White boy, don’t you be
tellin’ me how to sing the blues.”
 Leiber then sang the song they way they wanted
it done. Said Stoller: “Big Mama heard how Jerry was singing the thing. She
heard the rough-and-tough of the song and, just as important, the implicit
sexual humor. In short, she got it.”
The rest, as they say, is history, especially
after Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog” in 1956, selling ten million copies
and topping the American pop chart for 11 weeks, a record that stood until
Leiber-Stoller then proceeded to write a string
of more hits for Elvis including “Jailhouse Rock”, Loving You” and “King
Creole”. They co-wrote “On Broadway” and “There Goes My Baby” for the Drifters,
introducing strings and the lavish production values that would later become
synonymous with soul. And watching and studying their production techniques was
their session guitarist, Phil Spector, with whom they then wrote “Spanish
Harlem”. with Spector. When Drifter Ben E King went solo, Leiber-Stoller wrote
“Stand By Me” with him.
A still from the Shangra-Las’ video,  see link right
Then came Leiber-Stoller’s girl group phase where
their hits included “Leader of the Pack” for the Shangra-Las in 1964, “Chapel
of Love” for the Dixie Cups and “Tell Him” for the Exciters.
The Shangra-Las’
Leader of the Pack:
The UK’s Cliff Richard had a number one hit all
over the world with Leiber-Stoller’s “Lucky Lips” in 1963. Leiber and Stoller
even wrote the English lyrics to the Italian number that became Shirley
Bassey’s theme song, “I Who Have Nothing”, and Jerry Leiber co-wrote “Jackson”,
a worldwide pop hit for Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra.
More recently, (if 1972 is recent) Leiber and
Stoller produced the million-selling “Stuck In The Middle With You” in London
for Stealer’s Wheel. While Wikipedia says differently, I heard the song was written
by Gerry Rafferty about film actor and comedian Billy Connelly referring to their
time together in the Scottish folk trio the Humble Bums. Banjoist Connelly
would spend half the gigs telling jokes.
The Broadway show, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, was based on 39
Leiber-Stoller songs
Americans will know “Smokey Joe’s Café”, the
Broadway musical about Leiber-Stoller that featured 39 of the duo’s hits,
running from 1995 to 2000. Its 2,036 performances make it the longest Broadway
musical in history and the Original Broadway Cast Recording album, won a Grammy award in 1995. Unfortunately, I missed
its Melbourne run-out in Australia in 1995 being in London. A year later I
missed the London show because I spent its two year run there in Melbourne.

The great stride pianist James P. Johnson taught
Mike Stoller as a boy
Lyricist Jerry Leiber died in Los Angeles in 2011
aged 78; but Mike Stoller, who took piano lessons from the great stride pioneer,
Jimmy Johnson, in the early 1940s, lives on. He is now 81. It was Jimmy
Johnson, he once said, who taught him how to play 12-bar blues when Stoller was
10 or 11. Talk about learning from the best.

Together, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote
over 70 chart hits. Will we ever see their like again?

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