August 22, 2011 – Jerome ‘Jerry’ Leiber was born on April 25th 1933 in Baltimore, Maryland, where his parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, ran a general store. When Jerry was 5, his father died and his mother tried, with little success, to run a small store in one of the city’s worst slums. When he was 12, she took him to Los Angeles. At aged 17, as a senior at Fairfax High, Jerry met his composer-songwriting partner Mike Stoller, a blues fanatic pianist, and they formed the legendary 6 decade plus, writing partnership of Leiber and Stoller.
It was while attending Fairfax High in Los Angeles and working in Norty’s Record Shop that he met Lester Sill, a promoter for Modern Records, and confessed that he wanted to be a songwriter. After Sill urged him to find a pianist who could help him put his ideas onto sheet music he met Mr. Stoller through a friend, and the two began writing together
“Often I would have a start, two or four lines,” Mr. Leiber told Robert Palmer, the author of “Baby, That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller” (1978). “Mike would sit at the piano and start to jam, just playing, fooling around, and I’d throw out a line. He’d accommodate the line — metrically, rhythmically.”
Within a few years they had written modestly successful songs for several rhythm-and-blues singers: “K.C. Lovin’ ” for Little Willie Littlefield, which under the title “Kansas City” became a No. 1 hit for Wilbert Harrison, years later in 1959.
In 1952, Sill arranged for Mr. Leiber and Mr. Stoller to visit the bandleader Johnny Otis and to listen to several of the rhythm-and-blues acts who worked with him, including Big Mama Thornton, who sang “Ball and Chain” for them. Inspired, the partners went back to Mr. Stoller’s house and wrote “Hound Dog.”
“I yelled, he played,” Mr. Leiber told Josh Alan Friedman, the author of “Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock ’n’ Roll” (2008). “The groove came together and we finished in 12 minutes flat. I work fast. We raced right back to lay the song on Big Mama.”
Together they played a key role in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, writing and composing iconic hits as “Hound Dog” which originally topped the “race” music charts as a rhythm and blues single by Big Mamma Thornton in 1953. The song became an enormous hit for Elvis Presley in 1956 and made Leiber and Stoller the hottest songwriting team in rock ’n’ roll. (All totaled, Presley recorded more than 20 Leiber and Stoller songs.)
In 1953 Leiber and Stoller formed Spark Records, an independent label, with Sill, but without national distribution it failed to score major hits. Atlantic Records, which had bought the Leiber and Stoller song “Ruby Baby” and “Fools Fall in Love” for the Drifters, signed them to an unusual agreement that allowed them to produce for other labels. The golden age of Leiber and Stoller began.
They wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” “Loving You,” “Don’t,” “Treat Me Nice,” “King Creole” and other songs for Presley, despite their loathing for his interpretation of “Hound Dog.”
In the late 1950s, having relocated to New York and taken their place among the constellation of talents associated with the Brill Building, they emerged as perhaps the most potent songwriting team in the genre.
Their hits for the Drifters remain some of the most admired songs in the rock ’n’ roll canon, notably “On Broadway,” written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. “Spanish Harlem,” which Mr. Leiber wrote with Phil Spector, gave Ben E. King his first hit after leaving the Drifters. King’s most famous recording, “Stand By Me,” was a Leiber-Stoller song on which he collaborated.
They wrote a series of hits for the Coasters, including “Charlie Brown,” “Young Blood” with Doc Pomus, “Searchin’,” “Poison Ivy” and “Yakety Yak.”
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a 1954 hit written for the Robins, became the title of a Broadway musical based on the Leiber and Stoller songbook.
In the mid-1960s, Leiber and Stoller started concentratinbg more on production. They founded Red Bird Records, where they turned out hit records by girl groups like the Dixie Cups (“Chapel of Love”) and the Shangri-Las (“Leader of the Pack,” “Walking in the Sand”). They sold the label in 1966 and then worked as independent producers and writers. Peggy Lee, who had recorded their song “I’m a Woman” in 1963, recorded “Is that All There Is?” in 1969, a song that earned her a Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy.
Their last major hit production was “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, taken from the band’s 1972 eponymous debut album, which the duo produced. In 1975, they recorded Mirrors, an album of art songs with Peggy Lee. A remixed and expanded version of the album was released in 2005 as Peggy Lee Sings Leiber and Stoller.
In the late 1970s, A&M Records recruited Leiber and Stoller to write and produce an album for Elkie Brooks; Two Days Away (1977) proved a success in the UK and most of Europe. Their composition “Pearl’s a Singer” (written with Ralph Dino & John Sembello) became a hit for Brooks, and remains her signature tune. In 1978, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris and her pianist-composer husband William Bolcom recorded an album, Other Songs by Leiber and Stoller, featuring a number of the songwriters’ more unusual (and satiric) works, including “Let’s Bring Back World War I”, written specifically for (and dedicated to) Bolcom and Morris; and “Humphrey Bogart”, a tongue-in-cheek song about obsession with the actor. In 1979, Leiber and Stoller produced another album for Brooks: Live and Learn.
In 1982, Steely Dan member Donald Fagen recorded their song, “Ruby Baby”, on his album, The Nightfly. That same year, former Doobie Brothers member Michael McDonald released “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)”, adapted from Leiber and Stoller’s “I Keep Forgettin'”.
In all, Leiber and Stoller wrote or co-wrote more than 200 tunes, producing over 70 chart hits. They were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985.
In 1987, the partners were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written some of the most spirited and enduring rock ’n’ roll songs,” the hall said in a statement when they were inducted. “Leiber and Stoller advanced rock ’n’ roll to new heights of wit and musical sophistication.”
In 2009, Simon & Schuster published Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, written by Leiber and Stoller with David Ritz.
On August 22, 2011, Leiber died in Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, aged 78, from cardio-pulmonary failure.
Leiber and Stoller dawned on the music scene at a time of stylistic rumblings and movement into new territory of popular music, a time when the authentic American rhythm and blues of the black world was beginning to be embraced by the general music-buying public, a time when the phenomenon of crossover became apparent with the daily programming assistance of legendary disc jockeys like Alan Freed, a Cleveland on-air personality who is said to have coined the phrase, rock and roll.