January 21, 2017

Leiber & Stoller — Rock’s First Successful Songwriting Team

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Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller made R & R history for a number of reasons. They are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (1987) and the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1985). A short list of the diverse artists that they wrote songs for or produced will give you an idea of why they are held in such high esteem.

Among those that recorded the songs they wrote or were produced by them are: The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, The Drifters, Dion, Tom Jones, James Brown, Peggy Lee, Little Richard, John Lennon, Donna Summer, Michael McDonald, Ben E. King, The Monkees, Ray Stevens, Leon Russell, Bad Company, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, B B King, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Lee Lewis, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Fats Domino and Muddy Waters. This led to 100’s of hits.

It was an unlikely scenario. Two young guys from the East Coast teaming up to become the first successful songwriting team in Rock ‘n’ Roll. The duo starting working together in 1950 at the age of 17. They were employed at a record store when they found that they shared a love for Blues and R & B. This love led to them working together for more than 60 years. Their songs were well written, but they became better known for humor and unusual lyrics.

Even more unlikely, they started out writing R & B and Blues songs. The first song that they wrote was recorded in 1950 by Jimmy Witherspoon. It was called “Real Ugly Woman” and it showed some of the humor that the duo displayed throughout most of their career. In 1952 their first hit song “Hard Times” was done by Charles Brown. That same year they wrote a song called “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield that would be covered by Wilbert Harrison in 1959 and go to number one.

That was followed by an R & B hit by “Big” Mama Thornton called “Hound Dog”. That song turned out to be their ticket to fame when the song was covered by Elvis Presley and was a huge hit. In fact, Elvis owed a great deal to this songwriting team as he had big hits with their songs “Jailhouse Rock”, “Loving You”, “Treat Me Nice”, “(You’re so Square) Baby I don’t Care”, “Love Me”, “Don’t”, “She’s not You” and “Trouble”. Even before Presley’s hit, they decided to start their own record label called Sparks Records in 1953.

Sparks Records was soon bought out by Atlantic Records who hired them as songwriters and producers in 1955. At the very young age of 21 they became the very first independent producers in R & R history. Prior to them making history, all production was done in house by staff of A & R (Artists & Repertoire) who were responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development. That included picking the songs and overseeing production of the music. Leiber and Stoller put a crack in their power.

That led to Leiber and Stoller writing a whole lot of songs for artists on the label. The Coasters benefited the most from working with the songwriting team that was also producing. They started out as The Robins on Sparks Records. They came close to being successful with songs like “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Riot in Cell Block # 9”.

Once Jerry and Mike were established at Atlantic they brought The Robins back and changed their name to The Coasters. They wrote songs that were largely about teenage life with a real sense of humor. The Coasters almost overnight became one of the hottest groups of the 50’s and early 60’s. They cranked out hit after hit written by Leiber & Stoller. The songs were all very different than anything heard before. While they were musically sound, they were borderline novelty songs. The lyrics provided stories that were often funny, but never romantic. The hits just kept coming-“Searchin’” (looking for a lost love), “Youngblood”, “Yakety Yak” (teen ager’s view of his parents), “Charlie Brown” (the cartoon character), “Along Came Jones” (a parody on TV heroes), “Poison Ivy” (Nick name for a woman), “Love Potion # 9” (the cure might be worse than the problem), and “Little Egypt” scored big for them.

You would think with that kind of success, The Coasters would be thrilled with the men who made it happened. Well, to a degree they were. While they did appreciate the work of Leiber & Stoller, they longed to write songs of their own.

In 1981 I was the MC for an “Oldies” concert that featured The Coasters. Carl Gardner, the lead singer and original Coaster, was still with the group. He and all but one of the original members have since died. Carl and I had a long talk back stage. He told me that his only regret about being a Coaster was that he was never able to get anyone to take the music he had written seriously. Everyone wanted him to do the kind of songs he did when The Coasters were hot.
Soon the songs of Leiber & Stoller were in high demand. There have been thousands of versions recorded of their songs ‘I’m a Woman” Peggy Lee, “Ruby Baby” Dion, “Stand by Me” Ben E. King (who co-wrote the song) and “Jackson” Johnny Cash & June Carter give you a good idea of the cross section of artists and genres.

In the 60’s famed producer Phil Spector severed as an intern for Jerry & Mike. In fact he slept on the couch in the recording studio. That is where he learned much of his production skills that led him to become one of the most successful producers of all time.

They continued to write and produce long after many of their piers of the 50’s and 60’s were long gone. They had a big hit in the 70’s with “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel and later his with Michael McDonald and Donald Fagan.

In 1995 Smokey Joe’s Café, a Broadway musical revue based on their work, became a huge hit. Smokey Joe’s Cafe was also nominated for seven Tony Awards and became the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. In 2010 an autobiography of Leiber and Stoller called “Hound Dog” was issued.

While Jerry Leiber died in 2011, Mike is still alive. In fact he has written a new song for the city of Charlotte. It is along the lines of Kansas City that was written in 1952. Their legacy will live forever.


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