August 30, 2011 1:15 am
Lyricists’ lessons in rebelling for love
Music to elope by: a generation learnt how to say 'I love you'
From Mr Paul Frandano.
Sir, Thank you for making a point to remember the lyricist Jerry Leiber (“Yakety yak no more”, editorial and obituary, August 27). He and his partner Mike Stoller, along with Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and other denizens of Broadway’s fabled Brill Building, created the emotional vocabulary of my generation’s young lives, teaching us how to say “Yes”, “No”, “Why?” and “I love you” in myriad variations, all imparted through 3-inch dashboard speakers.
They taught us that to rebel for love was most correct, and my wife and I took that lesson to heart – and, I’m delighted to report, preserve it still, 43 years after she climbed out of a window to marry me.
Reston, VA, US
August 26, 2011 10:24 pm
Yakety yak no more
One of the peculiarities of the world of pop music is that, rather unfairly, songs tend to be associated with those who perform them, rather than the composers who tore out their hair writing them.
Take “Hound Dog”, for example, one of the iconic songs of the 1950s. For most people, the song will always be associated with Elvis Presley, who seared the number into the US public’s consciousness in a blur of pelvic thrusting on the Milton Berle show in 1956, before cementing the association by giving a less provocative rendition to a remarkably patient basset hound on a different television show a couple of weeks later.
On this story
Look beyond the dog and the gyrations, however, and the song was the work of Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, the American songwriter who died this week. From their 1950s heyday, the duo’s songs helped launch a number of stars into the musical firmament.
That performers as diverse as Presley and Edith Piaf, the Rolling Stones and Fats Domino queued up to sing Leiber and Stoller’s various works is a testament to the pair’s musical dexterity.
Their tunes and lyrics became the backing track for the changes that swept through society in the US and Europe in the 1960s. This was partly because they wrote at a time when American culture was in the ascendancy, while the postwar consumerist revolution was bringing pop music to a young generation for the first time.
In the era of gangsta rap, “Yakety Yak”, a light-hearted song about parents ticking off their children, harks back to a more innocent age. But for the postwar generation, Leiber and Stoller’s songs were among the first to speak directly to their own experiences.
While their output dried up in more recent years, performers continue to record their classics. Noel Coward once remarked on the “extraordinary” potency of what he snootily called “cheap music”. Their names may not be as well remembered as Piaf’s, but the power of their music still endures.
August 26, 2011 9:44 pm
‘Hound Dog’ writer who chronicled rebellion
By Peter Aspden
The songwriter Jerry Leiber, who died this week at the age of 78, was a leading figure of postwar popular culture. With writing partner Mike Stoller he created some of the most memorable hits of an era that saw an irreversible shift in social attitudes. With songs such as “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Yakety Yak” and “Stand By Me”, the pair chronicled the rebellious mood of 1950s America with flashes of wit, and the sharpest of ears for the black vernacular that would dominate popular music to the present day.
Such was the lyrical and musical suppleness of their songs that they were covered by a wide variety of artists: Fats Domino, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Edith Piaf. They also allied their songwriting talents with an entrepreneurial intelligence that ensured they would remain in work and in demand. Leiber and Stoller managed the rare combination of reading the music industry at least as well as the epochal social changes of postwar culture.
On this story
The most famous of the artists who covered their work was Elvis Presley, who took their 1952 song “Hound Dog” to astronomic success four years later. The song’s evolution served as an instructive fable for its time. The teenage Leiber and Stoller wrote the song for Big Mama Thornton, “the toughest looking woman we’d ever seen”, recalled Leiber years later, but not robust enough, it seems, to make an significant impact on the charts.
But Presley performed the mischievous song, about the relationship between a woman and her gigolo, on The Milton Berle Show in 1956, where his gyrations caused headlines and outraged middle America. It was a clamorous moment. For a subsequent performance on The Steve Allen Show Presley was called to account and forced to sing the song to a basset hound wearing a top hat.
The next morning the furious singer recorded the studio version, demanding 31 takes to achieve the necessary catharsis for his wrath. The finished product, snarling with aggression, though never liked by Leiber, was a massive hit and pinned down the moment that the rock and roll attitude was born.
Jerry Leiber at the Grammy Foundation's Starry Night gala in Los Angeles, California in 2008
Leiber was born in 1933 to a middle-class Jewish family in Baltimore. His father died when he was five, and he worked for his mother’s grocery store from an early age. He always ascribed his affection for and understanding of black musical forms to those experiences: “We were the only grocery store that delivered to black people, and I was the delivery boy. We had a great relationship. It started from there.”
He met Stoller, who was born the same year, in Los Angeles in 1950 and the pair struck a musical rapport, with Leiber predominantly supplying the lyrics to Stoller’s angular melodies. The young men worked fast and fluently.
Leiber and Stoller’s early songs were characterised by a deftness of touch and gift for irony that made light of the tensions felt across the racial divide, and between the generations. In 1953 they formed Spark Records, which signed The Robins, a group that combined R&B and doo-wop to pleasing effect and who were the forerunners of The Coasters.
As the pair’s songwriting confidence grew, so did their ambitions. In 1955 they signed a deal with Atlantic Records as a songwriting and production team, and wrote some of their most notable songs. A hit for The Cheers, “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”, was covered by Piaf, translated into “L’Homme a la Moto”.
They wrote further songs for Presley, including “King Creole”, “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock”, although their attempts to get closer to the singer floundered when they crossed his famously protective manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who terminated their relationship with his protégé.
In 1957 they moved to New York to take their place in the Brill building, a factory for similar hit-making partnerships such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King. In the same year they co-wrote the hit “Spanish Harlem” with Phil Spector, whom they had taken under their wing to teach the deft arts of record production.
Their 1958 song for The Coasters, “Yakety Yak”, was typical of the duo’s flair for original writing. The song poked fun at racial stereotyping, and its witty internal dialogue was similarly light-hearted on the theme of teen rebellion: “Take out the papers and the trash, or you won’t get no spendin’ cash.”
Popular culture idols such as Presley and James Dean may have put more intensity into their interpretations of the generation wars, but rarely achieved the succinctness of the song’s defining couplet: “Yakety yak! (Don’t talk back).” The song, delivered at breakneck speed, made the top of the US charts.
Leiber and Stoller’s work at the beginning of the 1960s saw them at the top of their game. “Stand By Me”, co-written with Ben E. King, was a tender blues ballad.
But the new decade brought an entirely new sensibility to popular culture, as well as a change in songwriting’s business model, with the growth of singer-songwriters. The levity of Leiber and Stoller’s songs was unsuited to a more confrontational era.
There would be further highlights in their careers – they produced Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” and wrote “Pearl’s a Singer” for Elkie Brooks – but it was the rediscovery of their early work by younger generations that kept them in the public eye, especially after their 2009 autobiography.
Leiber is survived by three sons.