Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Jerry Leiber

25th August 2011

Jerry Leiber (l), Mike Stoller (r)

Jerry Leiber, 1933 – 2011

Bob Stanley pays tribute:

The Abbey Road medley is often cited as the perfect career closer: “And in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take” sums up the warmth, generosity and unbroken circle of the Beatles’ story. Mind you, a pair of furrow-browed, smirking, razor-sharp writers called Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller might have raised an eyebrow at the notion – “Yeah, yeah” they’d sneer, proving there is such a thing as a double positive: “So you haven’t you heard Is That All There Is?”

Leiber and Stoller wrote songs that were as indebted to Vaudeville as they were to their beloved R&B, and in the process they created a catalogue that nailed the recklessness, teendom and irreverent giddy joy of classic Rock’n’Roll. They were born just six weeks apart in 1933, grew up on the east coast, and finally met in 1950 when both their families relocated almost simultaneously to LA. It was fate. They were soulmates, they clicked, and began writing songs together immediately. But they were quite different people. While Mike Stoller was a beatnik, very laid back, with a penchant for classical music (the strings on the Drifters’ game-changing There Goes My Baby were his idea), Jerry Leiber was a motormouth. He wasn’t interested in any music that you couldn’t dance to. He had wild red hair and, like David Bowie, he had one brown eye and one blue: his passport listed his eye colour as “assorted”.

Doing deliveries for his mum’s grocery store in Baltimore, he had come across blues and boogie woogie on black customers’ radios, “music I never heard anywhere else”. In LA he developed a taste for “jazz and pigs’ feet and dark meat, if you know what I mean.” He and Mike “used to argue which one of us was the blackest.” Who won the arguments? “*We* did!” They would write five songs a day and, by the time Big Mama Thornton cut their Hound Dog in 1952, had their schtick down pat. Nothing was taken too seriously; their songs were skits – Love Potion No.9, Yakety Yak, Smokey Joe’s Cafe – that were smart and funny and snorted at sentimentality. They were a blast.

Leiber/Stoller were maybe the first names I noticed cropping up over and over in brackets under the titles of songs I loved, on Elvis’s 40 Greatest and The Very Best Of The Drifters. They started the Brill Building pop machine almost singlehandedly, moving there in 1958 when it was still the province of Irving Berlin and pre-rock publishers. They became godfathers of the scene, the hugest inspiration to Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, and especially Greenwich and Barry. As a team Laura Barton compared them in the Guardian to Morecambe and Wise, but I see them more like Statler and Waldorf, cynical birds bouncing one-liners off each other who would sniff at ‘pop’ acts one minute, then be drawn in and end up writing a classic for them: this is how they ended writing such unlikely but great songs as Tommy Roe’s The Gunfighter and Jackson for Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood.

Elvis was the ultimate case in point. Once Hound Dog had made them rich Jerry and Mike were asked to write something new for him. They didn’t like what he’d done to Hound Dog, thought it too fast and nervy sounding, so they came up with the (in their eyes) mewling, sarcastic Love Me. Of course, Elvis turned it into a sensual classic – listen to what he does with “I would beg and steal, just to feel, your heart beating close to mine” – that Leiber and Stoller had never thought possible. After that, with new-found respect, they gave him the valley-deep Don’t and large chunks of the King Creole and Jailhouse Rock soundtracks: Leiber/Stoller/Presley, the perfect R&R combination. Unsurprisingly, they stand up as Elvis’s best movies.

They knew how to make records, but never quite worked out how to sell them. Hooking up with inveterate gambler but proven record company stalwart George Goldner in 1964, they formed Red Bird records and its more soulful subsidiary Blue Cat. Straight away they scored a number one with the Dixie Cups’ Chapel Of Love: “I hated the fucking record!” sulked Jerry. Red Bird put out a higher percentage of mindsnappers than maybe any label before or since, but Jerry Leiber stayed in the back room most of the time. Once in a while he chipped in with a floorfiller like the Shangri La’s’ Bull Dog. When Red Bird folded, under the weight of Goldner’s personal debts in 1966, Leiber and Stoller pretty much bowed out of pop. They loved Rock’n’Roll, pure and dirty and true, and they weren’t built for the solemnity of the psychedelic era. When Peggy Lee cut Is That All There Is in 1969, it was the perfect curtain to fall on their career: death, destruction, busted
marriages… so what?! It won them a Grammy. It’s also the perfect funeral song.

Leiber and Stoller were inseparable – they wrote together, produced together, even had three marriages each. And apparently they were writing a biography together – I can’t think of another joint autobiography that isn’t by a married couple. Let’s hope Mike Stoller can finish it on his own.

The list of their achievements could (and hopefully will) fill a book, but just for starters… Stand By Me, King Creole, I Who Have Nothing, Searchin’, There Goes My Baby, Poison Ivy, Lucky Lips, Where’s The Girl, Some Other Guy, Drip Drop, Spanish Harlem, Bossa Nova Baby, Kansas City, Trouble, Tricky Dicky… I feel a party coming on. It’s the best way to pay tribute to Jerry Leiber.

He’s gone, but don’t be a blue cat.

Let’s break out the booze, let’s keep on dancing.

[audio:|titles=29 Stand By Me]
[audio:|titles=15 Hot Dog]