Jerry Leiber, a songwriter as good as gold, dies at 78

JerryLieber
JerryLieber
Posted: August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber, 78, the songwriter who with partner Mike Stoller wrote an unending stream of early rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues hits including "Hound Dog," "Stand by Me," "Kansas City," "Charlie Brown," "Jailhouse Rock," and "On Broadway," has died of cardiopulmonary failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

With Stoller, Mr. Leiber was a member of the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. The duo, who first met in 1950 in Los Angeles, where Mr. Leiber, a Baltimore native, had moved as a teenager, won Grammy Awards for "Is That All There Is?," a hit for Peggy Lee in 1969, and for the Broadway cast album of Smokey Joe's Cafe, a revue of Stoller-Leiber songs, in 1995.

With a shared affinity for black music, the pair began writing songs together in the early 1950s, and within a few years their tunes were regularly being recorded by blues and R&B artists. Charles Brown gave them their first hit with "Hard Times" in 1952, and that same year Little Willie Littlefield cut "Kansas City," which was a hit for Wilbert Harrison in 1959 and was later recorded by the Beatles, among many others.

Big Mama Thornton recorded "Hound Dog" in 1953, and three years later, Elvis Presley, after seeing a Las Vegas lounge act covering the song, recorded his own version, which occupied the top spot on the pop charts for 11 weeks in a row.

That year, Stoller and his wife were sailing back to the United States from France aboard the SSAndrea Dorea, which sank after being struck by another ship. The couple were rescued and brought ashore on another boat. They were met at the dock in New York by Mr. Leiber, who informed Stoller that "Hound Dog" had become a hit for Elvis Presley. Stoller replied: "Elvis who?"

The duo went on to write several other tunes for Presley, specializing in the title cuts for movies such as Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, and Loving You. But they were just as strongly identified with the Coasters, the theatrical R&B novelty act, whose lead singer Carl Gardner died this past June.

The timeless, humorous tunes they wrote and produced for the group include "Young Blood," "Yakety Yak," "Searchin'," and "Poison Ivy," a song that is "a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease - for the clap," Mr. Leiber said in 2009. "Hardly a topic for a song that hit the Top 10 in the spring of 1959. But the more we wrote, the less we understood why the public bought what it bought."

They worked for Atlantic Records and were contractually permitted to work with other artists and labels. They took an aspiring producer named Phil Spector under their wing, with whom they wrote "Spanish Harlem," a hit for Ben E. King in 1960.

Collaborating with other songwriters, the duo's string of hits continued with "Stand by Me," later recorded by John Lennon and many others, but originally a hit for its cowriter King in 1961. "On Broadway," a 1963 hit for the Drifters written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, was a Grammy winner in 1978. And in the 1970s, the pair produced "Stuck in the Middle With You," the smash from Stealers Wheel featured in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

As a rule, Mr. Leiber wrote mostly lyrics, and Stoller most of the music. "Jerry was an idea machine," Stoller wrote in the 2009 memoir Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, written with David Ritz. "For every situation, Jerry had 20 ideas. . . . His verbal vocabulary was all over the place - black, Jewish, theatrical, comical. He would paint pictures with words."


Contact music critic Dan

DeLuca at 215-854-5628, ddeluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read

his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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