Lyricist Jerome Leiber and composer Michael Stoller were songwriting and record producing partners, who, as a duo, wrote and/produced many hit songs that were among the most popular in the 50’s and 60’s, and were performed by many of the biggest blues and rock n roll singers of the 20th century. Together with other writers and musicians, they have brought black and white musical forms together, and helped spearhead the transition from R&B to Rock in the 50’s.
Leiber and Stoller, two Jewish kids from the east coast, met in LA, California in 1950, when they were both 17. Stoller describes the fateful phone call:
“Hi, my name is Jerome Leiber. Are you Mike Stoller?”
“Did you play a dance in East LA last week?”
“Can you write music?”
“Can you write notes on music paper?”
“Would you like to write songs with me?”
“I don’t like songs.”
“What do you like?”
Somewhat pretentiously, I answered, “I like Bela Bartok and Thelonious Monk.”
“Anyway, I think we should meet to talk about it.”
“Hey,” I said, “if you want to come over, come over.”
It seemed to me that the doorbell rang as I hung up the phone.
Nevertheless, upon meeting each other, they found they shared a love of blues and R&B.
Famously, Leiber and Stoller wrote some songs sung by The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, like Jailhouse Rock…
and Hound Dog…
The success of Hound Dog invited different artists to record answer songs, which resulted in lawsuits accusing those artists of copyrights infringements. The most famous of those answer songs was “Bear Cat”, recorded by Rufus Thomas.
Do you think that Bear Cat constitutes a copyrights infringement of Hound Dog? The two songs are indeed very similar and have essentially the same chord progression. Just like any two different blues songs.
Another major hit co-written by Leiber & Stoller is “Stand by Me”, which was first performed by Ben E. King (who was also involved in the song’s writing).
According to Stoller, King and Leiber worked on the lyrics and some aspects of the music, like the melody, while he (Stoller) worked on the harmony and wrote the famous bass line.
Harmonically, the song uses the “50s progression” (I-vi-IV-V), sometimes called “Heart and Soul” chords, after that piece you always hear when you put two keyboard players next to a piano.
Due to the song’s success, the progression is sometimes called “Stand by Me” changes, despite it’s harmony being a slightly different variation of the I-vi-IV-V progression.
Stand By Me has been recorded by many different artists.
In 1986, the song was featured on the soundtrack of “Stand By Me”, a film based on Stephen King’s “The Body”. Many songs become famous as a result of being featured in a successful movie’s soundtrack, but “Stand by Me” isn’t one of those: the song was already a major hit in the 60’s, while the 1986 film merely caused a renewed interest in the song.
Much of the duo’s music was directed at the teenage audience, and had lyrics that teenagers could identify with. This isn’t surprising, as Leiber and Stoller were teenagers themselves when they started working together. An example of such a song would be “Yakety Yak” (1958), which the duo wrote and produced for The Coasters.
“Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more
Yakety yak (Don’t talk back)”
Presumably, the song’s verses describe a list of chores that a parent may ask a child to do, to which the child responds with “Yakety Yak”. What’s “Yakety Yak”, you ask? Who knows, 50’s memes are bizarre.
In 1964, Leiber and Stoller founded Red Bird Records, which had a reputation of being a “girl-group” label. Major hits released by the label include “Chapel of Love” by The Dixie Cups,
and “Leader of the Pack” by The Shangri-Las, which wasn’t written or composed by Leiber & Stoller themselves, but by a different duo that worked with the label, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry.
Eventually, Leiber and Stoller left Red Bird after it was taken over by the Jewish mafia. Really.
A more lyrically mature and harmonically complex hit written by the duo would be “Is That All There Is?”, originally performed by Georgia Brown in 1967, but became a hit with Peggy Lee in 1969.
“Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is”
“Is That All There Is” is rather unorthodox for a hit song, and is different than the energetic, catchy blues hits that the duo wrote earlier in their career.
The careers of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller could perhaps be summarized with this short paragraph, which was spoken by Sinatra during a concert:
“We’d like to do a new song for you. I don’t know it very well, but I’ll do the best I can. It’s a marvelous song written by a couple of kids who, strangely enough, used to write for Elvis Presley and do all those rock things and suddenly they grew older and now they write pretty songs, ballads, you know, not the ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Wolf Dog’ and all those other ‘Mother’s Ass’ things they used to do – stupid, goddamn songs. This, you might say, is reminiscent of a song like ‘September Song’. Their names are, I think, Ron Leiber and Mike Stoller.”
Then, Sinatra sang “The Girls I Never Kissed”, written by Leiber and Stoller.
There is more to say about the role that Leiber and Stoller played in the music industry, though. Sinatra’s anti-Rock and Roll rant sounds a little anachronistic today, as this music genre that Leiber and Stoller helped to develop became exceptionally influential, continuously reinventing itself with new genres and sub-genres to this day. It’s possible that Leiber and Stoller had, directly or indirectly, influenced the content of our present day Spotify playlists.
Another story to tell would be about race relations. Leiber and Stoller are credited for bringing black music and white music together, which resulted in Rock and Roll. Risking an absurd exaggeration of the role of music in political history, one could argue that Rock and Roll played a role in the civil rights movement, as it was enjoyed by both black and white teenagers and brought them together. One could also argue, though, that the transition from Rhythm and Blues to Rock and Roll, which was accompanied by the marketing shifting from the African-American market to the white audience, left many of the black pioneers of these genres with less recognition than they deserved.
As an example, we could look, again, at “Hound Dog”. While the most recognized recording is the one performed by Elvis Presley, the song was initially sung by Big Mama Thornton.
Both songs were successful at the time, which may serve the intuition that good composition and lyrics are at least partly responsible for a hit song’s popularity, regardless of who performs it.
However, only one of them became such a hit that it is immediately recognizable even today. Why is that?
According to Popular Music Appreciation – A Checklist, some factors that contribute to a song’s likability are the quality and relate-ability of the story it tells, and whether the music fits the lyrics. Big Mama’s version of Hound Dog, arguably, meets these criteria much better than Presley’s version – the song was written by Leiber & Stoller specifically to fit Big Mama’s personality and singing style. The duo themselves admitted to preferring Big Mama’s version, as they see it as more authentic, and believe that the lyrics make more sense in this version, especially as some of the lyrics were changed in Presley’s version.
Perhaps Elvis’ version became so popular because of the exciting and fast drums, which undoubtedly contributes greatly to the song’s danceability, as well as the sick guitar solo at 0:48.
Or, perhaps, it was because Elvis, who had the voice of a black blues singer, was easier to sell to the white audience in the 50’s.
“I like looking at the photos of some of the people that Jerry and I worked with and admired. Unfortunately there are precious few if any photos of us with Charles Brown, Willie Mae Thornton, the Robins, the Coasters, Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Little Willie Littlefield, Esther Phillips, Johnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, and Linda Hopkins. The reason is simple enough. No one thought anyone would care much about what we were doing back then. We were proud of our work but didn’t have the slightest notion that those songs or records would be remembered three months later – or, unbelievably, fifty or more years later”
– Mike Stoller