The Legacy of Leiber and Stoller
by Jeff Kaliss


Rock 'n' roll is said to have been formed from a fusion between black rhythm & blues and white entrepreneurship. If so, then the foremost of the fair-skinned founding fathers must be Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Before the dawn of rock, in 1950, they were both teenagers transplanted to L.A. from the East Coast. Stoller dug jazz but played with dance bands while attending Los Angeles City College. Through a drummer friend he met Leiber then a student at Fairfax High with an after-school job at a record store. They spent that summer writing songs that reflected their shared love of black pop music, and before the year was out Jimmy Witherspoon had recorded and performed Leiber and Stoller's "Real Ugly Woman" in concert.

Three years later, their "Hound Dog" (Big Mama Thornton) prepared the way for rock in ways that only appear in retrospect. Elvis Presley's seminal number one hit with the song was still another three years away, and it first gained notice on the Peacock label in a loud r&b treatment by the large and legendary Willie Mae Thornton, one of many discoveries of bandleader Johnny Otis. Thornton's side sold well enough to elicit an "answer record" titled "Bear Cat" from Rufus Thomas, which helped jump start Sun Records, future home of rock pioneers Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.

By their own account, Leiber and Stoller glided through the early '50s from r&b ("Smokey Joe's Cafe", the Robins, 1955) to rock ("Black Denim Trousers" the Cheers, 1955) without realizing that this change of venues (the funky greasy spoon of the former for the motorcycle of the latter) was about to produce a new culture and an undreamed of source of income. In fact, one of the songwriters' most successful rock vehicles was a spin-off from the Robins, the much better-remembered Coasters, who recorded their "Searchin'" b/w "Young Blood" for Atco, a subsidiary of Atlantic, in 1957, a year after Elvis's pelvis-shaking "Hound Dog". The same group scored in 1958 with the pair's "Yakety Yak", tickled by King Curtis's sax work, and in 1959 with "Love Potion No. 9 (Searchers, 1960)", "Charlie Brown", "Along Came Jones", "Poison Ivy", and "I'm a Hog For You". But a major source of Leiber and Stoller's success and power was their ability to bridge both racial barriers and musical genres. Their funny and funky contributions to the Coasters stand in contrast to their ethereal "Dance With Me" (the Drifters, 1959) and the gospely "Stand By Me" (Ben E. King, 1961). The breadth is even evident in their association with their most famous single partner, Elvis Presley, who managed to ride some of Big Mama's rollick in "Hound Dog", to choreograph Leiber and Stoller's high-spirited title tune for his "Jailhose Rock" film, to tame himself down to a genteel jump in "Treat Me Nice", and to croon passionately on "Don't".

Their adopted rhythm-and-blues roots continued to serve the pair well when "Kansas City", a tune they'd recorded in 1952 with Texas blues man Little Willie Littlefield, spawned five different versions in 1959, with Wilbert Harrison's ascending to the top of Billboard's charts and rock legend. By this time, Leiber and Stoller had already relocated to New York to be closer to the virtual teen pop factory centered in and around the Brill Building. They effectively strengthened the foundations of rock by combining the functions of songwriters and producers and daring to experiment with effects, such as the strings placed behind the Drifters on the haunting "There Goes My Baby" (1959). As music journalist Robert Palmer has noted, "They didn't just perform songs for these artists; they arranged the songs, picked the backing musicians, supervised the recording sessions." The pair added, "We didn't write songs, we wrote records." And they yet again unwittingly furthering the evolution of rock by taking under their wings a young producer, Phil Spector, attracted by this sort of acoustic innovation, arguably the predecessor of his "wall of sound".

Having formed their first label, Spark, during the early pre-rock stage of their career, Leiber and Stoller began shifting more of their attention from writing to producing with their formation of Red Bird in 1964. Although they also issued blues on their Blue Cat subsidiary, Red Bird served as a nest for "girl groups" such as the Dixie Cups and the Shangri-Las as well as for the prolific husband-and-wife song writing duo of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. "Girl groups" were passing out of style by the time Leiber and Stoller sold Red Bird in 1966, but the genre was soon to be reborn under the guidance of Spector, their former apprentice, especially in conjunction with Motown groups.

Leiber and Stoller have relaxed from their hectic pace of making records in the late '50's and early '60's, reappearing briefly by producing "Stuck In the Middle With You (Stealers Wheel,1972)". The song hit commercial heights again in 1993 when included on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. But for the two multi-talented songwriters, the term "rock royalty" should mean something more than just the money they continue to collect from their numerous hits generated during rock's first decade. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and most of the above-mentioned tunes (and a few lesser known) are currently being showcased at the New York's Virignia Theatre in Smokey Joe's Cafe... The Songs of Leiber and Stoller.

Written by Jeff Kaliss for THERE