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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2011/08/31
by Mike Gruenberg

Jerry Leiber

In My Life

For those of us who are the “baby boomers” (and I proudly count myself among that group), the names of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller truly represent a huge contribution to the musical soundtrack of our lives. From the songs they wrote for Elvis through the brilliant Atlantic Records R&B songs they wrote and produced to the Girl Groups recorded on their Red Bird Records to rock acts like Procol Harum and Stealers Wheel to Peggy Lee and Broadway’s hit show, Smokey Joe’s Café, Leiber & Stoller wrote the songs we still listen to today and never get tired of hearing. Jerry Leiber died yesterday and I would be remiss not to pay tribute to this man whose name along with his musical writing partner, Mike Stoller appears on so many of the records, cassettes’, 45’s and CD’s in my music collection and yours.

In October of 1956, Elvis Presley performed the Leiber & Stoller composition, “Hound Dog” on the Ed Sullivan show. Watching the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night at 8:00 PM on our black and white television set was a weekly family event. Sometimes the neighbors from our apartment building would join my mom and dad and me to gather around the TV and watch Ed’s star studded line up. For me, it was a great diversion since I knew that early the next day I would wake up and trudge off to school hopefully with my homework completed. That hour watching the Ed Sullivan was for me and many of my friends an hour to forget about the rigors of school the next day. Sullivan’s variety show featured magicians, circus acts, comedians, opera singers, ventriloquists, etc., which really held very little interest for the adolescent members of the audience who Sullivan often referred to as the “youngsters”.

Sullivan realized that he needed to capture higher television ratings and as such, he cleverly latched on to the new phenomenon called “rock’n’roll and sprinkled in the latest and most popular musical acts to his weekly lineup to please the youngsters. He knew he needed acts that would appeal to the teenagers to go along with the jugglers and clowns who did tricks for us and bored most people under the age of 20. In the early 60’s it was Ed Sullivan who, at Brian Epstein’s urging presented the Beatles, while paying them a very small sum of money and the rest, as we say was and is historic.

Four years prior to Elvis’ rendition of “Hound Dog” on the Sullivan show, Leiber & Stoller wrote that song for Willie Mae, “Big Mama” Thornton that was recorded on August 13, 1952. It went to the top of the r&b charts and over the subsequent years was covered by a number of r&b acts. While in Vegas in 1954 performing at that time as a virtual unknown, Elvis and his band members saw, Freddie Bell & The Bellboys perform “Hound Dog “and soon incorporated the tune into their act. On June 5, 1956, Presley and his band performed “Hound Dog” before a national television audience to instant acclaim. A month later on July 2, 1956, Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” at the RCA Victor studios in New York City. It shot to Number 1, initially sold 4 million copies and to date has sold 7 million copies and has been widely covered by artists of varying genres.

It was the perfect storm uniting Presley with Leiber & Stoller. Elvis was a while boy from Biloxi, Mississippi raised in Memphis and whose musical tastes were steeped in blues and r&b music. Similarly, although of Jewish origin, both Leiber & Stoller identified more with blues and r&b music known at that time as “race music” more than traditional white music of the 50”s. Prior to the Elvis release of “Hound Dog” Leiber & Stoller wrote songs primarily for black acts.

Flushed with the success of “Hound Dog”, Leiber & Stoller wrote “Jailhouse Rock” “Loving You” and “King Creole” for Elvis and all of those songs were hits. After a period of time, Leiber & Stoller split with Elvis primarily due to their difficulty in working with Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker. They signed a deal with Atlantic Records and proceeded to find even more success writing for groups like the Coasters and the Drifters and singers like Ben E. King. It was during this time that “On Broadway” was written and sung by the Drifters. As a footnote to this song, Phil Spector played lead guitar on that song and worked as an apprentice to Leiber & Stoller to learn how to produce records.

After their work with Atlantic Records, they moved on to United Artists Records, wrote songs and produced records for Jay & The Americans. However, a defining moment in rock history for me the in the 60’s was when Leiber & Stoller established Red Bird Records. This label produced hits by the Dixie Cups (Chapel of Love), Shangri-Las (Give Him A Great Big Kiss and Remember (Walking in the Sand)), Ad-Libs (Boy From New York City) and the list goes on and on.

With the British Invasion, rock music entering the70’s had a new look as garage groups were the rage. Leiber & Stoller adapted with the times and produced the 1972 hit, “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. In 1975, they produced and album for 60’s icon group Procol Harum called “Procol’s 9th”.

Along the way, they produced and wrote for Peggy Lee and in 1995, Broadway paid homage to the guys with “Smokey Joe’s Café” which ran for many years on Broadway and covered a large portion of their huge body of work.

There are two points in the career of Leiber & Stoller that stand out for me. The first was when I purchased “Procol’s 9th” in 1975. I was a big fan of the group and I was intrigued to know how these two guys would interact with a British based rock act like Procol Harum given that Leiber & Stoller’s music was more r&b oriented. What I didn’t know was that Procol began as an r&b act and wanted to work with these famous writer/producers. I later learned that indeed, there was a misunderstanding between Leiber & Stoller and the group. Apparently, Jerry & Mike thought that Procol would be recording only songs written by Leiber & Stoller. It all got worked out.

Sadly, “Procol’s 9th” is not a great album, but it has some shining moments. The opening cut on the LP on Side 1, not written by Leiber & Stoller is a keeper. It’s called “Pandora’s Box” and it still sounds great today 36 years later. The opening cut on Side 2. Is a tune written by Leiber & Stoller called “I Keep Forgetting” which was a mild hit for Chuck Jackson an r&b singer in the early 60’s. I have that song on a 45 and still think it should have had more popularity. Later on in the 80’s Michael McDonald after his stint with the Doobie Brothers covered the song and it was a hit for him.

The point to all of this is how Leiber & Stoller over the years adapted themselves to the changing times. These were guys born in the 30’s, began writing together in the 50’s, had an affinity to r&b music and yet were able to embrace rock acts and singers like Peggy Lee and be successful in all the genres they wrote for.

For me, one of the greatest songs ever written is “On Broadway”. It has been recorded by a virtual who’s who of the music business. It has been recorded from its original group The Drifters to the Dave Clark 5 to jazz great George Benson. What is striking for me is the story that is told here in under three minutes. It’s a story of hope and the desire to be a success and make something of yourself against overwhelming odds. The lyrics and the song are as relevant today as they were when the Drifters first recorded it in 1963. Leiber & Stoller defied the odds and were wildly successful. They constantly argued, but through it all wrote the songs that make us laugh, make us dance and even make us think, a little.

“On Broadway”

They say the neon lights are bright
On Broadway
They say there’s always magic in the air
But when you’re walkin’ down the street
And you ain’t had enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere

They say the chicks are somethin’ else
On Broadway
But lookin’ at them just gives me the blues
‘Cause how ya gonna make some time
When all you got is one thin dime
And one thin dime won’t even shine your shoes

They say that I won’t last too long
On Broadway
I’ll catch a Greyhound bus for home they say
But they’re dead wrong, I know they are
‘Cause I can play this here guitar
And I won’t quit till I’m star
On Broadway

But they’re dead wrong, I know they are
‘Cause I can play this here guitar
And I won’t quit till I’m star
On Broadway

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