Remembering Jerry Leiber
Today in 2011, the music world lost one of rock ‘n roll’s greatest songwriters, a man who – along with his longtime collaborator Mike Stoller – helped pen such classics as “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Stand By Me,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “On Broadway,” among many, many, many others.
Born on April 25, 1933, Jerome Leiber – but you can call him Jerry – hailed from Baltimore, but he had to wait until he moved to the other side of the country to meet his destiny, by which we mean the aforementioned Mr. Stoller, who was a freshman at Los Angeles City College when he met Leiber, then a senior at L.A.’s Fairfax High School working at Norty’s, a nearby record store. When the two lads crossed paths in 1950 and put their heads together, they started to write some pretty decent tunes, and before the year was out, Jimmy Witherspoon had already recorded one of them: “Real Ugly Woman.”
It was Charles Brown who gave the duo their first proper hit, “Hard Times,” in 1952, which led to other Leiber / Stoller compositions being recorded during the course of the next short while, including “Kansas City” (then called “K.C. Lovin’”) by Little Willie Littlefield and “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton. Of course, the songs in question became bigger hits for other artists – Wilbert Harrison and Elvis Presley, if we’re naming names – but those initial recordings helped put Leiber and Stoller on the map and really got the ball rolling for the duo, who teamed with Lester Sill to form Spark Records in 1953, which was in turn purchased by Atlantic Records, setting the stage for the songwriters’ most substantial successes.
Over the course of their career together, Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and the Grammy Hall of Fame (via Elvis’s recording of “Hound Dog”), got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and were presented with an ASCAP Founders’ Award, a National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award, a NARAS Trustees Award, the Johnny Mercer Award (from the National Academy of Popular Music), the Ivor Novello International Songwriters Award, the ASMAC President’s Award, and the World Soundtrack Award at the Flanders International Film Festival…and if you think any of them weren’t completely justified, we will fight you.
Although Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure at the age of 78, he lived long enough to see the success of Smokey Joe’s Café, the 1995 musical revue inspired by songs which he and Stoller had written. In fact, it’s those very songs that we’ve used as the template for the playlist we’ve put together to memorialize Leiber on this, the day he left us. It’s not everything he penned in his career, not by any stretch, but it’s more than enough to see what he and his partner meant to rock ‘n’ roll…and why he’s much missed even now.