Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Leiber & Stoller

Thursday, June 27, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Leiber & Stoller

We Don’t Write Songs.
We Write Records.
- Leiber and Stoller

For three years, a pair of songwriters in Los Angeles had been creating hits for others, who sang. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were that pair, and they did not perform for a living. However, in those early 1950s, they created major hits for artists and labels.

They often described what they did as “We write records.”

Early in the Fifties, they wrote and created such records as:

“Kansas City” (written in 1952, when they were 19 years old; now over 300 versions recorded)

I'm gonna be standing on the corner
On the corner of Twelfth Street and Vine
With my Kansas City baby
And a bottle of Kansas City wine.

… and “Hound Dog” (Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 version)

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door

You can wag your tail

But I ain't gonna feed you no more

… and “Riot in Cell Block #9” (1954, by The Robins)

Each and every trooper
He looked so tall and fine
All the chicks went crazy
Up in cell block number nine

… and “Smokey Joe’s Café” (1955, by The Robins)

Her chair was there right next to mine at Smokey Joe's Café
A chill was running down my spine at Smokey Joe's Café
I could smell her sweet perfume
She smiled at me, my heart went boom
Then everybody in the room at Smokey Joe's Café
They said "Man be careful, that chick belongs to Smokey Joe"

The latter two songs, sung by The Robins, were recorded and produced for the authors’ own Spark Records label.

L&S’s careers had been guided since ’52 by the man who’d brought them into the record business, Lester Sill. Sill mentored and cleared professional pathways for the two young, wanna-be songs writers -- Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber.

Another knows-the-hits-game guy in Los Angeles, Nesuhi Ertegun, was having the time of his life (so far) in California. He taught jazz history at UCLA, ran his own record store, and hung out with jazz guys.

In 1954, Nesuhi ran into Jerry Leiber at a party filled with chicks and black performers. Nesuhi already knew by heart several songs that Leiber and Stoller had written, and told Leiber he felt “opportunity in this moment.”

They didn’t have time to talk at that party, and Nesuhi was about to get married, so he invited Leiber to join him to come along on his honeymoon down in Laguna. “No kidding,” Nesuhi insisted.

The honeymooners: Leiber was 5’8” and Nesuhi was 5’4”. Nesuhi’s most recent bride, Betty, was 6’1”.

So Leiber and Stoller both joined the honeymooners in Laguna, where Betty took up most of Nesuhi’s nights. Days there, Betty swam and Nesuhi was free to spend hours with Leiber and Stoller.

Nesuhi liked Jerry Stoller’s voice, but Stoller Insisted: no, he would not perform in public, answering “I’ll stick to writing.” So Nesuhi turned to their song writings, which he’d heard on the Spark label. Their latest: “Smokey Joe’s Café.”

He told them, “Let me be frank. You guys are superb songwriters. You know what you’re doing in the studio. But you don’t know how to distribute and sell. My brother Ahmet does. Why don’t you let me call him and make an introduction?”

Nesuhi called his brother Ahmet and rushed him a copy of “Smokey Joe’s Café.” He recommended Atlantic connect with Leiber and Stoller. Which Ahmet did.

That October, a deal got talked through. Unusual, in that Leiber and Stoller were the first writer-producers ever to get a free-lance production deal with the label and its three leaders.

Atlantic and Leiber-Stoller came together with this new kind of deal: Leiber and Stoller would make records for Atlantic to sell, and Atlantic would pay Leiber and Stoller a royalty.

Leiber and Stoller would also get their writers’ royalty.

Leiber and Stoller now felt New York-ier. They tried to hold on to that early L.A. R&B group they’d signed, The Robins, who’d hit for them in 1954 with “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a single with “produced effects” like strip-club choruses, dirty sax, and a “lifer” as its narrator.

But moving to New York was only semi-popular with The four Robins. Only two made the move, and those Robins’ group name got changed to The Coasters, as in West Coasters.

The deal was signed that December. Their old label, Spark Records, shut down. “Smokey Joe’s Café” was moved from Spark over to Atlantic Records. They were now “Atlantic guys.”

Leiber and Stoller got The Coasters managed by Lester Sill. Connections a-plenty. New York? Big time.

Making Coasters Records

The Coasters/Robins had sung doo-wop. They now began a post-doo-wop style of story-telling hits. It was original and captivated audiences.

Their first single, “Down in Mexico,” came out and sold just “some” in 1956, with Carl Gardner singing the lead.

Down in Mexicali
There's a crazy little place that I know
Where the drinks are hotter than the chili sauce
And the boss is a cat named Joe

He wears a red bandanna, plays a blues piano
In a honky-tonk, down in Mexico
He wears a purple sash and a black mustache
In a honky-tonk, down in Mexico

Well, the first time that I saw him
He was sittin' on a piano stool
I said "Tell me, dad, when does the fun begin?"
He just winked his eye and said, "Man, be cool"

He wears a red bandanna, plays a blues piano
In a honky-tonk, down in Mexico
He wears a purple sash and a black mustache
In a honky-tonk, down in Mexico

In Mexico
All of a sudden in walks this chick
In Mexico
Joe starts playing on a Latin kick

In Mexico
Around her waist she wore three fishnets
In Mexico
She started dancin' with the castanets

In Mexico
I didn't know just what to expect
In Mexico
She threw her arms around my neck

“Story-telling songs” like that grew on and up as Leiber and Stoller’s writing style, and it fit the Coasters’ performing style.

Spending more and more time in Manhattan, Leiber and Stoller also wrote songs for other Atlantic acts. They now had become, in their recording session, an act’s Producers-Directors (to use a stage performance term). Atlantic felt it, too; original and pop. Atlantic hounded Leiber and Stoller, “their team of writers” for more hits.

Leiber and Stoller told Atlantic “not to worry.” They had, as they put it, “a coupla thousand ideas.” They also wrote hits that would appeal to two audiences together: blacks and whites.

Next release: The Coasters’ first Top Ten hit “Searchin’”; it topped the R&B charts for 13 weeks, and became the biggest R&B single of the year (1957).

Well, Sherlock Holmes,
Sam Spade got nothin', child, on me

Sergeant Friday, Charlie Chan and Boston Blackie

No matter where she's a hiding,

She's gonna hear me a comin'

Gonna walk right down that street like Bulldog Drummond

'Cause I've been searchin'

Oooh, Lord, searchin', mm child

Searchin' every which a-way

Yeah, yeah

The Coasters now made their homes in New York, near by Atlantic. While out on the road, the Coasters would invent choreography for each song and then, back home, demo it for their producers and put Leiber and Stoller on the floor laughing.

Then their producers would play new songs they’d just written for their Coasters, and demo them, with Jerry acting out the stories. That put the Coaters on the floor, howling.

Some of their hits there:

“Yakety Yak” (with King Curtis blowing tenor sax, along with mom-and-pop twin lead vocals and the yap of rebellious teens), a #1 pop and R&B single. With it, Atlantic/Atco crossed over to the teen market;

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)

Next for Lieber and Stoller and The Coasters: “Charlie Brown” (#2 on both charts);

Fe-fe, fi-fi, fo-fo, fum

I smell smoke in the auditorium
Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown

He's a clown, that Charlie Brown

He's gonna get caught

Just you wait and see

(Why's everybody always pickin' on me)

And “Along Came Jones”…

I flopped down in my easy chair and turned on channel 2
A bad gunslinger called Salty Sam was a-chasin' poor sweet Sue
He trapped her in the old sawmill and said with an evil laugh
"If you don't give me the deed to your ranch, I'll saw you all in half"

And then he grabbed her (And then?) He tied her up (And then?) He turned on the buzz saw (And then? And then?)

And then along came Jones
Tall, thin Jones
Slow-walkin' Jones
Slow-talkin' Jones
Along came lonely, lanky Jones

And “Poison Ivy”…

She comes on like a rose but everybody knows
She'll get you in Dutch

 You can look but you better not touch 

Poison iv-y-y-y-y, poison iv-y-y-y-y 

Late at night while you're sleepin' poison ivy comes a'creepin' 


and “Little Egypt (Ying-Yang),” along with its carnival barker, acrobatics, and her “seven kids” singing “gitchy-gitchy.”

I went and bought myself a ticket and
I sat down in the very first row, wo wo.
They pulled the curtain but then when
They turned the spotlight way down low, wo wo,
Little Egypt came out strutting,
Wearing nothing but a button and a bow, wo wo,
Singing, "Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah''.

And Next, The Drifters

Atlantic/Atco behaved in heat. They were making money, and wanted more. More records, for more bands (or groups).

Another Atlantic “group” called The Drifters needed Production-Direction. Being too busy in house to produce the needed singles, Atlantic once more turned to Jerry and Mike.

New lead voice of The Drifters was Ben E. King, and The Drifters’ Atco hits began in 1959 with Jerry and Mike’s specially conceived production of “There Goes My Baby.”

(Bo-bo, doo-doot-doo-doo-doo-doo)
(There she goes) (doo-doot-doo-doo-doo-doo)
(There she goes) (doo-doot-doo-doo-doo-doo)
(Bo-bo) (doo-doot-doo-doo)
(Bo-bo) (doo-doo-doo-doo)

There goes my baby, movin' on down the line
Wonder where, wonder where, wonder where she is bound?
I broke her heart and made her cry
Now I'm alone, so all alone
What can I do, what can I do?

(There goes my baby) Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh
(There goes my baby) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
(There goes my baby) Whoa-oh-oh-oh
(There she goes) Yeah! (There she goes)

After that session, Leiber and Stoller rushed to play this first Drifters’ single for Jerry Wexler. They knew they had a hit in hand.

In his office, lunch time, hearing “There Goes My Baby,” Jerry Wexler yelled back, spewing his tuna fish sandwich bits spewed against his room’s side wall. The cut deeply offended Jerry.

“Goddamn awful trash!” he yelled. “How can you play a tape like that for me? That tune is being played in three different keys, it sounds like three stations playing at the same time coming through on one very bad car radio.”

“There Goes” went to #1 on both the R&B and pop charts. Jerry got his walls washed of tuna.

After that came “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Produced by Leiber and Stoller, but a song written by Doc Pomus, who had polio and lived in his wheelchair or on crutches.

Pomus wrote this song about his own wedding day, he in his wheelchair as the groom, he at the party after, watching his bride dance with other their guests. (His own bride, Willi, was a Broadway actress and dancer.) In the song, he reminds his bride who’ll be taking her home, and “in whose arms you’re gonna be.”

You can dance, go and carry on
Till the night is gone and it's time to go
If he asks, if you're all alone
Can he take you home, you must tell him, no

'Cause don't forget who's taking you home And in whose arm's you're gonna be So darlin', save the last dance for me

For Leiber and Stoller, after that came 1961’s “Stand by Me” with Ben E. King …

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No I won't be afraid
Oh, I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

So darling, darling
Stand by me, oh stand by me
Oh stand, stand by me
Stand by me

Hits and income came again and again.

Drifting, On and On

The owner of The Drifters were not, however, the group’s members; Drifters singer-members changed constantly. Even Ben E. King moved on after he had asked the owner of the group’s name, George Treadwell, for a raise and a share of the group’s royalties, but got turned down flat.

Treadwell’s group lingered on Atlantic until 1972 (Treadwell died in 1967, and his widow Faye immediately took over managing The Drifters), along with that group’s constantly changing cast, (Faye Treadwell continued to manage the group until her own death in 2011, at age 84, in Burbank, California. Her obituary noted that Faye was survived by her own mother, then age 107.)

The Doo-Vorce of ‘62

But by 1962, Atlantic Records and its production team of Leiber and Stoller started feeling “divorce.” Things had gotten financially too real.

Jerry and Mike’s accountant had urged that the L&S royalties account at Atlantic get audited. “Standard business practice,” the accountant said. The audit quietly started, as things quietly do in accounting.

When he heard about the audit, Jerry Wexler went ape shit. “You’ve made thousands of dollars here. Why in hell would you fuck up our relationship like this?”

Stoller told Wexler, “No, we’re just following our accountant’s suggestion.”

Wexler, demanded, “Do you work for that schmuck or does that schmuck work for you?”

But it was too late to pull back. The audit showed that Atlantic owed Lieber and Stoller $18,000. They pushed for it.

“You got a choice,” Wexler told them. “I cut you a check for 18,000 today and you’ll never work with any of our artists again. Or you can forgo the money and it will be business as usual.”

For business as usual, Lieber and Stoller quickly agreed to skip the money.

Wexler answered “Good,” but he kept Leiber and Stoller away from Atlantic artists for months to come. Wexler and Ahmet had already found a new boy who could take the team’s place. His name was Phil Spector.

-- Stay Tuned