Jerry Leiber, R.I.P.


Ben E. King, "Stand by Me" (1960)
Jerry Leiber, who died today at 78, wrote songs that became legends unto themselves. You could write entire books about "Kansas City," about "Stand by Me," about "On Broadway," about "There Goes My Baby," about "Jailhouse Rock," about "Is That All There Is," and lord knows about "Hound Dog"—just start with the discography of Greil Marcus's Mystery Train and go from there. (I've seen highly regarded academics stumble badly for not doing so.) "Yakety Yak" rivals Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" as the definitive adults-vs.-teenagers '50s anthem, not to mention its timeless pinhead progeny, "Yakety Sax," the theme from The Benny Hill Show.


"TAKE OUT THE PAPERS AND THE TRASH!"—greatest opening line of the '50s?


Skimpily clad "birds" being chased by portly little man not included.

The Coasters' singles, all told, rival The Honeymooners and The Dick Van Dyke Show: Leiber was one of the shrewdest lyricists in history, and he set up situations that had a TV-level closeness and broadness, perfect for the emerging teenage audience. But teenagers weren't what Leiber and Stoller aimed for at first. Meeting as teenagers in L.A., they were Jews obsessed with black culture—not the first, certainly not the last, but definitely among the most impactful. They wrote R&B songs that sounded like R&B songs, free with wordplay and attitude. Nothing sounded forced, and everything moved.


The Coasters, "Shopping for Clothes" (1960)

As producers, Leiber and Stoller would go down in the books for "There Goes My Baby" alone. It's amazing to imagine, decades after Motown, Philadelphia International, Barry White, and the ARP String Synthesizer—among many other things—that it took until 1959 for someone to put a heaping string arrangement on an R&B record. (Needless to say, Phil Spector was the duo's understudy.)


The Drifters, "There Goes My Baby" (1959)

Dave Marsh quotes Leiber in The Heart of Rock & Soul:

"We were trying to create some kind of collage. We were experimenting because the things that were planned for the date were falling apart . . . Stanley [Applebaum, the arranger] wrote something that sounded like some Caucasion take-off and we had this Latin beat going on this out-of-tune tympani and the Drifters were singing something in another key but the total effect—there was something magnificent about it . . . I'd be listening to the radio sometimes and hear it and I was convinced it sounded like two stations playing the same thing."


Stealer's Wheel, "Stuck in the Middle with You" (1972)


Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?" (1969)

Leiber and Stoller had hits well after the '50s, of course—their final big one was Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You." But the late L&S song with the most fascinating cultural traction has been "Is That All There Is?" Peggy Lee's 1969 rendition made it seem like a natural standard, albeit an exceptionally jaded one—"In the Wee Small Hours" for people who have a headache about life. Eleven years later, one-time Voice theater critic Cristina Monet, who'd ditched her surname for a tongue-in-cheek career as an acidic disco diva, did her own version as a Ze Records 12-inch, and changed some of the words:


Cristina, "Is That All There Is?" (1980)

Leiber and Stoller were incensed, and Cristina's version went into limbo for decades, until the mid-'00s. Franklin Bruno wrote a paper about the song's history (it's in the Eric Weisbard-edited anthology Listen Again), for which he spoke with Leiber. "I went through some hoops to get an interview with him," Bruno says, "but he was a great talker, and when we were almost done, said, 'Hey, you should call up Mike.'" Not long after, the song was approved for reissue along with the rest of the Ze Records catalog.

One more discographical note before a flurry of embeds designed to boost your day and pay tribute to a giant: Rhino Handmade as a four-CD complete-on-Atco box, but not the long out-of-print 50 Coastin' Classics. Someone should do something about that.


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