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Yakety Yak

Songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller remember redefining postwar pop music

Alex Fine

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 8/12/2009

Jerry Leiber once told me that joining the board of the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1985 was one of the highlights of his life. After years of being dismissed for writing rock 'n' roll hits for Elvis Presley, the Coasters, and the Drifters, the lyricist and his composer/collaborator Mike Stoller had finally been accepted by the older generation of songwriters who had written for Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jo Stafford.

"Suddenly I was rubbing elbows with Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, and Mitchell Parish," Leiber said with a lingering sense of wonder. "Johnny Mercer came over, and said, 'I guess you're wondering why you're here.' I said, 'As a matter of fact, I am.' And he said, 'I'll tell you: You finally wrote a good song. "Is That All There Is?"'"

The anecdote reveals just how much Leiber undervalued his own work and overvalued his predecessors. "Is That All There Is?"--a moody cabaret number and an unlikely hit for Peggy Lee in 1969--is a good song, but it's not nearly as good as the songs that made Leiber and Stoller's reputations: "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock," "Spanish Harlem," "Stand by Me," "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion No. 9," and "Hound Dog"--all written, by the way, before the two songwriters turned 30 in 1963.

Those songs were every bit as smart, subversive, and ambitious as the Peggy Lee hit, but they had better melodic hooks and more rhythmic vitality. Moreover, they made their impact without the obvious straining for effect that marks "Is That All There Is?" It's true that Leiber and Stoller--two Jewish kids from Baltimore and Queens, respectively--inherited a tradition of craftsmanship from such Jewish Tin Pan Alley songwriters as Irving Berlin (who worked in Leiber's neighborhood after the latter moved to Los Angeles) and George Gershwin (who dated Stoller's aunt). But the way Leiber and Stoller turned that tradition inside out by marrying it to the African-American blues tradition changed American culture forever. But Leiber could never see that.

The above story isn't included in the new book, Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, which the two men wrote with the help of David Ritz (the as-told-to specialist who has facilitated the autobiographies of Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Smokey Robinson, and more). But the book includes similar tales with the same import. The two men value their cabaret and theater writing more than their rock 'n' roll and R&B songs--which is why they need a true biography with enough distance to place their work in its proper perspective.

Despite such flaws, Hound Dog is a delightful read. The book is structured as a series of short monologues alternating between Leiber and Stoller and proceeding chronologically from their childhoods on the East Coast to their early success as high-school students in Los Angeles to their glory days at Atlantic Records and the Brill Building in New York to their later work in the theater. Both men are terrific storytellers, witty and succinct, with a sharp eye for the telling detail. Having heard them tell many of the same tales in person, I can testify that Ritz has gotten their voices just right.

Much of the first chapter is set in Baltimore, where Leiber's widowed mother ran a grocery store on West Baltimore corner of Riggs and McKean avenues, just a few blocks from Carver High School, on a boundary where Polish, German, Irish, and black neighborhoods bumped up against one another. It was while making deliveries in the latter neighborhood that little Jerome Leiber fell in love with the blues. Meanwhile, up in Queens, young Michael Stoller was taking the subway into Manhattan to take piano lessons from James P. Johnson, a stride jazz pianist so important that the U.S. Post Office eventually put him on a stamp.

Johnson is just one of the famous names that fall through this book like rain. While still a high school student in 1950, Stoller played gigs with a local trumpeter named Chet Baker. When Leiber got married in 1958, his best man and best woman were the painters Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. In 1966, during drunken nights in Manhattan, Leiber was physically accosted first by Tennessee Williams and then by Norman Mailer.

But these names are not dropped gratuitously; they're always part of a funny or enlightening story. For example, when challenged to a drag race by James Dean at Hollywood's Villa Capri, a 22-year-old Leiber weaseled out of it by proposing a race too preposterously dangerous even for Dean. When a 28-year-old Stoller met avant-garde composer Morton Feldman on a soundtrack project, the two became good friends and Feldman introduced Stoller to composer John Cage and painter Larry Rivers. Stoller had never lost his classical ambitions, and he ended up playing jazz jam sessions with Rivers on baritone sax.

A more sobering story involves Leiber and Stoller's dealings with Elvis Presley. When the three first met in 1957, Presley was 22 and the songwriters were 24 and they quickly bonded over a shared love for blues and R&B. They were soon becoming friends, jamming at the piano and hanging out at the pool table. But then the phone call came from Colonel Tom Parker: No one is allowed to hang out with Elvis but his old Memphis pals. Abashed, Presley apologized and told his new friends they had to leave.

It's an anecdote that not only demolishes revisionist attempts to rehab Parker's reputation but also suggests that Elvis might have become the Beatles before the Beatles did if he had been allowed to stretch his horizons a bit. Leiber and Stoller both describe Presley as an under-educated but intellectually curious, immensely gifted young man. But when they suggested that they write songs for a film adaptation of Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side to be directed by Elia Kazan and to star Presley, Parker not only turned them down flat, but angrily warned them about interfering with Presley's career ever again.

If the project had materialized, however, new possibilities would have opened up not only for Presley but for Leiber and Stoller, too. If they had written Elvis songs to fit the drifter protagonist who gets caught up with petty crime and prostitutes, maybe they would have learned what such '60s writers as Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield and Paul Simon later discovered: The rock 'n' roll format can do everything that "Is That All There Is?' can do--and more.

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