“They corrupted us with pleasure.” That, according to the Los Angeles Times, was the eminent critic John Lahr’s assessment of Jewish songwriting team Leiber and Stoller, whose indelible repertoire includes Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”
Jerry Leiber, “the words half of the duo,” died today of cardiopulmonary failure in Los Angeles, the Times reported. He was 78.
Dozens of artists have recorded Leiber and Stoller songs: The Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and more. “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a musical based on their tunesmanship, opened on Broadway in 1995 and ran for more than 2,000 performances.
According to a 1997 Baltimore Sun story, Leiber grew up in West Baltimore in the 1930s, where the “Jewish kid wounded by bigotry in the white community” found acceptance — “and a first taste of an electrifying music — in the homes of his black neighbors.”
“I was passing open windows where there might be a radio playing something funky,” Leiber told the Sun, recalling his excursions into West Baltimore’s black neighborhoods. “In the summertime, sometimes there’d be a man sitting on a step, playing an acoustic guitar, playing some kind of folk blues. The seed had been planted.” His mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where Leiber’s sisters had moved to study, in 1945, according to 2009’s “Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography.”
Leiber met partner Mike Stoller in Los Angeles in 1950 when he was still a senior in high school, according to a RollingStone.com obit. “They had a mutual love of R&B, blues and pop, and began writing music together almost instantly, with Stoller mostly handling the music and Leiber mostly handling the lyrics,” Rolling Stone reported.
“Jerry was an idea machine,” Stoller wrote in “Hound Dog.” “For every situation, Jerry had 20 ideas. As would-be songwriters, our interest was in black music and black music only. We wanted to write songs for black voices. When Jerry sang, he sounded black, so that gave us an advantage… His verbal vocabulary was all over the place — black, Jewish, theatrical, comical. He would paint pictures with words.”
While already “the hottest songwriters in the business” in the early 1950s, the pair’s stardom skyrocketed after Elvis Presley took “Hound Dog” — written for Big Mama Thornton in 1952 — and made it a massive hit.
Still, Leiber was “extremely irritated” by the changes that Presley made to the original lyrics. “To this day I have no idea what that rabbit business is about,” he said in 2009, according to Rolling Stone. “The song is not about a dog; it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’ version makes no sense to me, and, even more irritatingly, it is not the song that Mike and I wrote. Of course, the fact that it sold more than seven million copies took the sting out of what seemed to be a capricious change of lyrics.”
Leiber’s death comes on the heels of another songwriting Jerry’s passing. As the Forward noted last month, Jerry Ragovoy died July 13 at age 80. His unforgettable hits included “Time Is On My Side,” immortalized by the Rolling Stones, and “Piece of My Heart,” set afire by Janis Joplin.