Jerry Leiber: Remembering One Of Rock's Great Songwriters Leiber, the lyricist behind "Jailhouse Rock," "Yakety Yak" and "Stand By Me," died Monday. He was 78. Fresh Air remembers the songwriter with excerpts from a 1991 interview with Leiber and his songwriting partner Mike Stoller.

Jerry Leiber: Remembering One Of Rock's Great Songwriters

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 78. He and his partner Mike Stoller wrote some of the most memorable rock and roll songs of the '50s and '60s.

(Soundbite of song, "Kansas City")

Mr. WILLIAM HARRISON (Singer): (Singing) I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come. I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come. They got some crazy little women there, and I'm gonna get me one.

(Soundbite of song, "Jailhouse Rock")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) Going to a party in the county jail. The prison band was there and they began to wail. The band was jumpin' and the joint began to swing. You shoulda hear those knocked-out jailbirds sing. Let's rock. Everybody, let's rock.

(Soundbite of song, "On Broadway")

Mr. GEORGE BENSON (Singer): (Singing) They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. They say there's always magic in the air.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Potion No. 9")

THE SEARCHERS: (Singing) I took my troubles down to Madame Rue. You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth. She's got a path on 34th and Vine selling little bottles of Love Potion No. 9.

(Soundbite of sing, "Ruby Baby")

DION AND THE BELMONTS: (Singing) Oh, Ruby, Ruby, I want 'ya. Like a ghost, I'm gonna haunt 'ya. Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, will you be mine sometime?

(Soundbite of song, "Charlie Brown")

THE COASTERS: (Singing) 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?

(Soundbite of song, "Stand By Me")

Mr. BEN E. KING (Singer): (Singing) 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. If the sky that we look upon...

DAVIES: Leiber and Stoller wrote for Elvis Presley, The Coasters, the Drifters and Ben E. King. They not only wrote songs, they often produced them. In fact, Leiber and Stoller were the first rock and roll producers to actually get credit on a record for their work. One of rock's greatest producers, Phil Spector, got his start as one of Leiber and Stoller's assistants.

Leiber and Stoller met in L.A. when Leiber was still in high school, and they were soon writing songs professionally. Leiber was the lyrics half of the team, and he was known for sassy phrases that captured the vernacular spoken by young people of his day.

Terry spoke to Leiber and Stoller in 1991. They began by listening to the original 1953 version of "Hound Dog" sung by Big Mama Thornton.

(Soundbite of song, "Hound Dog")

BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snoopin' round my door. 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. You told me you was high class, but I can see through that. Yes, you told me you was high class, but I can see through that. And daddy, I know you ain't no real cool cat. You ain't nothing but a hound dog...


Well, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, welcome to FRESH AIR. The record we've been listening to, Big Mama Thornton's recording of "Hound Dog" was your first major hit as songwriters and producers. What was it about her that led to this song?

Mr. JERRY LEIBER (Lyricist): Well, Mike and I were invited to Johnny Otis' rehearsal studio to listen to and look at some of his artists. Big Mama was one of them, and she was really formidable. She was scary-looking. She was big, and she must have weighed about, oh, anywhere from 275 to 350. And she had this really gutty, guttural growling sound in her voice.

And the both of us fell in love with her, and we just loved what she looked like, and we loved what she sounded like. She sang "Ball and Chain," and we decided to take off that minute and go to Mike's house and try to write something for her.

GROSS: How'd you come up with this song, though?

Mr. LIEBER: Well, Mike was driving, and I was banging on the roof of the car. And I was trying to come up with something nasty that would be at the same time playable, that wouldn't be censored, you know.

And the closest I could get to what I was thinking was you ain't nothing but a hound dog.

GROSS: So you were thinking four-letter word, epithet, and what you came up, though, with hound dog.

Mr. LIEBER: Right, which sort of, you know, made it - it felt right, and it seemed like it would be passable.

GROSS: Mike, let me ask you how you think Elvis handled this song differently from Big Mama Thornton.

Mr. MIKE STOLLER: How he handled it differently? Well, he handled it very differently. He didn't sing it in the same tradition of blues intonation that Big Mama used. And also the lyrics were considerably different because Big Mama's - the way the song was written for Big Mama, it was really about a gigolo. It's a woman complaining about a gigolo.

And Elvis couldn't sing that song. So he sang a version of it which I think, as I'm told, he heard from a lounge act in Las Vegas, that he heard singing the song in Vegas.

Now, I had heard that he knew Big Mama's record and loved it, but it was only after he heard this lounge act do it that it seemed appropriate for a male singer.

GROSS: You know, I think it was the first time Elvis sang "Hound Dog" on TV, it was on the Steve Allen show, and he sang it to a little hound dog. It was very cute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How...

Mr. STOLLER: A basset hound.

GROSS: A basset hound, okay.

Mr. STOLLER: Right.

GROSS: Did you feel really kind of cheated by that? Here's a song that you wrote that was supposed to be an epithet, you know, about a gigolo, and it ends up with someone as forceful as Elvis making it into, you know, this kind of cute, little, harmless song on the Steve Allen show?

Mr. LIEBER: We thought it was kind of dopey. I mean, I wasn't offended. I just thought it was silly, that's all.

GROSS: Yeah. Now, you wrote several songs for Elvis, including "Jailhouse Rock." Why don't we play a little bit of that?

(Soundbite of song, "Jailhouse Rock")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Going to a party in the county jail. The prison band was there and they began to wail. The band was jumping and the joint began to swing. You should have heard those knocked-down jailbirds sing. Let's rock, everybody's let's rock. Everybody in the whole cellblock was dancing to the jailhouse rock.

Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone. Little Joe was blowing on the slide trombone. The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang...

GROSS: That's "Jailhouse Rock," written by my guests Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Now, you wrote a lot of songs for Elvis' movies. This was really one of the best songs. Some of the movies had really awful songs in them. Did you have to write some of those awful songs?

Mr. LIEBER: Oh, yeah.

Mr. STOLLER: Sure.

Mr. LIEBER: Oh, we loved writing the awful songs because they were more fun, things like "Steadfast, Loyal and True," you know, songs where he was supposedly graduating high school, but we had to write these terrible songs. The problem was this: You got a script, and there would be a moment in a scene where they would want a song.

Now, we would tell the director, we would tell Hal Wallis, the producer, and we'd say look, you know, we're not trying to get out of writing a song, but this is really a dumb place for a song. I mean, the guy's about to go into the boys' room and comb his hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEIBER: And I don't know why he has to sing. I'm going into the boys' room to comb my hair. And they'd say we want the song. So we'd write it. So a lot of those songs that shouldn't have been written were written and recorded, and they're there for posterity.

GROSS: A lot of the songs that you wrote over the years were novelty songs, songs like "Charlie Brown," "Love Potion No. 9," "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy." I think I just named all Coasters songs here. But how did you get so involved with novelty songs?

Mr. LEIBER: We didn't think of them as novelties. We thought...

Mr. STOLLER: Dark dramas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOLLER: We were both trying to imitate Tolstoy and Dickens, and I guess we just fell short of the mark.

GROSS: Well, let me play one of your novelty songs, and this is "Charlie Brown."

(Soundbite of song, "Charlie Brown")

THE COASTERS: (Singing) 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? That's him on his knees. I know that's him.

GROSS: I was wondering if one of the reasons why you wrote so many novelty songs had to do with that you were two white Jews writing for a lot of R and B groups, who were black.

I don't know how self-conscious you were about that. But I was thinking, well, maybe it was easier, in a way, to write songs that were funny as opposed to maybe the presumptuousness of writing something that was really heartfelt when you were writing for other people, though you wrote a lot of those songs, too.

Mr. LEIBER: Well, to begin with, these two white Jews really (unintelligible) themselves as black. I was brought up in essentially, predominately black neighborhood in South Baltimore. And, well, Stoller can speak for himself, but he went to interracial camps when he was a kid.

No, it's not that. We really felt that we were very black, and we acted black, and we spoke black because, you see, when I was a kid growing up, it was -where I came from, it was hip to be black, you know. I mean, to be white was kind of square, you know.

And the clothes, you know, you had to dress a certain way. And if you looked a certain way, and you spoke a certain way, then you were okay, and if you didn't, then you were lame.

And all, you know, teenagers especially are very, very conscious about what is hip and what is lame and what is square and what is out and what is in, you know. And, I mean, I grew up right there in the middle of a black culture, and I knew dead-on what it was, you know, I mean, firsthand.

Mr. STOLLER: And I belonged to a social club in Harlem from the time I was 13 years old, and I used to go up there every weekend. And from there, of course, I used to hang out on 52nd Street and listen to all the jazz musicians in the little clubs. So that was a part of my life.

Mr. LEIBER: When I met Stoller, he had - he was sporting a goatee, and he was wearing a beret. And he was - he would stand hunched over like he had a humpback, and he'd smoke, and he would say, hmm. You'd say anything to him, you'd say you want to go to the movies, he said hmm. Or you'd say you hungry man, let's go eat. He'd go, hmm, because he was like that, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEIBER: It wasn't until he was about 21 that he started talking.

GROSS: So let me ask you again if there was a point when you started thinking that it was presumptuous to think of yourselves as being black.

Mr. LEIBER: I think when Baraka turned me to one day because LeRoi Jones had been my buddy for years, and LeRoi in New York told me that I was the greatest living black songwriter. This was when he was LeRoi Jones.

And about two or three years later, when the revolution started to happen, right, he informed me that I was white.

GROSS: How did you respond?

Mr. LEIBER: I sort of felt like I'd been betrayed.

Mr. STOLLER: I think he was astonished to find out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEIBER: I started sitting in the front of the bus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Leiber died Monday at the age of 78. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1991 interview with early rock and roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber died Monday at the age of 78.

GROSS: One of the things that you are famous for having pioneered was bringing a string section to rock and roll or to rhythm and blues.

Mr. LEIBER: That was Mike's fault.

GROSS: Yeah, let me ask you, you know, on the Drifters, the Drifters' recording "There Goes My Baby," that's the classic example of you bringing strings on. What went through your mind to do it?

Mr. STOLLER: I can tell you exactly what was on my mind, just the line, the melodic line. And I was playing it. I used to joke about this one because it sounded like (unintelligible), and it sounded like one of the Caucasian melodies.

Mr. LEIBER: I don't know if you get the pun, but he's been saying this for many years, and I always thought it was funny, the fact that he would use a Caucasian melody on this...

Mr. STOLLER: But it was - Jerry heard it, and he said that sounds like strings. And I said why not? And so, why not? We had five violins and one cello, and they were all basically playing in unison.

Mr. LEIBER: Because Jerry Wexler wouldn't spring for six violins and two celli.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, another thing that happened on this record was you introduced a Latin rhythm that you...

Mr. STOLLER: The Bayonne rhythm was one that both Jerry and I adored. It was first - we first - or at least I first heard it in the film "Anna," with Silvana Mangano. And they had a Brazilian, small Brazilian group, and the record "Anna" became a fairly big hit, and it was a popular melody.

And I just loved the rhythm on it, and we had always looked for a place to use it. We'd used it maybe once before on an early record that was not particularly successful. And we had the opportunity to use it on this record date. And there happened to be a timpani leftover from another recording session in the studio, and we used it.

Now, the drummer was not a percussionist. He was just a trap drummer, and he didn't know how to use the tuning pedal on the timp. So he played one note throughout the entire thing, which gave it a rather bizarre, muddy bottom with all kinds of weird overtones. And it was kind of fascinating, though, and that's where we first had a successful use of that Bayonne rhythm, which in case anybody's wondering is (makes noises).

Mr. LEIBER: Which finally was used, I think, and is responsible for maybe over a thousand hits because this Brazilian rhythm supports a slow ballad without the ballad seeming to be slow or sluggish. It keeps it moving, and everyone from Burt Bacharach to Phil Spector to you name it have leaned heavily on the support of this rhythm pattern.

(Soundbite of song, "There Goes My Baby")

THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) There goes my baby, moving 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. Wish I knew what can I do. There goes my baby...

GROSS: My guests are the songwriting and production team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

What is your style of working together? And let me go back to when you were writing hits nearly every day. What was your style of working together? Would you be in the same room?

Mr. LEIBER: We'd be in the same bathrobes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEIBER: We wore matching bathrobes. Yeah, we'd be in the same room. Actually, Stoller would normally sit at the piano, and I would sort of stalk around the room and smoke. Now, neither of us smoke anymore. So it's taken half the fun out of work. But he would sit at the piano and fiddle, and finally...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEIBER: I don't mean fiddle, fiddle, I mean fiddle with the piano, you fool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEIBER: And I would...

Mr. STOLLER: And Leiber would stalk around the room screaming.

Mr. LEIBER: Right.

Mr. STOLLER: And if something stuck to the wall, something he screamed, we'd work on it.

Mr. LEIBER: We'd take a biopsy and work on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEIBER: But now that was the early days. The way we work these days, when we work, I usually have a fix on a lyric, and I'll bring in eight or 10 or 12 lines, and I'll give it to Mike. And he'll go home and work on it because this way, we can have some time alone.

Mr. STOLLER: Which is a delight. And - or I will write a melody or half a melody and lay it on Jerry and say, listen, what can you do with this? And then we'll get back together and tear it apart and start over.

GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. STOLLER: Thanks.

Mr. LEIBER: Right-o, yeah, it was fun.

DAVIES: Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Leiber died Monday at the age of 78.

Here's "On Broadway," a record which Leiber and Stoller produced and co-wrote with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "On Broadway")

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