Music Features

Leiber and Stoller: Blues Alchemists

Songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller bonded over their love for the blues, both responding to its vitality and emotional directness. Without it, it is unlikely that this odd couple would ever have worked together. Lieber was impulsively dynamic, a lively sharp-witted man clad in tailored suits and handcrafted loafers. Stoller was the goateed jazz cat, cool and collected, a captain for every storm. Their relationship was summed up by Stoller as "a six-decade argument with no resolution in sight." That argument brought forth an amazing catalog of ageless music, made possible the late-Fifties Brill Building boom, defined the role of the pop producer, and created a business model that would be emulated by the likes of Phil Spector and Berry Gordy.

The partners were both born in 1933, weeks apart; Mike on Long Island, NY, Jerry in Baltimore, MD, but their paths would cross at 17 in Los Angeles. Lieber's first contact with the blues came as a young boy. The music he heard while delivering groceries to black families changed him forever. Stoller grew up on classical music but had his musical epiphany at eight when he heard boogie-woogie for the first time at an integrated summer camp. He went on to take piano lessons with James P. Johnson, Fats Waller's mentor. Equally influential was the jazz scene on New York's 52nd Street, where bebop was transforming the music from its foundations.

A business venture brought the Stoller family to Los Angeles in 1949. California's cultural diversity added Latin flavors to Stoller's musical stew. His goal was to devote himself to classical and bebop compositions when Lieber came knocking at his door. Lieber had moved to L.A. with his mom in 1945. Up to that point, he had been doing menial jobs, but his energies were focused on becoming a blues songwriter. Lester Sill, sales manager of Modern Records, had encouraged him to find a partner who knew how to write lead sheets. Stoller's initial resistance faded when he read Lieber's lyrics, which had the authentic feel of the blues. Their working partnership began right away in Stoller's parlor.

In 1951, the partners got their first break with "That's What The Good Book Said", recorded by the Robins for the Aladdin label. The bouncy jump blues number would herald a songwriting style that aimed for fast pleasures, with comical lyrics that sat effortlessly on every note: "Well, back in the days of Old King Saul/Every night was a crazy ball/The cats smoked hay through a rubber hose/ And the women wore transparent clothes".

White artists singing jive had been commonplace since the Forties, but Jewish teenagers writing for black artists was something else. These kids, however, had a deep-rooted understanding of the music, which lured prestigious musicians such as Charles Brown ("Hard Times"), Big Joe Turner ("The Chicken And The Hawk"), and Jimmy Witherspoon ("Real Ugly Woman"). Lieber, who was a good blues singer, had a perfect ear for vocal performance, a handy tool for his work as a producer. The partners' first producing break came in 1953 with "Hound Dog", a song about an uppity gigolo that became a big hit for Big Mama Thornton. Though Big Mama was a formidable belter, every phrasing of her performance was directed by them.

Leiber and Stoller were poised to become major players, but the big royalty check for "Hound Dog" bounced. Tired of being shortchanged and bamboozled, they founded their own label, Spark Records, yet their lack of experience in marketing sank them into debt. The Robins' "Smokey Joe's Café" would be Spark's swan song, but by that time Atlantic Records had come to the rescue with an offer to make L&S independent producers for the label. It would seem logical that the Robins would follow L&S to Atlantic, but only Bobby Nunn and Carl Garner were willing to make the move. Both split from the group to form the Coasters, who would garner a remarkable string of hits starting with "Down In Mexico". The song was a milestone for L&S, who accented the rhythm with Latin percussion, later to become their production trademark.

1956 was a banner year for the partners. White artists were now recording their songs, which meant pop-chart exposure that secured bigger royalties. The Cheers had two L&S hits, but Elvis Presley's version of Hound Dog made a bigger splash. Stoller, who had survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria, came home to another shock to the system when he learned that the song had topped the charts. L&S disliked Elvis' version, which speeded the tempo and changed the lyrics into a nursery rhyme. Nevertheless, they recognized that the kid from Tupelo knew his blues, and when manager Tom Parker came around for more songs they signed a lucrative deal that led to chartbusters such as "Jailhouse Rock", "Love Me", and "Don't".

The rock 'n' roll revolution was underway, and the demand for new songs was on the rise. L&S moved operations to New York just as the Brill Building community of young songwriters was gaining traction. The Coasters, who had tagged along, hit their stride as a crossover group with "Searchin'", "Yakety Yak", and "Charlie Brown", songs that transcended the novelty label with a unique comic voice. As much as they loved writing playlets for the group, the partners' creativity found new outlets. For instance, their work for the Drifters would define the Brill Building sound. After singer Clyde McPhatter left the original group, the Drifters had become a franchise owned by manager George Treadwell, but this new version had an untapped potential in singer Ben E. King. "There Goes My Baby", co-written with King, became a game changer for the partners. The song moved to a Brazilian baion beat and introduced the use of strings in a R&B setting. The bosses at Atlantic hated these innovations but changed their minds when the song shot to the top of the charts.

The partners' lush productions for the Drifters were widely imitated, but they kept the competition at bay with the enlistment of writing talent such as Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman ("Save The Last Dance For Me", "This Magic Moment"),Carole King & Gerry Goffin ("Some Kind Of Wonderful"), and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil ("On Broadway"). Meanwhile, their own songs were being recorded by artists such as Ruth Brown ("Lucky Lips"), Wilbert Harrison ("Kansas City"), and the Clovers ("Love Potion #9). The windfall continued when Ben E. King went solo with "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem". The Brill Building sound now dominated the charts, and L&S were the reigning kings.

There were setbacks, though. Their relationship with Elvis came to a sour end on account of manager Tom Parker, who had treated them like indentured servants.More damaging was their battle with Atlantic over royalties, which would end their production deal with the label and bar them from working with their mainstay groups. Without trepidation, L&S founded Tiger Records, which soon proved they hadn't learned much about marketing since the failure of Spark. Case in point is Bessie Banks' stunning "Go Know", which performed weakly and was virtually forgotten by the time the Moody Blues' version became a smash.

L&S were going broke when they came in contact with George Goldner, a proven marketing genius with an ear for hits, making him an equal partner in their new labels, Red Bird and Blue Cat. Goldner proved his worth with the release of the Dixie Cups' "Chapel OF Love", which went straight to number one. This was the heyday of girl groups, and talents like Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Shadow Morton helped the labels amass 25 hits. The labels, however, still ran aground. Goldner's gambling habits had put him in the hands of mobsters, who set up a bootlegging operation of Red Bird products. L&S learned this when goons started showing up at their office claiming ownership of Goldner's shares. Afraid for their lives, L&S signed their share of the company over to Goldner for one dollar, keeping the publishing rights.

The sudden collapse of their labels put a damper on the partners' aspirations. Their output became less prolific but it still shone, most notably on Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" In the Seventies, they produced albums by Stealers Wheel, Procol Harum, and T-Bone Walker before turning their sights to stage musicals, their dream coming to fruition in 1992 with Smokey Joe's Café, which has become a Broadway staple.

Jerry Leiber's death in 2011 ended the partnership, but the music lives on. These trailblazers are still relevant, their impact on our culture undeniable. They proved, for instance, that R&B is a malleable form, which today is the matrix of myriad musical styles. L&S taught us that the creative process doesn't end with the written song but continues on the studio floor; that genre rules must be challenged constantly; and that there's no excuse for trite lyrics when you can tell funny, romantic or contemplative stories within the time frame of a song. These men, in spite of their differences, trusted the power of the blues. It got them going, and the beat they started can't be stopped.