With co-writer Mike Stoller, the lyricist composed songs that helped define early rock'n'rollHe was rock'n'roll's first Shakespeare.
Jerry Leiber took everyday expressions and turned them into rock'n'roll poetry, just like his songwriting partner Mike Stoller spun melodies out of street music that would stand the test of time. Together, they both helped transform the blues into rock'n'roll.
The duo didn't just write songs together (and occasionally with other partners). They wrote rock'n'roll history: "Charlie Brown," "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Kansas City," "Love Potion No. 9," "Poison Ivy," "Yakety Yak," "Young Blood" and perhaps their most immortal song, "Stand by Me," to name but a few.
Leiber, who died Aug. 22 in Los Angeles at the age of 78 due to cardiopulmonary failure, had been writing with Stoller since 1950. Together they became one of the most celebrated songwriting duos in all of popular music.
But beyond their renowned ability to write songs, Leiber & Stoller also had a head for business in the early days of rock'n'roll, carving out a key role for themselves in the recording studio by establishing themselves as producers.
After not receiving any payment for composing "Hound Dog," an R&B hit in 1953 for Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, they decided the following year to start their own label, Spark Records.
But shortly after forming Spark, Atlantic Records lured them to work for the label, after Leiber struck up an acquaintance with Atlantic executive/producer Nesuhi Ertegun, according to their 2009 book (with David Ritz), "Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography."
"We would make records that Atlantic would release and promote," Leiber recalled in the book. "For that they'd pay us a royalty. We would co-publish the songs we wrote and, of course, Mike and I would get our writers' royalties . . . Our deal was fair. In fact, it was even historic; we became the first writer-producers to get a freelance arrangement with a label."
While their earliest songs were sung by blues artists like Thornton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Brown and Little Willie Littlefield, soon the Coasters, Drifters, Ben E. King and even Elvis Presley were recording their tunes.
Stoller related to Billboard in 2007 that he and his wife had gone to Europe for three months in 1956. They came back by boat and were met at the New York docks by Jerry Wexler, who told them that "we had a big hit with 'Hound Dog.' And I said, 'You're kidding. Big Mama Thornton?' He said, 'No, some white kid named Elvis.'"
Following his hit version of "Hound Dog," Presley recorded two dozen Leiber & Stoller songs, most written specifically for him, including "Jailhouse Rock," "Loving You," "Love Me," "Don't" and "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care."
While initially based on the West Coast, Leiber & Stoller helped establish New York's Brill Building sound, locating their offices there in the early '60s. Leiber & Stoller continued to write hit songs into the '60s, right up through Peggy Lee's existential 1969 hit, "Is That All There Is."
Leiber described the duo's production technique to Billboard in 2007: "We go into a rehearsal hall for about 10 days and put the songs and the musicians through an obstacle course," he said. "We do the arrangements and the rhythm pattern, and then we record them."
In the '80s, industry accolades started rolling in. The duo was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985, the Record Producers Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Even with their hitmaking years behind them, Leiber & Stoller's creative legacy continued to prove its timeless appeal. In 1995, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," which featured 39 of their classic songs, opened at the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson Theatre) in New York and became the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history, closing in January 2000 after 2,036 performances.
And through the years, successive generations have become familiar with the duo's classic songs through their frequent synch usage in TV, movies and advertising. Latin pop artist Prince Royce, one of the genre's breakout artists of the past year, first made his mark with his 2010 bilingual cover of "Stand by Me," a top 10 hit on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart.
In 2007, Sony/ATV Music Publishing purchased the Leiber & Stoller catalog for a reported $40 million-$45 million, leaving the two with their writer's share of the compositions.
"The songs they wrote are as relevant today as they were when first penned," Sony/ATV chairman/CEO Martin Bandier says. "Jerry was a master at the art of lyrics; he was humorous, insightful and fun . . . There was great partnership between he and Mike, and their music will be enjoyed by generations to come."
Leiber is survived by sons Jed, Oliver and Jake, and granddaughters Chloe and Daphne.••••