Leiber And Stoller : The Blues (1950-1953) & The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years
JERRY LEIBER AND MIKE STOLLER. They rank alongside Berry as rock ‘n’ roll’s wittiest composers and their influence as record producers has been immeasurable.
As writers they were the first to bring satire and a social conscience to rock; as producers they ushered out the simplicity of an era in which groups were pulled off the streets to “doo-wop” and “doo-wah” into a microphone for three minutes. From these primitive beginnings to monaural overdubbing, the very first eight-track studios and on into the realms of the technological future-shock, Leiber and Stoller have directed all the phases of post-war record production. All this we know and even take for granted.
Their story begins, however, around 1950 when rock ‘n’ roll was unknown and its tributaries had not long been defined. When rock exploded, Stoller was going bald and Leiber was an ageing hipster. It’s been said that they wrote “at the culture,” evidence for which stems as much from the way they looked – bandwagoning shrewdies both – as anything their compositions might reveal. Certainly, in the beginning, there was a desperately genuine if not always successful desire to involve themselves in black music one hundred per cent. As many as six years before Presley recorded ‘Hound Dog’ Leiber and Stoller were steeped in the blues and the first part of their story deals with their work together during those early years.
The preponderance of “I haven’t heard such-and-such” is indicative of an ignorance I share with other blues fans. Some of the first records in which Leiber and Stoller had a hand are lost to posterity while BMI have no trace of many of their early compositions. The lack of interest in currently unfashionable blues artists – Bullmoose Jackson, Roy Hawkins, Helen Humes – has also contributed to our dismally imprecise knowledge of their early work. Anyone who can tell me, for example, who originally record ‘Three Cornpatches’ (now revived on albums by Presley and T-Bone Walker) will earn my eternal gratitude.
Well, this is a tentative attempt to document the roots of Leiber and Stoller. I’d stress that it’s not merely an academic exercise; some of these early records have been made available recently and none are without interest to those who like their music red-hot and jumping. I’m grateful to Norbert Hess, Michael Lydon and Ron Weiser for some of the quotations used.
From Baltimore, where he was born in 1933, Leiber moved to L.A. in 1945. Three years later, Stoller moved from N.Y.C. to California where, after one high school semester, he enrolled at L.A. City College. Seventeen years old when they met in 1950, both were keen blues fans. Mike played boogie-woogie piano and wrote notes on paper. Jerry wrote lyrics to eight bar blues in his exercise book. They pooled their respective talents.
Leiber also worked at a record store on Fairfax Avenue, where he bumped into Lester Sill, then employed as a promotion man for the Bihari brothers’ Modern records. Still, it is said, heard of Leiber’s songwriting endeavours and fixed an appointment with the Biharis who fails to show. Mike and Jerry walked off down the street and into Aladdin records who bought a couple of their songs. This apocryphal story fails to explain why the first Leiber/Stoller compositions appeared on Modern. Mike Stoller: “Early in ’51 – I have a pedantic memory for dates – the Robins recorded a song of ours, ‘That’s What The Good Book Says’. The Biharis had a name called ‘Taub’ which they added to any song whether they had any right to it or not. We’d give them a song as ‘Leiber and Stoller’ and it would come out as ‘Leiber, Stoller and Taub’ automatically because someone in the office was told ‘Taub’ goes on everything just in case there’s money there”. The Robins’ record was a “pretty bad song” according to Leiber “a [bad] version of a blues and gospel number but the first record we ever got”.
They had little difficulty in placing other collaborations. Frank Bull and Gene Norman held a Blues Jubilee Concert during July 1951 and Norman gave them the addresses of those scheduled to appear. Leiber and Stoller toured Central Avenue visiting each performer in turn. If Wynonie Harris or Helen Humes accepted any songs at this time I’ve yet to trace them, but other artists were interested. Floyd Dixon took ‘Too Much Jelly Roll’ (Aladdin 3111) while Jimmy Witherspoon made ‘Real Ugly Woman’ (Modern 821) – both recorded live at Norman’s Blues Jamboree. Leiber and Stoller also put lyrics to Lionel Hampton’s ‘Flying Home’ for Amos Milburn (Aladdin 3125) while Charles Brown copped ‘Hard Times’ (Aladdin 3116). It was Leiber and Stoller’s a first hit, selling 80,000 copies and making the national R&B top ten for three weeks in February 1952. They were on the way.
Leiber and Stoller have claimed to have written for as many as twenty mainly local bluesman within roughly eighteen months of the ‘Hard Times’ hit. I’ve yet to hear, or even hear of, their compositions for Lucky Millinder, Peppermint Harris, Bullmoose Jackson, Roy Hawkins, Helen Humes and Lloyd Price, but their work for Federal is generally more accessible. A subsidiary of King, Federal was launched in 1950 and, as it gathered steam, A&R man Ralph Bass, leaned on Leiber and Stoller for material. They usually supplied four songs per session and went along to the studio to teach the singer the song and tell the band (usually Maxwell Davis) how it was supposed to go.
At Federal they recorded Little Esther (on her own and also in duets with Bobby Nunn and Little Willie Littlefield), Jimmy Witherspoon and, of course, Littlefield as a solo. Many of the Little Esther tracks are now available on a couple of bootleg albums, The Early Years (Yorkshir 712) and Hollerin’ And Screamin’ (Yorkshir 713). Just sixteen years of age and straight off seven top ten R&B hits in a row, Esther (the Phillips surname came much later) was already a marvelously mature blues singer. Leiber and Stoller gave her some of their most risqué material and she sang it with delightful gusto.[. . .]
A popular singer/pianist with a slew of cheerful blues and boogie on Modern, Littlefield was responsible for recording one of the first Leiber and Stoller classics, ‘K.C. Lovin” (Federal 12110) better known as ‘Kansas City’, the title by which it was reissued in 1959 to complete with Wilbert Harrison’s million-seller. ‘K.C. Lovin’’ sold 100,000 mainly on the strength of the rhythm which preserves the expectancy of traveling and the pleasures – women and wine – to be found at the end of the journey. Other compositions were lyrically vivid particularly ‘Blood Is Redder Than Wine’ (Federal 12101) and the reverse, ‘Strikin’ On You Baby’, which mixes poncing with industrial relations:
I asked you for a dollar/all you gave me was a dime
If you can’t treat me right/I’m gonna start a picket line.
Polydor hope to include some of these on a future Little Willie Littlefield album.
With lyrics like these it should have been easy to recognize Leiber and Stoller’s talent. “They were just two kids,” said Ralph Bass, “I wanted to sign them as exclusive writers but Syd Nathan told me they’ll never write another. . .line. Mike was a serious cat, Lee was a real hot shot.”
A week before the first solo Littlefield session, Leiber and Stoller sowed the seeds for a copyright controversy that persists today. On August 13 Willie Mae Thornton recorded ‘Hound Dog’ (Peacock 1612), a stomping blues with a guttural vocal and brilliant support from the Otis rhythm section. It sold half a million in the segregated race market in 1953 and about eight million worldwide when Presley revived it in 1956. Everyone wanted a slice of the composing royalties. While Mac said she helped compose it. Otis says he re-wrote it. Leiber and Stoller remain unmoved by all other claims. Having seen and heard the witnesses give their evidence I’m inclined to believe Messrs Leiber and Stoller. Other Leiber/Stoller (plus or minus Otis) songs for Willie/Mac – ‘Nightmare’, ‘I Smell A Rat’ (Peacock 1632) – never caused any excitement but then Elvis didn’t cover them. He recorded ‘Nightmare’, but RCA-Victor have never released his version.
Leiber and Stoller are also said to have collaborated with Johnny Otis on a number of songs for Mel Walker – ‘Candle’s Burning Low’, (Mercury 8295) – and Preston Love, who has made some diverting remarks on their attitude towards the blues: “They were little Jewish kids who brought in the typical young white kid’s version of black music. It was all corned up, they had dice shootin’ in there, watermelon-eatin’, dat boy an’ all that. It wasn’t characteristic true black music and Johnny used to have to moderate the derogatory stuff. Things I had like ‘Kissin’ Boogie’ (Spin 102) and ‘Feel So Good’ (Spin 103) were changed considerably. They didn’t sell – I have the distinction of making a Leiber and Stoller tune that wasn’t a hit”. Preston Love and Johnny Otis are, of course, as-close-as-this and while it would be wrong to place too much emphasis on their views, some impartial observers like Charlie Gillett have also suggested that Leiber and Stoller got too many of their laughs by making clowns out of black singers. I devote considerable space to the controversy in my book on the Coasters, to be published by W.H. Allen in September.
Enter Jack Lewis who had befriended Jerry Leiber when they worked together in the Fairfax record store. Jack subsequently cut his own sides for Modern and Crest, but in 1953 he was a and r man at RCA-Victor. He called in Leiber and Stoller to “kinda be, in effect, producers” for the Robins who had moved to RCA after considerable success on Savoy. “They had various people who came in and dropped out,” said Stoller “either armed service or armed robbery, serving time or doing time”. A group of modest talents, the Robins were now about to make some indubitably good records and the best of the lot was ‘Ten Days In Jail’. Written and directed by Leiber and Stoller, it was their first prison song, a genre they dipped into frequently in years to come. It’s a fine group disc which shows too a number of their stock production devices for the first time, particularly where Bobby Nunn’s bass monotone echoes Grady Chapman’s shouts of “Warden set me free”. The contrivance would soon permeate all group novelty records.
Leiber and Stoller handled other acts at RCA including sessions for the saxophonist/singer Big John Greer and the rumbustious Milt Trenier and his Solid Six. The later record the Leiber and Stoller songs ‘Flip Our Wigs’ and ‘You’re Killing Me’ (RCA 5487) on which the drummer mimicked a machine-gun. It was the kind of spoof they enjoyed. “That’s where their heads were then,” recalled Richard Berry who sang lead on the Flairs’ ‘She Wants To Rock’ (Flair 1012), another Leiber and Stoller production in 1953 the Flairs were the most talented of all the Californian R&B groups and Berry too is badly underrated [. . .]
Late in 1953, Leiber and Stoller decided to start their own record company (Spark) and their own publishing company (Quintet). Like everyone else, Bobby Nunn remembers them as “Just two kids outta school. They were living down there in the coloured district down on Pico. I heard ‘em say’ We’re gonna be millionaires in a couple of years’.”
In upcoming issues of Let It Rock I shall trace the progress of Leiber and Stoller through the rock ‘n’ roll and soul eras with particular reference to some of their greatest but least publicized achievements – the Isley Brothers, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Chuck Jackson – as well as a little of the monstro-horrendous schlock – Perry Como, the Cheers – they also created. Reader Rob Hughes has sent me some nominations for the first category and I’d be glad to hear from anyone else with suggestions.
© Bill Millar, 1974
THE SWITCH from blues to rock ‘n’ roll was gradual and, as far as Leiber and Stoller were concerned, never total.
Leiber’s lyrics rarely strayed far from the mature themes enjoyed by black adults. Prisons, Sneaky Pete and playing the numbers continued to receive attention well into the sixties, but during the previous decades other references – baby sitting, coca-cola, hanging round the blue-light diner – increased as Leiber and Stoller aimed their songs towards the teenage rock ‘n’ roll market. Stoller’s music underwent a more radical change. The after-hours quality of many slow blues was eclipsed by tougher, demonstrably exciting riffs. The exaggerated Hoochie Coochie was a favourite. ‘Riot In Cell Block No 9’, ‘Trouble’, ‘I Can’t Hear A Word You Say’ – BOM bom BOM bom BOM. It was malevolent – you’ve heard it on a dozen gangster movie soundtracks – it crushed your bones. I loved it.
But the limitations of the form may have bored them both. They also got their jollies by writing vast amounts of mainstream pop for Jack Hones, June Valli et al, which quite rightly no one remembers today. They told Time magazine that rock ‘n’ roll was for nine-year-old kids. They were “tired of writing it but couldn’t stop”. Mebbe ‘cos they were making 75,000 dollars a year from it.
Their attitude towards “songs” is complex. Stoller has said he doesn’t like them and, to prove the point, they occasionally took a horrible old Family Favourite (the Drifters’ ‘Suddenly There’s A Valley’. The Coasters ‘Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart’, the Isley’s ‘Shine On Harvest Moon’) and turned it inside out, transforming bar-room sentimentality into works of positively riveting genius. Then again you get the idea that they’re proud of the shit they turned out for Billy May and Perry Como. Throughout the ’50s they seemed equally at home in both rock ‘n’ roll and the antithetical excesses of Tin Pan Alley. We’ll concentrate here on the first category but it’s worth remembering that, while they were always light years ahead of Pomus and Shuman, Mann and Weil, etc, it wasn’t always profits with honour.
Spark began in February with releases by ex-gospel shouters Willie and Ruth and Gil Bernal, a Spanish-American saxophonist with whom Stoller went to college. Leiber and Stoller worked from an office on Crenshaw Bouelvard and used Bunny Robyn’s Master Recorders on Fairfax Avenue. It was one of two main studios in Los Angeles (the other was Radio Recorders) and Robyn’s technical wizardry was way ahead of its time. Mike Stoller: “He wasn’t called Bunny because his name was Bernard, it was Abe. But he looked like a rabbit and he would suck his teeth sometimes and look even more like a rabbit. He was a terrific technician… everything was cut mono but we would occasionally overdub, chop the tapes about, duplicate the refrains we liked best and so on. Long before most studios had a variable frequency oscillator we would speed a wrap by winding editing tape around the capstan. The words came out seemingly more enunciated.”
Techniques likes these and the best session men in the city (everyone who ever played on a Robins record is featured in the standard jazz reference works) ensured an exceptionally fine flow of well recorded R&B. Spark issued more than twenty two records in a year and a half. There were the Honeybears (Willie and Ruth plus two others), black balladeer Ernie Andrews, Frankie Marshall, white pop singer Bob London, bluesmen like Ray Agee, Big Boy Groves and Mister Ruffin, even Bobby Relf – later to become one half of Bob and Earl.
In addition Leiber and Stoller continued to work with bigger companies. They wrote a lot of songs for the Cheers on Capitol, brought in Linda Hopkins for sides which they sold to Crystallette and maintained their connections with RCA by working with artists on the Groove subsidiary including the quaintly named Sam ‘High Pockets’ Henderson. Of all their activities during this period none was more important than their work with the Robins on Spark. The group continued to eschew sentimental and gospel styles in favour of a hard, bluesy attack. While the Coasters later absorbed the Juvenile values of White America, their predecessors, the Robins, were wholly concerned with the ghetto. The characters they portrayed got drunk, went to jail and treated sex in naturally good-humoured terms. ‘Riot In Cell Block No 9’ (103), ‘Framed’ (107), ‘The Hatchet Man’ (116), ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ (122)… these were individual morality plays full of guts and wit, but they failed to sell much beyond California because of Spark’s limited distribution. Leiber and Stoller rewrote ‘Riot’ for Vicki Young on Capitol – an incongruous setting but worth quoting. Apart from “Two Gun Mathilda” and matrons (whaat?) with tommy-guns, they added another verse:
They called in the state militia to help them win the fight
They drove up to the prison in the middle of the night
Each and every trooper looked so tall and fine
All the chicks went crazy up in cell block number 9.
Unable to dent the national charts with Spark, Leiber and Stoller sought more powerful distribution. Negotiations with Decca fell through but they soon met their ideal soul mates in Atlantic. In September, Leiber helped Nesuhi Ertegun produce the Drifters in Hollywood. Atlantic’s bosses were impressed and, expanding fast (the subsidiary Atco was kicked off in August), the company signed Leiber and Stoller to an independent production pact.
Initial results were more than promising. The reissued ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ (Atco 6059) sold half a million while Joe Turner’s ‘Chicken And The Hawk’ (Atl 1080) – a more unintelligible example of Joe’s Turnerese – made the R&B top twenty early in 1956.
Their first national hit came, however, from the Cheers, ‘Black Denim Trousers’ (Capitol 3219) was a splendid spoof full of risible lines. The hero raced up and down with an eagle on his back, axle-grease under his fingernails and a tattoo on his arm with a picture of a heart saying “mother, I love you”. Given a halfway decent group it would have been a jewel, but the singers were awful and the production akin to a vintage British comedy disc. “It was ludicrous,” said Stoller. “I thought that many of Capitol’s attempts to imitate our records or take our songs without our production would come out ludicrous and they did. We knew how they were supposed to go but they would do them in a very old-fashioned way”. The Cheers cut half a dozen Leiber-Stoller compositions but nothing wise by them clicked.
With the royalties from ‘Black Denim Trousers’ Stoller took a trip to Europe. By the time he returned, Elvis Presley had revived ‘Hound Dog’ and Leiber and Stoller were on the way to their first million.
So began one of the longer and more lucrative partnerships in rock (witness ‘If You Don’t Come Back’ and ‘Three Cornpatches’, both Leiber and Stoller compositions, on El’s last album) even if it wasn’t always consistently brilliant. When Stoller said ‘Love Me’ was the worst song he and Leiber had ever composed, he was forgetting ‘Steadfast, Loyal And True’. Forgetting our chronology for the moment, these and other songs Presley recorded ‘Don’t’, ‘Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello’, ‘Loving You’, ‘She’s Not You’ – were very often glucose ballads that wouldn’t have sold by anyone else. The urban blues satire at which they were so incredibly good would only have miscast Elvis and the need to operate within the limits of his unbearably stodgy film scripts also helped the comparative sterility of much material. Further, the atmosphere at RCA’s offices (where they worked on first arriving in New York) was not conducive to writing classics of incisive wit. Despite such constraints they came up with some of Presley’s better post-Suns: ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (Leiber’s propensity for the criminal sub-culture as its peak), ‘Trouble’ (my daddy was a GREY-EYED MOUNTAIN JACK!”) and, in particular, ‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ (“no sleigh with reindeer, no sack on my back, you’ gonna see me comin’ in a big black Cadillac”) are inarguably perfect.
But back to 1956. The Coasters’ ‘Down In Mexico’ (Atco 6064), a naturally greasy, earthy and hot-blooded sequel to ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’, made the R&B top ten but ‘One Kiss Led To Another’ (6073) – all about baby sitting – and ‘Turtle Dovin’ (6064), the forerunner of Presley’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’, confirmed that the group was now being aimed at a young, chiefly white, audience. More often Leiber and Stoller would try out material on lesser artists before polishing it up with the Coasters. ‘What About Me’, for Larry Evans (Fabor 4009) became ‘What About Us’, while the Cues originally cut ‘Charlie Brown’ (Capitol 3310) – that’s pure conjecture but it has to be the same character, huh?
Other wok for capitol included songs for Betty Jean Morris, Ann Leonardo and Patty Andrews. It looked too as if Atlantic/Atco were to be swamped with Leiber/Stoller productions – Wynonie Harris, Ruth Brown, Frankie Marshall, Joe Turner, and the Crescendoes were among those honoured in 1956. In addition, Young Jessie (who joined the Coasters for ‘Young Blood’) followed his unbelievable ‘Hit, Git And Split’ with the Leiber and Stoller goodie, ‘Here Comes Henry’ (Modern (1010). Co-composed with George Motola (owner of Tender and Transcontinental), it sends up the flatfooted dancer immortalized by Etta James and Hank Ballard.
The year belonged to the Coasters. Nothing was on the charts as long as ‘Searchin’’ and ‘Young Blood’ (Atco 6087). The first, a list of fictional sleuths screeched out by Billy Guy over Stoller’s innovative piano rhythm, was utterly seminal. ‘Young Blood’ (the title only came from Doc Pomus) was equally delicious. The Coasters come on like lusting paedophiles, chuckling and leering over the sweet innocent on the street corner with the yellow ribbon in her hair. They’re totally besotted, and the innuendo is so heavy you expect a prophylactic to roll out of the sleeve. A used one. Definitely the most lascivious of all girl-following rock ‘n’ roll songs.
Despite all that, if I had to choose but one 1957 classic for the desert island rucksack then Screamin’ Jay’s ‘Alligator Wine’ (Okah 7101) would take some beating. What with rumours about ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Kansas City’ and the certified, proven rip-off of Boogaloo’s Crest record, ‘Clothesline’ (c.f. ‘Shoppin’ For Clothes’), I’d cynically assumed that Jay sold Leiber and Stoller the copyright to ‘Alligator Wine’. Sorry Mike! ‘Wine’ suited Jay as much as ‘Trouble’ matched Elvis. Exotic, nocturnal noises, a variation on Hoochie Coochie… And in comes Jay filling the spaces with a slew of bizarre lines which more than one critic has compared to the Bard:
Take the blood out of an alligator, take the left eye out of a fish
Take the skin off a frog and mix it all up in a dish
Add a cup of green swamp water and then count from one to nine
Spit over your left shoulder – you got Alligator Wine
El and the Coasters aside, there wasn’t much to compete with that in 1957. Leiber and Stoller’s growing disaffection with hard rock ‘n’ roll was already evident in their compositions for Perry Como, Julius La Rosa, David Hill, June Valli, Jaye P. Morgan (all RCA), Clyde McPhatter (the mediocre ‘You’ll Be There’ – Atl 1158) and Ruth Brown’s ‘Lucky Lips’ (1125), a trivial ditty as crass as computerised pop invariably is. It was necessary to break Ruth into the national charts – she already had a huge black following – and ‘Lucky Lips’ succeeded admirably (No. 26 in 1957) but what a pity no one kept the archives in mind. Infinitely better Ruth Brown discs followed.
Leiber and Stoller produced the Drifters for the first time. The group had cut their songs before (“Ruby Baby’ in 1955 and ‘Fools Fall In Love’ in 1956) but now Leiber and Stoller were permanently ensconced in New York, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun handed over production chores. “It was,” said Wexler, “a horrendously hair-raising notion to let somebody else do the Drifters.” The group went back in time for ‘Drip Drop’ (Atl 1187), a pounding Bobby Hendricks led rocker strongly redolent of ‘Money Honey’ and although it only made 58 on the hot 100 it was still the biggest national hit the Drifters had yet enjoyed. ‘Suddenly There’s A Valley’, an idyllic country tune, was also beautifully interpreted. Hendricks and bass voice, Bill Pinkney, shred the melody and tear your heart out. While the Drifters were warming up for the second of their most artistic eras, the Coasters were consolidating their position as international favourites. You’ll know ‘Charlie Brown’ (Atco 6132) and ‘Yakety Yak’ (6116) off by heart but give a further listen to the Orwellian ‘The shadow Knows’ (6126) and the mind-boggling instrumental break in ‘I’m A Hog For You’ (6146) where King Curtis and Mickey Baker combine to create Leiber and Stoller’s aural vision of feeding time down at the trough. It’s magic.
Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t just vanish in December 1958. The following year Leiber and Stoller had hits with Ruth Brown’s shattering ‘Papa Daddy’, the Clovers’ ‘Love Potion No 9 (how they loved that number) and the Coasters’ ‘Poison Ivy’. Nonetheless, the strange and unconventional sound of symphonic should was very much bigger. Sammy Turner’s ‘Lavender Blue’ and the Drifters’ ‘There Goes My Baby’ were both stunning examples of Leiber and Stoller’s fresh and unconservative approach to the ’60s.
© Bill Millar, 1974
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