Sad news from 34th and Vine

Even if Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had never done anything else besides write “Hound Dog” for Elvis Presley, they’d still be ranked among the top songwriters and producers of the rock era.

This despite the fact that they didn’t actually write it for Elvis; Big Mama Thornton got her hands on it first, back in 1952. Supposedly, Leiber didn’t much like the Presley rearrangement, produced by RCA Victor’s Steve Sholes, but he had no objection to collecting his cut of the songwriter royalties. (Johnny Otis is listed as a third writer on Thornton’s record; Otis produced the session.)

Leiber and Stoller met in Los Angeles in 1950, a couple of white kids with a taste for black music, and decided they had something to contribute to the repertoire. After a couple of years of kicking around, they started getting some hits, and with Lester Sill (later partner to Phil Spector), they set up Spark Records and cut their own sides. Atlantic bought up Spark, ostensibly to obtain the Robins, but also hired L&S as staff producers — while still allowing them to do outside work. (Sill, for his part, wound up as the second syllable of Philles Records, the first being Phil Spector.) The Robins mutated into the Coasters; L&S began working with the reconstituted Drifters, with Ben E. King on lead.

It’s a measure of how close Leiber and Stoller were that Wikipedia gives them a combined entry. Generally, Stoller wrote the music, Leiber the lyrics, though once in a while they threw you a curve: “Stand By Me,” a Ben E. King solo classic, was written, said the label, by King and “Elmo Glick,” which I’d always assumed was a gesture to acknowledge King as the originator of the song, but Glick turns up on several L&S records.

Leiber is gone now, cardiopulmonary failure at 78; Stoller, six weeks older, is still with us. Their songs, of course, will outlast us all.

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1 comment

  1. Roger Green »

    23 August 2011 · 8:33 am

    In my attic, I have a book with many of their songs. (It’s not buried; it’s actually on a bookshelf; it’s just that the bookshelf is in the attic.)

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