Feature

Jerry Leiber, 1933–2011

The lyricist of the rock ’n’ roll revolution

Jerry Leiber was standing on a New York dock in 1956 when his longtime songwriting partner, Mike Stoller, landed after being rescued from the sinking ocean liner Andrea Doria. Leiber had a dry set of clothes and some news: Their song “Hound Dog,” written three years earlier for “Big Mama” Thornton, was all over the radio, sung by “some white guy” named Elvis.

That was a milestone in a 60-year partnership whose “sassy lyrics and playful melodies” allowed American teenagers “to enjoy their youth and poke fun at their elders,” said the Los Angeles Times. Elvis Presley reinvented the lyrics of that first hit, singing, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.” Leiber later commented, “I’d never write such a dumb line.” But the record sold 7 million copies and launched a lucrative partnership with Presley, who also recorded such Leiber and Stoller hits as “Trouble” and “Jailhouse Rock.”

Leiber was born to a widow who ran a grocery store on the edge of Baltimore’s ghetto, but he moved to Los Angeles as a teenager and soon met Stoller. The two “began writing music together almost instantly,” said Rolling Stone, and within a few years, they were “the hottest songwriters in the business.”

And no wonder, said The Village Voice. Leiber was “one of the shrewdest lyricists in history,” setting up familiar story lines that were “perfect for the emerging teenage audience.” Their song “Yakety-Yak,” for example, captures the tension between duty-driven parents and adolescents who’d rather do anything than “take out the papers and the trash.” The cheeky tune “Poison Ivy”—“You’re gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion”—was, Leiber freely admitted, “a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease—the clap.’’

Leiber and Stoller’s output went beyond such “timeless, mischievous tunes,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer. They collaborated with Ben E. King on the classic “Stand By Me,” and with Phil Spector on “Spanish Harlem.” The pair also wrote Peggy Lee’s hit ballad “Is That All There Is?” and Stealers Wheel’s 1972 hit “Stuck in the Middle With You.” Critic John Lahr wrote, “They corrupted us with pleasure.”

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