‘Hound Dog’ lyricist co-wrotehits for Presley, the Drifters

August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber, who with Mike Stoller formed one of the most prolific and successful songwriting teams of the 1950s and 1960s, with hits including “Hound Dog,” “On Broadway,” “Stand By Me” and “Yakety Yak,” died of a heart ailment Aug. 22 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 78.

His death was confirmed by Randy Poe, president of Leiber and Stoller Music Publishing in West Hollywood, Calif.

Mr. Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 after a career writing for such performers as Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters and Peggy Lee.

The songwriting duo “advanced rock and roll to new heights of wit and musical sophistication,” the citation reads. “They brought a range of stylistic flavor to their story songs, which ranged from wisecracking, finger-popping hipster tunes to quieter love ballads.”

Mr. Leiber was the lyricist while Stoller, a boogie-woogie piano prodigy, worked out arrangements and melodies. They met as youngsters in Los Angeles and clicked over a deep enthusiasm for blues music.


Songwriters Jerry Leiber (right) and Mike Stoller with Elvis Presley at MGM Studios in 1957. Mr. Leiber died Aug. 22 at age 78. (REUTERS)

“Jerry’s vocal vocabulary was all over the place — black, Jewish, theatrical, comical,” Stoller recalled in “Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography,” written with David Ritz. “He could paint pictures with words and the words contained all sorts of colors, textures and tone. Not only that, he was fast.”

While best known for their rock and rhythm-and-blues compositions, Mr. Leiber and Stoller also wrote “Is That All There Is?” (1969) for pop singer Lee. The song, inspired by a Thomas Mann story, “Disillusionment,” was one of Lee’s biggest hits. It dealt with depression — unusual subject matter for a pop song — in an arrangement that recalled German cabaret.

“We always wrote what we wanted,” Mr. Leiber told The Washington Post in 1987, “and there was a time when what we wrote was automatically a hit because we were it, we were the audience we were writing for. When we got older, we were no longer the audience we were writing for. So around 1968, when we were in our middle 30s, we wanted to start writing more adult material, for people our age and older.”

“Some people feel that our later work is just rubbish,” he added. “On the other hand, there are people who think the early work is rubbish and the later work is some of the best popular music written in the last 50 years.”

Their earliest success was “Hound Dog” (1952), a rhythm-and-blues hit with a hypnotic rhumba rhythm and tailored to singer Big Mama Thornton. The record was covered — and even plagiarized — over the next four years by several blues, country and pop singers before Presley recorded his signature version in 1956.

Mr. Leiber said he hated the Presley version, as the singer had changed the words “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” to “you ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

“To this day I have no idea what that rabbit business is all about,” Mr. Leiber said in the autobiography. “The song is not about a dog; it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’ version makes no sense to me.”

Nevertheless, the songwriters and Presley forged a close partnership. The singer recorded 20 Leiber and Stoller compositions, many specifically for his movies. They included the theme songs to “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), “Loving You” (1957) and “King Creole” (1958).

They also managed, produced and wrote for the Coasters, the vocal group whose humorous theatrics earned them the sobriquet “clown princes of rock-and-roll,” creating such hits as “Along Came Jones” (1959), “Little Egypt” (1961) and “Young Blood” (1957).

In addition to songwriting, Mr. Leiber and Stoller brought their musicianship to innovative arrangements. Their 1959 production of the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” one of the first rhythm-and-blues hits to feature orchestral strings, featured a Brazilian rhythm, the baion, played on a tympany drum. The complex mixture of musical styles and dense instrumentation later influenced a Leiber and Stoller protege, producer Phil Spector.

Jerome Leiber was born in Baltimore on April 25, 1933. When his father died, his mother struggled to hold on to the family’s general store. She eventually sold it and moved with her son to Los Angeles in 1945.

While attending high school and working at a record store, Mr. Leiber met Lester Sill, a promotion man for rhythm-and-blues label Modern Records and tried to pitch songs to him. Mr. Leiber didn’t know how to write in musical notation but, through a friend, met Stoller, who did.

They completed a blues song, “K.C. Loving” (1951), for pianist Little Willie Littlefield, later remade in 1959 as “Kansas City” by singer Wilbert Harrison.

In the mid-1960s, they founded Red Bird records where, as producers, they nurtured the talents of a younger songwriting team, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, who specialized in writing for teen-oriented girl groups. After producing the Greenwich and Barry songs “Chapel of Love” for the Dixie Cups and “Leader of the Pack” for the Shangri-Las, they sold the label in 1968.

A revue of Leiber and Stoller songs, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” made it to Broadway in 1995. The show was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical and had a five-year run.

Mr. Leiber’s marriages to Gaby Rogers and Barbara Rose ended in divorce. Survivors include two sons from his first marriage; a son from a relationship; and two grandchildren.

While “Hound Dog” proved to be Mr. Leiber and Stoller’s most famous song, it almost didn’t get recorded. Thornton didn’t believe that two Jewish teenagers could write a blues song — and thought that they had given her a pop song.

“We took the song back to Big Mama and she snatched the paper out of my hand and said, ‘Is this my big hit?’ And I said, ‘I hope so,’ ” Mr. Leiber recalled to the Web site Rock’s Back Pages.

“Next thing I know, she starts crooning ‘Hound Dog’ like Frank Sinatra would sing ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’. And I’m looking at her, and I’m a little intimidated by the razor scars on her face, and she’s about 280-320 pounds.

“I said, ‘It don’t go that way.’ And she looked at me like looks could kill and said — and this was when I found out I was white — ‘White boy, don’t you be tellin’ me how to sing the blues.’ ”

“But we finally got through it,” he added.

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