Hound Dog Men: Leiber and Stoller’s Story
When we think of the great songwriters of the 1950s, we usually concentrate on Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. Leiber-Stoller doesn’t immediately come to mind. I didn’t even know their first names – they have always been Leiber-Stoller to me.
All that changed after reading Hound Dog: The Leiber-Stoller Biography (Simon and Shuster 2009), written with David Ritz. Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were at least as important as songwriters as Berry or Holly, but like their first names, we don’t remember them because they weren’t performers.
Both of them grew up on the East Coast, but they didn’t meet until they had moved to Los Angeles, and their partnership, which began in 1950, has lasted through many decades, if their popularity and creativity pretty much dried up by the 1970s. But they will be remembered for the many songs they wrote for the Drifters, the Coasters and other great doo wop groups of the 1950s.
They were young Jewish men completely enchanted with black music. Stoller, a pianist, studied jazz and classical music and wrote all the music for the team. Leiber was a lyricist literally without peer at the time, and the pair created some of the most fascinating songs of the era: “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Kansas City,” “The Chicken and the Hawk,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Along Came Jones,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Little Egypt,” “Stand by Me,” among them.
Oh, yeah. And “Hound Dog.” “You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you’ll always be remembered as the guys who wrote ‘Hound Dog,’“ Atlantic Records co-owner Nesuhi Ertegun told them. They knew he was right, naming their autobiography after the song and highlighting the quote on the first page.
One thing not many know is that along with their songwriting skills, they were involved in producing records before we came up with the term “production” in the making of records. Listen to the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko,” and read how they came up with the recording. The Cups were in the studio to put final touches on a song they recorded a few days earlier, “People Say,” and warming up their voices with the old Mardi Gras standard “Iko Iko.”
Stoller writes, “We decided to cut it there and then. No band was present … Jeff (Barry) and Ellie (Greenwich) picked up a coke bottle, a plastic bowl and a few can openers. That became the percussion. There was also a souvenir kalimba box from the West Indies, a sort of giant version of an African thumb piano. I found a way to tune it and used it to play a bass line. The Dixie Cups sang the song with tremendous feeling and authenticity. When we were finished, we loved it … We had another Top Twenty hit.”
There are plenty of stories like that one in Hound Dog, their on-off involvement with Elvis Presley and Col. Parker, their experiences with everybody from Phil Spector to Shadow Morton to Norman Mailer, as well as many other stories about the early days of rock and roll. And I finally got their names right.