Jerry Leiber, who spoke Yiddish as his first language, was hounded by anti-Semites on the streets of Baltimore as a child, and became one of the creators of rock ‘n’ roll as half of the most celebrated songwriting duo of all time, died at 78 in Los Angeles.
Leiber died Monday at a hospital in Los Angeles of cardiopulmonary failure.
Leiber, the lyricist, and his partner, Mike Stoller “had few peers and no equals during rock ‘n’ roll’s first golden era,” Rolling Stone wrote in 1990. Hits of theirs such as “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and many others have been sung for decades by artists from Elvis Presley to the Beatles and scores of others since they began writing together in the early 1950s as high school students in Los Angeles.
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Leiber and Stoller “initiated mainstream white America into the sensual and spiritual intimacies of urban black culture that fueled the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Their songwriting captured the essence and nuances of black music and language with a melodic invention, narrative ingenuity and cool hilarity that were true to the source while transcending it – heavy-duty R&B with a pop sensibility and lyric universality,” the magazine said.
Their role – along with those of many other Jews - in creating rock ‘n’ roll has been well documented in recent years. A 2009 essay in Tablet Magazine about Leiber and Stoller’s joint autobiography, “Hound Dog,” put it this way: “It was the early 1950’s and America was changing. Who would serve as the vanguard of this change? You would need people eager to embrace the new, able to serve as intermediaries linking black and white, high and low, sensitive enough to hear joy where others heard only squalor, clever enough to hear opportunity where others only heard noise, alive to the mordant humor of the ghetto, heedless of existing prejudices and conventions, enterprising enough to invent an industry where none had existed before. …You needed people who could operate at the bloody crossroads where commerce, art, and social change were converging. All of which is to say that you needed Jews.”
Extensive lists of Leiber and Stoller’s songs, many of which started out as “rhythm and blues” numbers for black performers such as Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Mama Thornton, can be found here and here. Music website Rate Your Music said of the two: “Perhaps no white songwriters have understood R&B better than these men. “
The oft-told story of how Leiber brought “Hound Dog” to imposing black female R&B artist Big Mama Thornton and how they felt Elvis Presley mangled the song, written for a woman telling off a man, can be found here.
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Leiber’s first language was Yiddish and was frequently taunted on the streets of Baltimore as a child. In a story he told in his autobiography, he was called “Jewboy” by a gang that knocked his Hebrew school books out of his hand: “One does not allow these holy books to touch the ground, and I was horrified at the idea.”
Leiber said he got his first taste of black music while working at his widowed mother’s grocery store in a poor Baltimore neighborhood, and joined it with his passion for the piano. At an early age, he said in “Hound Dog,” he was encouraged to play “boogie woogie” piano by a sexy Jewish piano teacher, but his uncle, who had offered him the piano and the lesson, slammed the cover down, nearly smashing his fingers.
Leiber told the Baltimore Sun in 1997 that: “The Jewish background is not that far from the black groove. Blacks are downtrodden, Jews are downtrodden; therefore, they have something in common in that affliction. Being downtrodden often makes one more empathetic and sympathetic.” He said traditional Jewish music shares many traits with rhythm and blues. “Listen to any cantor, any good hazan, sing and you can hear a little bit of Ray Charles going on.”
Once in Los Angeles as a teenager, Leiber worked at a record store that catered to “old Jews and hipsters like me” and that sold Frankie Laine, Mickey Katz and cantorial music.
Record salesman Lester Sill of Modern Records turned him on to blues he had heard back in Baltimore, and he soon afterward met Stoller, a classically trained musician. Their rise was smooth, with many of their first efforts getting recorded and becoming R&B hits even while they were still in high school, which led them to Presley and many others, such as the Drifters, the Coasters, and Ben E. King.
In the early 1960s, they wrote for and produced hits by many girl groups, including the Dixie Cups and the Shangri-Las, but later grew away from pop mainstream to fare such as “Is That All There Is?” and then producing movies and theater, including a failed musical version of “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.”
Leiber & Stoller have been honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame and many other music organizations.
“He was my friend, my buddy, my writing partner for 61 years,” Stoller told the Associated Press. “We met when we were 17 years old. He had a way with words. There was nobody better. I am going to miss him.”
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