You can eat your favourite breakfast cereal day after day and never bother to read the label; then one day you do, and you appreciate all that crunchy fortification and all the ingenuity and team work required to jumpstart your day.

For years I enjoyed Jerry Leiber’s body of work, but never noticed his byline. I noticed the artists who delivered his material; of course, in the same way Roxanne recognized the lover who spoke through the words of the shy, unassuming poet who had genuinely captured her heart.

Songwriter Jerry Leiber stripped away pretentious class distinctions by injecting natural speech and humour in tunes co-written with his fellow composer and friend, Mike Stoller. Leiber died in August at the age of 78, leaving behind scores of original songs that launched the careers of numerous artists and producers.

In 1950, while still a teen, the Baltimore-born lyricist met the Long Island bred Stoller; both were 17 and both had moved with their families to Los Angeles. Leiber worked at a record store. Stoller played piano professionally.

Stoller preferred to be behind the keys while Leiber enjoyed attention, and they quickly found that their personalities and musical tastes meshed. Jimmy Witherspoon recorded their first attemptm, ‘Real Ugly Woman’. Several years later, they wrote the driving ‘Kansas City’ which was snatched first by Little Willie Littlefield, in 1959, and then by Wilbert Harrison. The bluesy ‘Hound Dog’ which they wrote for the booming voiced Big Mama Thornton would lead to more major success.

After Elvis Presley made ‘Hound Dog’ a number one smash in America, the duo was asked to create more hits for the popular heartthrob. The fact that “The King” had sung the song to a bassett hound on the popular 'Steve Allen Show', didn’t seem to phase them – the network had become nervous about Presley’s suggestive dance moves and hoped this distraction would keep the censors at bay.

Leiber and Stoller obliged with other infectious numbers like ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘Treat Me Nice.’ But because manager Colonel Parker felt threatened by the new found friendship, the professional relationship of the threesome lessened, though the duo did continue to dish out some lesser known songs to “The King” such as ‘King Creole’.

The team then wrote for the Coasters, ‘Yakety Yak’, ‘Poison Ivy’ and ‘Charlie Brown.’ These songs were playful, rhythmic, innocent and brilliantly uncomplicated. Atlantic Records wisely cut the men a deal, and they co-wrote ‘On Broadway’ with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and ‘Stand by Me’ with Ben E. King. The duo had become a hit making machine and a staple of New York’s Brill Building contingent. They mentored Phil Spector and influenced composers like Burt Bacharach.

They worked with United Records too, producing Jay and the Americans and producing and writing the comical ‘Love Potion # 9 ‘ for the Clovers. Later, Leiber even wrote the lyrics and the music for the Latin-fused ‘Spanish Harlem.’ Another song in which Latin rhythms had come to play had been ‘This Magic Moment.’

Even rock groups enjoyed the duo’s output. In the early 1980s, Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers) released ‘I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near),’ which stemmed from Leiber and Stoller’s ‘I Keep Forgetting’.

The most unusual song of Leiber and Stoller’s career was, however, one which was not drawn from teen street vernacular, but from a story called ‘Disillusionment’ by Thomas Mann. Written for Peggy Lee, it is a song that goes beyond sorrow; one, which dares to examine a phenomenon that we fear far more than anger or hurt or humility - and that feeling (or lack thereof) is emptiness.

“Is that all there is?/Is that all there is?/If that’s all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball/If that’s all there is…”

Surprisingly, pop artists such as PJ Harvey and comedians the likes of Sandra Bernhard have covered this soliloquy. It was Lee’s first Top 40 hit since ‘Fever’, which had been released more than a decade earlier. The cakewalk-like orchestral arrangement by Randy Newman filled in the ambiguous spaces – after all, the verses were spoken and only the chorus was actually sung.

It was a song, which sultry Lee ultimately perfected - though it took arduous takes. But, back to Leiber: How one can write ‘Yakety Yak’ at the beginning of a life, and inch further down the road and create this nonsequitor is astonishing.

That said, it’s impossible to imagine how popular music would have fared/thrived sans writers like Jerry Leiber who turned language on its heels, and made it more than okay to laugh at one’s self while enjoying the tinkle of a marimba, the death rattle of a snare or the ferocity of the upright bass. Cheers to the legacy of songwriter Jerry Leiber whose irreverence, humour and perseverance broadened our boundaries. He will be missed beyond measure.







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