He is one of the grandest of the granddaddies of rock and roll, and his roots are in West Baltimore.
No perceptible Bawlamerese remains in Jerry Leiber's accent, but the influence of the music he heard in his hometown lingers on. It left its mark on the songs he's written with composer Mike Stoller -- songs like "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Stand by Me."
Now that influence has come full circle in the form of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," a Broadway revue of Leiber and Stoller songs that begins a two-week run at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.
In 1992, Life magazine dubbed Leiber and Stoller -- now both 63 -- "the wizards of wax." In 1995, Time called them "the prime concocters of sass, smarts and blue-eyed soul in rock's first decade."
And according to Rolling Stone (1990): "More than any other top writing and producing team in the Fifties, Leiber (words) and Stoller (music) initiated mainstream white America into the sensual and spiritual intimacies of urban black culture that fueled the birth of rock and roll."
Here's a picture of the neighborhood
Here's the corner, where we stood
Faded pictures in my scrapbook
Just thought I'd take one more look
And recall when we were all
In the neighborhood.
There wasn't a tradition of music in Leiber's family, but music was all around as he was growing up. By age 9, he was delivering soft coal and kerosene for his widowed mother's grocery store on the corner of McKean and Riggs avenues. Although he says reporters have exaggerated the impact of the music he heard while making deliveries to black customers, this white Jewish boy soon developed a taste for boogie-woogie and the blues.
He briefly took piano lessons at the home of a well-to-do uncle in Druid Hill. Then one afternoon his uncle came home early and caught him playing boogie-woogie. "He said, 'Stop that. Cut that out. If you're going to play that, you have to get out of the house,' " recalls Leiber, adding, "I never spoke to him again."
Next he tried drums, taking lessons at Fred Walker's Music Store on Howard Street and becoming friends with a teen-ager twice his age who owned "a set of white pearl Gretsch drums that absolutely floored me. He let me play on his drums every afternoon for a half-hour on my way home from school."
He has forgotten the older boy's name, and the boyhood friends he has stayed in touch with have no memory of his interest in music. "I didn't know anything about it until he came back to Baltimore one summer and told me he was a songwriter," says his cousin, Eddy Baum, who primarily remembers Leiber's prowess on the tennis court.
Leiber's talent as a lyricist wasn't totally unexpected, however. Former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg, a friend of Leiber's since their days at Robert Fulton Elementary School, says, "He has a very fertile mind with crazy stuff. He's a very humorous guy. It didn't surprise me that he could come up with verses."
Leiber's interest in lyrics evolved after he and his mother moved to Los Angeles to be near his two married sisters in the mid-1940s. One sister had married the son of songwriter Lew Porter. "I became sort of the pet of Lew Porter, and Lew used to take me in his car to the different studios where he was working and I loved it," he says. "I went around with him and got the bug. I liked the environment. It was exciting."
In addition, Leiber got a summer job as a busboy in a Los Angeles restaurant where the short-order cook kept the radio tuned to blues stations. "I loved the records that I heard. I'd hear things like Jimmy Witherspoon singing 'Ain't Nobody's Business' and stuff by Amos Milburn and Memphis Slim, and I thought to myself at some point, 'I can do that,' " he says.
When an attempt to interest a high-school friend in writing songs petered out, the friend suggested he call a piano player named Mike Stoller, who had studied with stride pianist James P. Johnson.
Some cats know just where it's at
They're not like some others
I would rather one like that
If I had my druthers
"Some Cats Know"
Stoller, who was also 17, wasn't the least bit interested in songwriting. "I was sure that he meant some kind of songs that I would hate," Stoller recalls. But Leiber was persistent. "I hung up the phone and the doorbell rang, and I opened the door and there he was," Stoller continues. "The first thing I saw was one blue eye and one brown eye, which kind of stopped me cold, and I forgot to ask him to come in."
Despite Stoller's reluctance, the two started writing songs that very afternoon. Stoller was impressed that the lyrics Leiber had written in his school notebook were in the form of blues. And Leiber says, Stoller "played a couple of licks and, even though the stuff was fragmented, I had the feeling that we could glue some of these things together."
That feeling proved accurate -- even though their personalities differed considerably, especially initially. "Mike, in the early days when I first met him, was very phlegmatic and slow and introverted and very passive," says Leiber, explaining that some of that passivity was due to barbiturates Stoller was taking for an ulcer. In turn, Stoller describes Leiber as "volatile and impulsive."
The speed of their early collaboration is daunting. Leiber compares it to automatic writing. Stoller calls it "spontaneous combustion."
"I would sit at the piano and start just jamming something at the piano, and Jerry would pace around the room," Stoller says. "Of course, we both smoked in those days, so there was always cigarette smoke, and he would pace around, just shout out lines, words, phrases. If something stuck, we'd both know it, and we'd work on it, but the impulse came simultaneously."
You ain't nothin' but a hound dog
Quit snoopin' 'round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain't gonna feed you no more.
The novelty songs they later wrote for the Coasters -- songs like, "Yakety Yak" and "Charlie Brown," which Leiber compares to little comic operettas -- took longer. But they churned out their most famous song, "Hound Dog," in less than 15 minutes for blues singer Big Mama Thornton.
The contract for Thornton's version is part of the Leiber and Stoller exhibit currently on display at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is signed by the songwriters' parents since Leiber and Stoller were still underage when they wrote the song that would catapult them -- and Elvis Presley -- into the national spotlight.
The story of Leiber informing Stoller that they had a major hit has become part of the duo's legend. Stoller was returning from Europe on the ill-fated Andrea Doria, which sank after being rammed by another ship. When Leiber learned that his partner was among the survivors, he rushed to greet him at the dock, bearing a dry silk suit and the news of "Hound Dog's" success. Stoller assumed he was referring to the Thornton record.
Presley, however, had recorded the lyrics sung by a Las Vegas lounge act called Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. In place of the nasty, defiant words written for Thornton, Presley sang: "You ain't never caught a rabbit/And you ain't no friend of mine." "It sounded like rockabilly," Leiber says of Presley's recording. "That version wasn't, as far as we were concerned, a great version."
Nonetheless, Presley turned out to be a good match for the young songwriting team, who went on to write songs for several of his movies, including "Jailhouse Rock" and "King Creole."
"If Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll, then Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were the power behind the throne," says the entry under their names in "Contemporary Musicians," a standard pop-music reference.
Leiber remembers Presley as a hard worker who was also "a good dancer, very slick, a little bit unsure of himself. He was very sure of himself when he performed, but he seemed to be a little self-conscious socially."
Leiber and Stoller's relationship with Presley ended after they decided they'd had enough of the pressure tactics exerted by the singer's manager, Col. Tom Parker, and music publishers, the Auerbach brothers. The last straw came when Parker tried to get them to sign a blank contract. "I called Mike, and I said this is what's happening, and he said, 'Tell him to take a walk.' That was the end," Leiber says.
It was hardly the end of Leiber and Stoller, however. In their
46-year collaboration, they have had their own record labels, Spark and Red Bird, and still have a publishing business. Their songs have been recorded by artists ranging from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf, and William Bolcom and Joan Morris. In addition, they revolutionized the music industry by becoming the first independent record producers -- a move made to ensure that their records sounded the way they intended.
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there's always magic in the air.
Smokey Joe's Cafe" has fulfilled the one dream that had eluded them. "Oddly enough, our first Broadway musical turned out to be a collection of our earlier work," says Stoller.
The pair's previous attempts include a musical based on "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," which flopped in Canada. They're currently working on a new musical, however, called "Time Step" about a Harlem tap dancer. In addition, earlier this year they had a workshop production in Los Angeles of a cabaret show built around the type of material they wrote for Peggy Lee, such as the plaintive "Is That All There Is."
Though they'd like to attend the Baltimore opening of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," which they admire and have seen several times, they're on a deadline to complete the score for a combination live action/animated feature about Puss in Boots. The children's classic, to be directed by Stanley Donen, will be their first film since the Presley movies.
Leiber -- a twice-divorced father of three who has homes in New York and Los Angeles -- admits he misses Baltimore. "There's an atmosphere there that's very peculiar and strange," he says wistfully. His last visit was about three years ago, but he's been to Washington more recently -- to meet President Clinton.
On that occasion, Leiber and Stoller had their picture taken with Clinton, while he held a photo of the songwriters with Presley and mimicked Presley's pose. They also gave him one of their vintage albums, but apologized for being unable to find the Drifters album that includes the song "On Broadway."
At that, Leiber recalls, Clinton "said 'You want to hear "On Broadway"?' And he stands back and opens his arms like Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra and starts singing, 'They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway.' I thought I was in a Marx Brothers movie. Then he said, 'How's that?' It was good. He sang in tune and he had a groove."
Jerry Leiber was less than 50 miles from the town where he was born, but he'd traveled a long way to get there.
The repertoire of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller songs includes these popular recordings:
L "Fools Fall in Love," Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (1956)
"Hound Dog," Elvis Presley (1956)
"Searchin'," the Coasters (1957)
"Jailhouse Rock," Elvis Presley (1957)
"Treat Me Nice," Elvis Presley (1957)
"Yakety Yak," the Coasters (1958)
"Kansas City," Wilbert Harrison (1959)
"There Goes My Baby," the Drifters (1959)
"Love Potion #9," the Clovers (1959)
"Stand by Me," Ben E. King (1961)
"On Broadway," the Drifters (1963)
"Is That All There Is," Peggy Lee (1969)
'Smokey Joe's Cafe'
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: Dec. 10-22. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays
Call: (410) 752-1200
Hear the music
To hear excerpts from "Smokey Joe's Cafe," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four digit code 6127. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 12/08/96