The story unfolds in 1940s West Baltimore, where a Jewish kid wounded by bigotry in the white community finds acceptance -- and a first taste of an electrifying music -- in the homes of his black neighbors.
Later, the boy moves to California, and with a songwriting partner pens a catalog of early rock 'n' roll classics for the likes of Elvis Presley and the Coasters -- setting a standard for pop craftsmanship that stands to this day.
"The early influences, in many ways, were in Baltimore," said Jerry Leiber, whose rise as a music legend will be discussed tonight in "Jews in Rock 'n' Roll," a multimedia program at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills.
"I was passing open windows where there might be a radio playing something funky," he said, recalling his excursions into West Baltimore's black neighborhoods. "In the summertime, sometimes there'd be a man sitting on a step, playing an acoustic guitar, playing some kind of folk blues.
"The seed," he said, "had been planted."
In tonight's program, Leiber's legacy will be described by Baltimore-based music critic Geoffrey Himes as part of a detailed look, using videos and CDs, at the Jewish role in the fledgling days of rock. It is, he says, a tale of melded cultures, of emerging writers and producers who blended Tin Pan Alley and black rhythm and blues to create classics like "Jailhouse Rock," "Up on the Roof" and "Save the Last Dance For Me."
"These writers grew out of the early Jewish-American tradition of songwriters in Manhattan -- Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen," Himes said. "Another thing that is important to point out is that, even in the 1950s, Jewish-Americans felt like outsiders to a large extent and shared that experience with African-Americans."
As Leiber, interviewed by telephone from his home in Venice, Calif., put it: "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."
Leiber, 64, said he learned only recently that his father had sung at synagogues in the family's native Poland. 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," he said.
To understand the Jewish contribution to rock, consider the songs written by Leiber and his partner, Mike Stoller. The team's long list of classics includes "Kansas City," "Stand by Me," "There Goes My Baby," "On Broadway," "Spanish Harlem," "Love Potion No. 9," "Young Blood," "Riot in Cell Block #9" and "Is That All There Is."
The songs -- which formed the basis for a Broadway revue, "Smokey Joe's Cafe" -- sprang from an attitude that first took root in Baltimore, Leiber said.
He was born in the city in 1933, and his early years were spent in middle-class comfort. But when Leiber was 6, his father died.
The surviving family, in financial straits, moved to a white, lower-class West Baltimore neighborhood, and his mother opened a small grocery store on the edge of the predominantly black neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester.
Quickly, he found himself the victim of ethnic slurs from the white children in the neighborhood. When his mother sent him to deliver kerosene and soft coal from the store, he received a friendlier welcome from the black residents.
He said he adopted the black residents' manner of walking and talking, their defiance in the face of discrimination.
"I wanted to be bad," he said. "I wanted to be feared."
He was invited for dinners in black households -- where he heard snippets of soulful music in settings that to a young boy seemed smoky and mysterious.
"I saw kids 6 years old tap-dancing for pennies on the street," he said. He developed a love for boogie-woogie.
He and his mother moved to California when he was about 12, and soon the musical foundation he'd absorbed in Baltimore bloomed. He was busing tables in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant when he heard Jimmy Witherspoon's "Ain't Nobody's Business."
"It stopped me cold in my tracks, and I said, 'That's what I'm going to do.' "
In the team, Leiber was the lyricist, Stoller the composer. They got their first big break when they wrote "Hound Dog" for blues shouter "Big Mama" Thornton. Later, Elvis recorded that song, along with "Jailhouse Rock" and "King Creole," among other Leiber-and-Stoller compositions.
But their style was perhaps best seen in the humorous "playlets," as Leiber called them, written for the 1950s group the Coasters, including the 1958 hit "Yakety Yak," with the Leiber lyrics:
"Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don't get no spendin' cash
If you don't scrub that kitchen floor
You ain't gonna rock and roll no more
Yakety yak (don't talk back)
Leiber said that, like the music, the traditions of black and Jewish humor are not far apart.
"It's self-effacing, it's hard-luck, the shtetl stories," he said. "All those Coasters things are an amalgam of Yiddish and black humor."
In the early 1960s, as they turned more of their attention to record production, Leiber and Stoller presided over a team of songwriters from their offices in the famed Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. Jewish writers and producers, including Carole King, Phil Spector and Doc Pomus, wrote such classics as "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" for acts like the Drifters and the Righteous Brothers.
The results, Himes said, were profound and lasting.
"The craftsmanship the Brill Building writers brought to the genre has been a tradition that's continued throughout the history of rock 'n' roll. You see it in people as diverse as Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis -- none of whom are Jewish, but all of whom owe a debt to that approach to music-making."
While his lecture focuses on the early rock era of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Himes added: "There's a lot more that can be said about Jews and rock 'n' roll -- Bob Dylan, Paul Simon -- but that is a whole other chapter."
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Owings Mills Jewish Community Center, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave.
Tickets: $5 in advance for JCC members, $7 for non-members, and $8 at the door.
Information: 410 542-4900.
Pub Date: 12/04/97