(In 1999 songwriter/producer Jerry Leiber and partner Mike Stoller were honored with The Recording Academy's Trustees Award. The following tribute ran in the GRAMMY Awards program book that year. Jerry Leiber died today at the age of 78.)
It's an unfortunate fact of the music industry that some of the most meaningful and innovative artistic contributions are routinely underestimated, particularly by a public audience that is less exposed to the behind-the-scenes process of making records. Such can even be the fate of some of the most prominent and important songwriters and producers — men like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Despite orchestrating the careers of great R&B groups like the Coasters and the Drifters, writing some of Elvis Presley's best-known hits and functioning as tacit mentors to writer/producer icons such as Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach, the Leiber and Stoller team still has the dubious distinction of being almost invisible. The evidence? Despite their incalculable contribution to the Presley legacy, they are dismissed with only one-line passing references in pop Elvis bios like Albert Goldman's controversial Elvis and Down At The End Of Lonely Street: The Life And Death Of Elvis Presley by Peter Henry Brown and Pat. H. Broeske.
But those who follow music closely, especially those familiar with the operation of New York's famed Brill Building in the '60s, know better. The authors of classic early rock like "Kansas City," "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" and even pop/jazz like Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" Leiber and Stoller understood both the art and commerce of music, and showed a particularly intuitive sense of the burgeoning teen market. At times, they did everything but press their own records, functioning as writers, producers, A&R men, publishers, and label executives. That wasn't completely unusual for the New York pop milieu of the early '60s, but few proved themselves equally capable in both arenas.
Leiber and Stoller met in Los Angeles in 1950, both East Coast transplants. They shared a love for R&B and a desire to create some of their own. They hooked up with such established West Coast industry figures as bandleader/promoter Johnny Otis and promoter Lester Sill. With Sill they embarked in the label business, starting Spark Records, while Otis helped connect the pair with singer Big Mama Thornton, for whom they wrote the now legendary "Hound Dog."
In the meantime, they were writing humorous story songs for a group called the Robins. Soon, their label was purchased by Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records, and Leiber and Stoller moved to New York to set up shop in the Brill Building. The Robins were renamed the Coasters and a long string of hits ensued: "Searchin,'" "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," and more.
This led to work with established artists like Joe Turner, LaVern Baker and the Drifters. With the Drifters especially, Leiber and Stoller began to refine their studio process, cutting detailed sessions and adding strings to R&B records for the first time (they've been credited with producing arguably the first soul record — the Drifters' "There Goes My Baby").
By the early '60s, the pair had become the standard by which other producers could be measured, which led Sill to send a young L.A. producer out to New York to study under them. Spector slept on Leiber and Stoller's office couch by night and absorbed their innovative production techniques by day. But their presence at the Brill Building influenced others too, such as Bacharach, who wrote for the Drifters and often incorporated Leiber and Stoller's love of Latin rhythms into his songs.
Eventually, Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic and started their own label again, this time Red Bird Records, where they scored hits particularly with girl groups like the Dixie Cups and the Shangri-Las. They ultimately tired of label ownership, selling Red Bird in 1966 to concentrate on writing and producing, working with singer Lee and rock bands like Procol Harum and Stealers Wheel (they produced "Stuck In The Middle With You," which gained renewed fame in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs).
Leiber and Stoller are among that rare group of writers with an expansive body of work that will be recorded and re-recorded forever. "Hound Dog" sits comfortably in the GRAMMY Hall of Fame, and the pair were fittingly inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
More recently, Leiber and Stoller's music has been brought back into focus through the production of "Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs Of Leiber & Stoller," a hit musical that takes its name from a late-'50s Robins' track. It's a colorful extravaganza built around 40 classic Leiber and Stoller hits, a true celebration of a vibrant legacy that turned the music world on its collective ear.
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