Two kids who changed R&B
It is no exaggeration to say that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller reshaped American culture with their songs—tunes such as “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” “Charlie Brown,” “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Kansas City,” “Searchin’” and the Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton/Elvis Presley hit that serves as the book’s title, “Hound Dog.”
Individually—and before either had reached his teens—these two Jewish white boys, Leiber from Baltimore and Stoller from Queens, New York, developed a passion for rootsy, hard-bitten black music. After they joined forces in 1950, they found themselves creating the kind of songs that transcended race, an effort that would eventually earn them a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Leiber and Stoller tell their story in alternating segments ranging from a paragraph to a few pages. While this might seem to be a disjointed approach, it actually works quite well since the personalities and voices of the two men are so distinct. Stoller, who still writes music for Leiber’s lyrics, emerges as the more restrained and domesticated of the two. Early on, Leiber was drawn to fast cars and easy women, a combination that once led to tragedy when he crashed his Jaguar on a slick mountain road, killing one of the two call girls riding with him. Stoller and his wife narrowly averted tragedy themselves in 1956 when the ship on which they were returning to New York, the Andrea Doria, sank off the coast of Nantucket.
Leiber and Stoller recall, sometimes with glee, sometimes annoyance, rubbing shoulders with many of the most prominent figures in show business, including Presley, Peggy Lee, producer Phil Spector, actor Ben Gazzara and novelist Norman Mailer (who on one occasion tried to choke Leiber). All in all, theirs is a rich slice of life for both music fans and cultural historians.
“Thanks to Elvis and a host of other white boys,” says Leiber, “rhythm & blues . . . morphed into rock and roll. . . . Unconsciously, we were the avant-garde of a movement that we didn’t even know was a movement or had an avant-garde.”
Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.