NPR

Songwriter Jerry Leiber Has Died

Jerry Leiber (right) looks over Elvis Presley's shoulder at the sheet music for "Jailhouse Rock" in Los Angeles in 1957. His songwriting partner Mike Stoller stands to the left. (Getty Images)

Jerry Leiber was the lyrics. Mike Stoller was the music. They made hits for The Drifters, The Dixie Cups, even Peggy Lee. But when Leiber first asked Stoller to work with him, Stoller said no. You can hear that story and more in Zoe Chace's remembrance of Leiber that airs on Morning Edition on Tuesday. Click the audio link above to listen.

Jerry Leiber, half of one of the most prolific and successful pop songwriting teams of all time, died Monday morning in Los Angeles of cardio-pulmonary failure following a lengthy illness, according to a source at Leiber and Stoller Enterprises. He was 78 years old.

In an interview on NPR's Morning Edition in 1991, Leiber described his partnership with Mike Stoller as "Long, long years of ... stepping on each other's toes ... and words and sentences and, also, finishing each other's lines on songs." According to the pair, Leiber had barely spit out the words, "Take out the papers and the trash" before Stoller chimed in with, "Boy you don't get no spending cash," the first lines of their 1958 hit for The Coasters, "Yakety Yak."

Leiber grew up in Baltimore, and met Stoller (from Long Island) in Los Angelese in 1950. Over the next decade nobody wrote hits like Leiber and Stoller. The pair had the first hits with songs they wrote for black musicians: their biggest hit, "Hound Dog," was originally recorded by blues singer Big Mama Thornton in 1952. By the time Elvis Presley turned it into one of his signature hits in 1956, it had been recorded at least half a dozen times.

Many of Leiber and Stoller's songs became standards that lived well past their original performances. Their 1952 composition "Kansas City" was a hit for Wilbert Harrison in 1959 and was later recorded by Little Richard, The Beatles, Brenda Lee, Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown and The Everly Brothers. The version of "Stand by Me" performed by Ben E. King, who co-wrote the song, was a top ten hit in both 1961 and 1986.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's remember now Jerry Leiber, who left behind - when he died yesterday - a legacy of pop music that may never be rivaled.

He wrote the lyrics for thousands of songs with Mike Stoller, who was the music. The legendary duo brought us songs including "Hound Dog," "Charlie Brown," "Love Potion No. 9." In a collaboration so rock-solid, NPR's Zoe Chace finds that to look back on the life of Jerry Leiber is to look back on both their lives.

ZOE CHACE: I'm just going to let Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller explain why the records they wrote formed a blueprint for hit records forever.

Mr. MIKE STOLLER (Songwriter): Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

(Soundbite of song "Stand By Me")

Mr. BEN E. KING (Singer): (Singing) When the night has come and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we'll see.

Mr. STOLLER: This Brazilian rhythm supports a slow ballad without the ballad seeming to be slow or sluggish. It keeps it moving, and is responsible for maybe over a thousand hits.

(Soundbite of song "Stand By Me")

Mr. KING: (Singing): So darling, darling, stand by me, oh, stand by me.

CHACE: Jerry Leiber met Mike Stoller back in 1950. Both were 17, both trying to break into the music business in Los Angeles.�As Leiber and Stoller said on MORNING EDITION in 1991, Leiber had the lyrics. He needed a piano man to work with.�He cold-called Stoller.

Mr. STOLLER: Jerry Leiber called me up and said, hey, let's get together and write songs.�

Mr. JERRY LEIBER (Songwriter): And he said, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOLLER: That's true. But he said, well, why not meet and talk about it, anyhow?

Mr. LEIBER: And he said no.�

Mr. STOLLER: But he came over anyhow. And...

Mr. LEIBER: We started writing songs.�

Mr. STOLLER: Right.�

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Hound Dog")

BIG MAMA THORNTON (Singer): You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping round the door.

CHACE: Two white Jewish guys: Stoller from Long Island, Leiber from Baltimore. They both loved black music, and at first wanted to write only for black artists. Leiber was famous for saying he felt like a black kid growing up in his working-class Baltimore neighborhood, as he told WHYY's FRESH AIR.

Mr. LEIBER: Teenagers especially are very, very conscious about what is hip and what is lame and what is square and what is out and what is in, you know. And, I mean, I grew up right there in the middle of a black culture. And I knew dead-on what it was.

CHACE: Leiber and Stoller wrote "Hound Dog" in 1952 for the blues singer Big Mama Thorton. But you probably know this version.

(Soundbite of song, "Hound Dog")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer, Performer): (Singing) Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine.

CHACE: In 1956, it launched the career of Elvis Presley, a white singer famous for loving the blues. Black music began to cross over to white radio, arguably, because of these two. Elvis eventually hired them.

For 20 years, the '50s and '60s, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller owned the radio. Stoller would sit at the piano while Leiber stalked around the room smoking and yelling out lyrics. They could�write hit songs in a quarter of an hour.

The Coasters, the Drifters, the Dixie Cups, even Peggy Lee, Leiber and Stoller wrote their hits. They never ran out of hit records.

Mr. LEIBER: Long, long years of stepping on each other's toes and words and sentences.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOLLER: I guess that's the bottom line.

Mr. LEIBER: Is that it?

CHACE: Jerry Leiber is survived by his song-writing partner Mike Stoller. He died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 78 years old.

Zoe Chace, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Is That All There Is?")

Ms. PEGGY LEE (Singer): (Singing) Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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