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Their Magic Moment

How Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tapped into the soul of ’50s America—and made it sing

Wesley Yang
July 02, 2009
Elvis Presley singing "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog"(Don Wright/Time & Life Pictures/Getty ImagesDon Wright/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Elvis Presley singing "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog"(Don Wright/Time & Life Pictures/Getty ImagesDon Wright/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Though it has been the subject of history textbooks and PBS documentaries for decades, rock and roll still retains the power to make the learned things said of it seem hopelessly pedantic. It is, on the one hand, a slight musical endeavor: three chords; four accented beats; bass, guitar, and drums; an excitable front man who will carry on shouting for three minutes; a simple verse-chorus structure; repetition; overpowering volume; rhyming couplets, most of them unswervingly fixated on the subject of sex between teenagers (or, let’s face it, statutory rape). On the other hand, everything thrilling and grotesque about America is implicated in the rise of this vernacular art. It was the sound of America’s poorest, most despised people—slaves who became sharecroppers who migrated north to became tenement dwellers in Memphis, Chicago, and Kansas City, and trashy whites from the brawling culture of the Appalachian mountains. It turned out that America’s most despised people were also its most creative, and that some of them weren’t upright and God-fearing (though many of them were), but in fact mischievous, irreverent, impulsive, drunken, and sex-obsessed. Through the medium of television and recording, the sound of their erotic delirium became the common property of its white middle-class teenagers, and through these exemplary consumers, the world.

It was the instrument of a revolution in bourgeois manners and mores. What other country would dress its privileged children in the garb of its sharecroppers and coal miners, or school them, three minutes at a time, in the sexual mores of the ghetto, selling them commercial fantasies of freedom and authenticity that would seduce the young everywhere? The industry spawned by the music has long since grown (like the old Elvis) cynical, corpulent, corporate, and corrupted; and (like the aging Michael Jackson) inhumanly strange, sequestered in appalling opulence, frozen in childhood, and besieged by creditors. But as with all things that go wrong on a grand scale, rock and roll was once, like the young Elvis, extraordinary—a vision of a miscegenated American future as compelling as the linked arms of Freedom Fighters that were then rising up across the South.

It was the early 1950’s and America was changing. Who would serve as the vanguard of this change? You would need people eager to embrace the new, able to serve as intermediaries linking black and white, high and low, sensitive enough to hear joy where others heard only squalor, clever enough to hear opportunity where others only heard noise, alive to the mordant humor of the ghetto, heedless of existing prejudices and conventions, enterprising enough to invent an industry where none had existed before. You needed Phil and Leonard Chess in Chicago; Syd Nathan at King Records in Cincinnati; Lester, Jules, Saul, and Joe Bihari at Modern Records in Los Angeles; Leo and Eddie Mesner at Aladdin Records just down the road; and Alan Freed on first the Cleveland, then the New York City airwaves. You needed Jerry Wexler and Herb Abramson at Atlantic Records in New York; a teenaged Michael Bloomfield playing in the first integrated electric blues band in Chicago in 1963; and the former Robert Zimmerman in the cafes of Greenwich Village. You needed people who could operate at the bloody crossroads where commerce, art, and social change were converging. All of which is to say that you needed Jews.

Here is how Lester Sill, national sales manager for the independent blues label Modern Records explained it to a teenaged Jerry Leiber, (“Kid, I think you’re going to like this music,” Sill told Leiber before handing him a recording of John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun,”) then a part-time clerk at Norty’s, a little record shop in Los Angeles that sold Frankie Laine records and cantorial music from Russia and Poland:

“‘The big labels,’ explained Lester, ‘like RCA, Columbia and Decca are ignoring the really great popular Negro artists because they just don’t understand or care about the music. They don’t think it’s worthwhile, artistically or commercially. Well, I don’t have to tell you how wrong they are.’”

The voice reminiscing above belongs to Jerome Leiber, who would go on to become one half of the songwriting team that wrote and produced some of the most important and best rock and roll singles ever, including “Kansas City,” “Stand By Me,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety-Yak,” “This Magic Moment,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Searchin’,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Hound Dog.” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller began writing songs in 1951, at the age of 18, for a label producing what were then known as “race records” for Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, the Robins, the Drifters, Big Joe Turner, and Ruth Brown. By 1958, at the age of 25, Leiber and Stoller had been dubbed “the Gilbert and Sullivan of rock and roll,” and “the Grandfathers of Rock and Roll.” They would go on to write and produce the major hits of the Drifters and the Coasters, establish themselves as the first independent record producers in the industry, and nurture the talent of one Phil Spector.

Hound Dog, the Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, just released by Simon and Schuster, is a slight volume of edited interviews that recapitulates much of what was already known about the songwriting duo, and some delightful new anecdotes of uncertain veracity. The first third of the book captures the excitement of those early days when the music was still unknown to white audiences and the big record companies had no regard for it. For anyone remotely susceptible to the heartbreaking innocence of that period, the sly, keen, slightly-outdated hip patois recorded in that book is an unmitigated delight.

“Like Lester, many of the label owners were Jewish. ‘Look at the way the big iron and steel companies threw the scraps to the Jews,’ said Lester. ‘That’s how Jews started in the scrap metal business. Same thing in music. The majors see a great artist like Jimmy Witherspoon as scrap. They don’t want to deal with what they consider junk. Well, some of these small labels were actually junk dealers before they got into the music game. Through experience, they learned what some see as junk might actually be precious jewels.’”

Jerry Leiber first heard black music in homes where he delivered “five-gallon cans of kerosene and ten-pound bags of soft coal,” as an errand boy for his mother, who owned the only grocery store willing to extend credit to blacks in the neighborhood. His father had been a “door to door milkman who died penniless,” when Leiber was five. Leiber’s first language was Yiddish; his earliest attempt to play boogie-woogie on piano ended when his Uncle Dave, “without warning, violently slammed down the wooden keyboard cover,” in the midst of a lesson.

Mike Stoller’s aunt was a child prodigy who graduated from the Vienna Conservatory at 12, but his introduction to boogie-woogie came under the gentle direction of the stride pianist James P. Johnson. Stoller grew up listening to Richard Strauss, Shostakovitch, and Sibelius, but “it was black music,” he explains, “that excited my deepest passion. I heard the lyricism in Richard Strauss, I felt the elegance of Bach, but boogie-woogie really reached my eight-year old soul.” Where music had been, for his mother’s German Jewish family, the hallmark of social superiority, young Stoller’s interest in music “was purely visceral.” Is there a clearer illustration of the Old World’s cultural hierarchies succumbing to the blandishments of the New World’s freedom to reinvent oneself in any guise?

Stoller would write the music, noodling along on the keyboard while Leiber tossed out phrases off the top of his head. Many of their hits were written in fifteen minutes or fewer. The story of their ascent within their field is rapid and untroubled. “Our interest was in black music and black music only,” Stoller declares. His own musical vocabulary spanned the blues, R&B, avant-garde jazz and classical music of his day, but he deployed all of it in search of the most immediate impact, and without any consciousness that the music they were making was other than ephemeral. “If you had asked me and Mike back then,” Leiber says about the great Robins song “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” we would have said that we loved the recording, that it might even be a hit, but we assumed that in a few months the song—and, for that matter, all our songs—would be, like a pile of old comic books, discarded and forgotten.” Stoller observes that when he was writing hit songs “stratification of popular music was absolute. At the top were giants like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. At the bottom were guys like us.” Leiber quotes Random House’s co-founder politely inquiring: “Why did you write something called ‘Hound Dog’?” The “highbrow view of the day” was that “rock and roll was trash.” The view had something to recommend it, according to the sexual mores of the day. Leiber wrote the lyrics with a vocabulary, as Stoller puts it that was “black, Jewish, theatrical, comical,” telling stories, as Leiber tells it, about “heartache and pain, but also unrestrained joy and unrestrained sex.”

“She wasn’t built for power
She wasn’t built for speed
But she was built for comfort
And that’s what I need.”

In 1953, Leiber and Stoller wrote a song for Big Mama Thornton called “Hound Dog,” which became a hit on the R&B charts. At one point during the session Leiber encourages Thornton to “attack” a certain part of the song. Thornton interrupts him. “‘Come here boy,’ she said, motioning me to stand even closer to her. ‘I’ll tell you what you can attack. Attack this…’ she added, pointing to her crotch.” The opening lyric, as Thornton had sang it, went like this:

You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Quit snooping ‘round my door
You can wag your tail,
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more”

In 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show singing

You aint’ nothing but a hound dog
Crying all the time
You ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine”

“The song is not about a dog,” Leiber observes. “It’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’s version makes no sense to me,” going on to opine that “there’s no comparison between the Presley version and the Big Mama original. Elvis played with the song. Big Mama nailed it.” Nonetheless, Presley’s choice of the song made Leiber and Stoller, as Leiber puts it “awfully goddamn lucky,” to be placed at the forefront of “the bigger commercial revolution in American music: teenage rock and roll.”

The book then settles into the rhythm of professional success, punctuated by conflict, as the duo negotiates the treacherous waters of the music business. They go on to write Peggy Lee’s signature mid-life crisis hit “Is That All There Is?” in which the aging singer faces mortality with resignation that is at once cheerful, rueful, and mordant. The book ends with the obligatory flourish of showbiz gratitude for blessings bestowed by fate, but ends on a note struck all those decades ago by the nihilistic chanteuse. Leiber and Stoller began life as “horny teenagers” obsessed with the sound, rhythm, and preoccupations of the lustful music emerging from the black underground. They managed to make being a horny teenager into a profitable vocation, and became rich, honored, and successful men, carving out a permanent place in American cultural history for the ephemeral songs they wrote in 15 minutes or fewer. Facing mortality and clinging to life amid failing health, Leiber admits that he thinks back “to the days of cognac and tobacco with deep nostalgia.” Aging and mortality—the insistent facts for which rock and roll has no reply. And he tells his interlocutor that:

“If my next medical report is ‘Leiber, you’ve run out of options. You’ve got a month at most to put your affairs in order,’ then this is my plan: I’m going to buy a fifth of Maker’s Mark bourbon, a carton of Camels, and as many Billie Holiday records as I can carry. I’m going to break out the booze and have a ball.”

“If that’s all there is.”

Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.

Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.