Jerry Lieber, the lyrics-writing half of a songwriting duo that produced classic early rock and soul tunes like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” and “Love Potion No. 9,” died yesterday at 78. “The son of Jewish refugees from Poland, Lieber was the master lyricist of the period when popular music turned to rhythm and blues for its point of departure and left the Big Band sound in the dust,” David Lehman, author of Nextbook Press’ A Fine Romance, wrote in an email last night.
The (not false) narrative of rock ‘n’ roll has it beginning among black musicians and then being co-opted by whites. So Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” for example, was not a mega-hit until it was covered by Elvis (Thornton’s version is much better). But, of course, “Hound Dog” itself was written by two Jewish kids, Lieber, the older, who hailed from Baltimore, and Mike Stoller, who was from Long Island; the two met when both were in Los Angeles in 1950. Likewise, their “Kansas City” went through several versions by black musicians, including Little Richard, before receiving canonization at the hands of the early Beatles. Lieber and Stoller were an early influence on Phil Spector, another Jewish writer/producer for predominantly black acts. Their “On Broadway” and “Hound Dog” appeared on Tablet Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Jewish Songs. [UPDATE: The two were also the subject of a 2009 appreciation by contributing editor Wesley Yang.]
“The impishness the duo display in such jaunty tunes as ‘Poison Ivy’ and ‘Yakety Yak’ delighted listeners then and still do,” Lehman continued. “I touched the wrong plant one day this summer and a couplet from ‘Poison Ivy’ sprang to mind a day later: ‘Gonna need an ocean / Of calamine lotion.’ Leiber also wrote the words for two of the more soulful ballads of the early years of rock and roll: ‘On Broadway’ and ‘Spanish Harlem.’” Adds Lehman: “Probably his best song is the Peggy Lee classic, ‘Is That All There Is?’” It wasn’t.
Jerry Lieber, Prolific Writer of 1950s Hits, Dies at 78 [NYT]
Related: Songs of Songs [Tablet Magazine]
Their Magic Moment [Tablet Magazine]
A Fine Romance [Nextbook Press]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.