Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller met in Los Angeles in 1950 when Mike Stoller was a student and Jerry Leiber was scratching living writing song lyrics. They both loved blues and after being introduced by a mutual friend they started to work together. Within a year they were writing songs and lyrics for Floyd Dixon, The Robins, and Jimmy Weatherspoon. Their first record was “That’s what the good book says,” by The Robins followed by “Real Ugly Woman” by Jimmy Weatherspoon.
In 1952 Charles Brown recorded Hard Times (1952), and gave them their first national R&B hit. What was unusual at the time was Leiber and Stoller were two white kids writing for black Americans, whereas many white producers were plagiarising Black Artists’ work then giving the material to white acts to record and perform.
They met Big Mama Thornton and wrote Hound Dog (1953) for her.
Later of course the song became more associated with Elvis Presley (1956), but Presley's version was almost an exact copy of a Freddie Bell and the Bellboys earlier recording in 1955, and both versions had different lyrics and melody from the original.
Kansas City which became a rock’n roll standard was recorded in 1952 (as "KC Loving") by Little Willie Littlefield, then became a No. 1 US hit, seven years later when Wilbert Harrison recorded it.
In 1953, Leiber and Stoller formed Spark Records with their mentor, Lester Sill. They hit on the novel idea of using hip words used by white teenagers, and built them into song lyrics which were then sung by a black group. In 1955, The Robins came out with a series of successful singles starting with “Riot in cell block number #9.”
In 1956 Spark Records was bought over by Atlantic Records, a company associated then with African American artists. Atlantic took the unprecedented action of engaging Leiber and Stoller as independent record producers. The Robins had a name change and became the Coasters and their association with Leiber and Stoller resulted in 17 hits. Listening to their records now would scarcely raise an eyebrow, but Leiber and Stoller’s humorous vignettes and clever lyrics came to epitomise all that was thought antisocial about juvenile delinquents. Of course this did not interfere with record sales and the Coasters became teenage icons.
As record producers they controlled every sound and when they started working with the Drifters in 1959 they introduced string arrangements to R&B. This new sound was the foundation for soul music which would be developed by others. Whilst they continued to write songs the duo preferred to use talented song writers like Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil or Gerry Goffin and Carole King and this combination gave us some of the classic rock’n roll songs of the era. In the back of the studio was an impressionable youth called Phil Spector who soaked up the techniques that would eventuate in his ‘Wall of Sound.’
How they started writing for Elvis Presley was almost by accident and followed Presley including Hound Dog in his live set. Colonel Parker asked them to submit some songs for Elvis to choose from, and he picked Love Me. Originally this was a spoof song intended to poke fun at the genre but when Elvis took it seriously he made it his own. Leiber and Stoller were asked to write songs for the King and came up with Jailhouse Rock.
Keen to explore other more challenging areas they continued with other artists and came up with a string of hits, including Jay and the Americans ("She Cried"), The Clovers ("Love Potion #9), and The Exciters ("Tell Him").
In 1963 they were working with the great Peggy Lee and a year later they started their own record company called Red Bird. Keen to promote girl groups they hired talented songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and fortunately they came up with some of the most memorable songs of girl group music. The hits included the Dixie Cups ‘Chapel of Love’ and the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack."
In 1966 they became disenchanted with the record business and sold their interests in the company. In the next year they were back in the studio with the Coasters and Peggy Lee. Their last major hit production was "Stuck In the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel (featuring Gerry Rafferty) in 1972 and they helped write "Pearl's A Singer" which gave the Elkie Brooks a massive European hit.
In 1995, Smokey Joes Café was a very successful Broadway Musical which revived interest in Leiber and Stoller great body of work, and brought the music to a whole new audience.
Worth a listen:
Big Mama Thornton
Hound Dog (1953)
Smokey Joe's Café
Riot in Cell Block #9 (1953)
Yakety yack (1958)
Charlie Brown (1959)
Love Portion #9 (1959)
Kansas City Little (1959)
Tell Him (1962)
I’m a woman (1963)
Is That All There Is?
Stand by me (with Ben E King) (1961)
There goes my baby
On Broadway (1963)
Love Me (1956)
Jailhouse Rock Elvis Presley (1957)
The Dixie Cups
Chapel of Love (1964)
Stuck in the middle with you (1972)
Pearls a singer