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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber - songwriting's great pretender

Jerry Leiber's death was announced today. A Jewish kid from Baltimore whose first language was Yiddish, he wrote the words for more classic rhythm and blues tunes than anyone else. He's best known for Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, which is a pity because neither of them is a particularly interesting song. Far better are the gems he and Mike Stoller wrote and produced for The Coasters: three-minute dramas like Searchin', Smokey Joe's Cafe and Young Blood, each one a dazzling mixture of Saturday morning funnies, black street slang and social comment wrapped around infallible hooks and brilliant playing.

Leiber's ear for the nuances of African-American language was uncanny, as was his nerve in putting himself into situations that he may not have experienced at first hand. In Down Home Girl the protagonist, a sharp car worker from Detroit, going out with a girl from the backwoods of the Carolinas, sings "every time I kiss you, girl, you taste like pork and beans".

The Sistine Chapel of this purple patch was Shopping For Clothes, which they wrote under the name "Elmo Glick", exactly what a black Jewish songwriter would be called. Here a would-be dandy goes into a department store, picks out the clothes that will make him the envy of the guys at the ballroom on Saturday night and then finds that his credit is refused. As somebody pointed out to me today on Twitter, the fade-out "I got a good job sweeping up every day" says more about civil rights than any amount of Blowing In The Wind.

When I was growing up those Coasters songs were merely musical comedy in the background. It was only in my twenties, via such magazines as Cream and Let It Rock, and the writings of Charlie Gillett and Richard Williams, that I came to appreciate the genius of the Coasters and Leiber and Stoller and realised that fifties r&b was not just insanely catchy and clever. It was also grown up, subtle and serious in ways we are only just now beginning to appreciate. In fact it's a lot cleverer than the records that think they're clever.