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.


  1. The Coasters were the first to record "Down Home Girl". It's not a very good record, and by the time Alvin Robinson did it they'd replaced 2 verses and tightened up the backing.

  2. When I got The Coasters box set, I was a bit shocked to discover they'd gone through a 'Moonlight In Vermont' phase.

  3. I was very saddened to read about Jerry Leiber's death.

    One of my favourite stories about them is told in the sleeve notes of Elvis Presley sings Leiber and Stoller:
    "We had been in New York for about a week but had not settled down to write anything for the new film. New York was just too exciting. We were about to leave the hotel room for another assault on Manhattan when Jean Aberbach of Presley Music barged in. He pushed a large sofa in front of the door, blocking the entrance, and with that informed us that we were not leaving the room until we had finished the score and placed it in hs hands. As he was a rather large man, Mike and I shrugged and went to the rented upright piano in the corner of the room, and while Jean pretended to doze on the couch we hammered out Jailhouse Rock, I Want To Be Free, Treat Me Nice and Baby I Don't Care. We started writing at about two in the afternoon and by six we were out on the streets again."

    That's a writing session!

  4. Is 'Pork and Beans' in that context the foodstuff or is it sexual slang?

  5. I think you'll find that 'pork and beans' is, in rock 'n' roll vernacular, fairly standard sexual slang. In the hands of Leiber and Stoller, there's no doubt in my mind whatsoever as to what they're talking about. Have a listen to 'Down In Mexico' some time and play hunt the innuendo.

  6. @David Heasman

    The Alvin Robinson record of "Down Home Girl" was the first, in 1964. The Coasters didn't record it until late 1966, and issued it in 1967.

  7. I'm not sure about that Coasters' date. If you heard their version it's pretty clear that the arrangement and two verses of lyrics are worse than Alvin Robinson's record.
    Wikipedia says it's '66, and it was released on Date, not Atco, tho' so I guess you're right. I was going by the comments in Oh Well.

  8. That's the last time I believe The Hound.