Two of the truly distinctive, defining creators in mid-century pop music culture, without question, are Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a pair of close friends and past inductees into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, who this evening are honored with the coveted Johnny Mercer Award, named for our esteemed founding president.
Leiber and Stoller dawned on the music scene at a time of stylistic rumblings and movement into new territory of popular music, a time when the authentic American rhythm and blues of the black world was beginning to be embraced by the general music-buying public, a time when the phenomenon of crossover became apparent with the daily programming assistance of legendary disc jockeys like Alan Freed, a Cleveland on-air personality who is said to have coined the phrase, rock and roll.
As one commentator has said, Leiber and Stoller, during their earliest days, came to be factors in many popular music genres, “creating enduring classics in rhythm and blues, jazz and cabaret in addition to basic rock and roll.” Another writer has suggested that, “If Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll, then Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were certainly two of the most important powers behind the throne.” The pair wrote the incredibly successful and indelible Presley hits. “Hound Dog,” “Love Me,” “Loving You,” “Don’t,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” among others for the King.
Carrying the analogy a step further, the court jesters of rock and roll kingdom would most certainly have been The Coasters, all of whose immediately familiar hit songs as “Searchin,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Young Blood,” “Along Came Jones,” “Little Egypt” and “Poison Ivy,” were penned and produced by Leiber and Stoller, as well as such hit tunes as “Down In Mexico,” ‘That Is Rock and Roll,” “Shoppin’ For Clothes,” ” D. W. Washburn,” “Riot In Cell Block #9,” “Framed,” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” the latter of which also became the title of the five-year running Broadway revue spotlighting the Leiber and Stoller classics.
The Leiber and Stoller story began when both were born the same year, 1933. Creatively speaking, the actual songwriting partnership commenced when both were 17, in 1950, when they discovered a mutual love for boogie- woogie and the blues. By the time they were 20, in just three years of working together, their early songs had been recorded by a collection of true all-stars in the rhythm and blues genre including Jimmy Witherspoon, Little Esther, Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, Little Willie Littlefield, Bull Moose Jackson, Linda Hopkins, Ray Charles and Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton who actually first recorded “Hound Dog” in 1952. Atlantic Records executives, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler among them, were impressed, and in 1955 signed Leiber and Stoller to the first independent production deal, forever changing the course of production in the record industry.
For the next decade, well into the late ‘60s the hits of Leiber and Stoller were constantly at the top of the charts, including the memorable “Stand By Me,” “Spanish Harlem” and “I (Who Have Nothing),” by Ben E. King; “On Broadway,” “Dance With Me” and “Drip Drop” by The Drifters; LaVern Baker’s “Saved” and Ruth Brown’s “Lucky Lips.”
During this same productive period, there were other Leiber and Stoller smashes, including “Love Potion #9,” by The Clovers, “Only In America” by Jay and The Americans, “I Keep Forgettin,” by Chuck Jackson, Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City,” The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” and “Fools Fall In Love,” “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” by The Cheers and “Ruby Baby” by Dion DiMucci.
Following the triumph of “Hound Dog,” Elvis Presley actually went on to record more than 20 Leiber and Stoller songs, including such highlights as “Loving You,” “Bossa Nova Baby,” “She’s Not You” and “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.”
The true diversity of the pairs of talent came into full bloom with the genre-bending song “Is That All There Is,” recorded by (Miss) Peggy Lee in 1969, which prompted music critic Bob Palmer’s comment, “the golden age of rock and roll has come to an end.”
Leiber and Stoller have also shared many major accolades and awards. They were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1985, the Record Producers’ Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In early 1988, the Presley recording of “Hound Dog” was placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in 1991, the pair were presented with the prestigious ASCAP Founders’ Award.
In the year 2000, while celebrating their 50th anniversary as a team, they have received the coveted Ivor Novella Award from the British Academy of Songwriters and tonight they are being honored with the prestigious Johnny Mercer Award.
But the greatest tribute of them all is much more than the formal awards. Rather, it comes with the knowledge that major artists of their time have recorded their songs, a tribute indeed to enduring talent. Those artists who have recorded the songs of Leiber and Stoller themselves constitute a kind of all star delegation of contemporary music They include The Beatles. The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, James Brown, Little Richard. Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Bill Haley and the Comets, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Johnny Mathis, Joe Williams, Count Basie, John Mellen-camp. Lou Rawls, Tom Jones, Edith Piaf, Bobby Darin, Chet Atkins, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, B.B. King, and Otis Redding, among literally hundreds of others!