NPR : Fresh Air

Jerry Leiber: Remembering One Of Rock's Great Songwriters

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Jerry Leiber, who wrote some of pop music's most memorable lyrics with his partner Mike Stoller, died Monday. He was 78.

Leiber wrote the lyrics to many of the greatest hits in rock history, including "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Yakety Yak," "Stand By Me" and "Kansas City," which was recorded by almost 100 singers, including The Beatles, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown and The Everly Brothers.

In an interview on Fresh Air in 1991, Leiber and Stoller joined Terry Gross for a conversation about their decades spent working together in the music industry and the many songs they produced together, including "Hound Dog." The song, which became one of Elvis Presley's standards, was originally written in 1952 for blues singer Big Mama Thornton.

"Mike and I were invited to Johnny Otis' rehearsal studio to listen to artists, and Big Mama was one of them," Leiber said. "She was really formidable. She was big — she must have weighed anywhere from 275 to 350 — and she had this really guttural, growling sound in her voice. And the both of us fell in love with her. We loved what she looked like, and we loved what she sounded like."

The two men decided to go directly to Stoller's house to try and write a song for Thornton.

"Mike was driving and I was banging on the roof of the car, and I was trying to come up with something nasty that would be at the same time playable — that wouldn't be censored," Leiber said. "And the closest I could get to was 'You ain't nothing but a hound dog.' "

When Presley recorded the track in 1956, he didn't use the same blues intonation that Big Mama Thornton used. He also changed many of the lyrics.

"The way the song was written for Big Mama was really about a gigolo," Stoller said. "It's a woman complaining about a gigolo. Elvis couldn't sing that song. So he sang a version of it that he heard from a lounge act in Las Vegas."

In addition to "Hound Dog," Leiber and Stoller wrote several other songs for Presley, including "Jail House Rock." A few years later, they wrote a number of hits for The Coasters, including "Searchin'," "Yakety Yak," "Stand By Me" and "Charlie Brown." They also started producing their own recordings, making them the first independent record producers in the industry.

"Mike essentially hand-picked the musicians and did the bones of all the arrangements and played piano on all of the record dates," Leiber said. "And I was essentially responsible for the performance of the singers. I directed the singers. We worked that way for 40 years."

In 1985, Stoller and Leiber were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Two years later, they became members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Leiber is survived by three sons and two grandchildren.

Interview Highlights

On Working Mainly With Black Musicians

Jerry Leiber: "I was brought up in black neighborhoods in South Baltimore. And we really felt like we were very black. We acted black and we spoke black. When I was a kid growing up, where I came from, it was hip to be black. To be white was kind of square. ... Teenagers, especially, are very conscious about what is lame and what is hip and what is square, you know? And I grew up right in the middle of a black culture and I knew dead-on what it was, firsthand."

On Producing Their Own Songs

Mike Stoller: "We needed to protect the intention of our work. We had experiences delivering songs on paper that didn't come out the way that we intended. It was another aesthetic entirely. To make it sound the way we planned to make it, we had to do it ourselves."

Jerry Leiber: "For instance, we'd come into with what we thought was a Texas shuffle. It would be on paper. And, you know, we didn't have a demo. Because we were somewhat hot, they'd take it that way and they turn it over to an A&R man or Capitol or CBS — and these were good producers, and they had their own sense of what was correct and what was happening, and they weren't into rhythm and blues. They were still rooted in swing and jazz. We would have something that should sound like a Texas pick-up band, and they would make a record that would sound like Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman's swing band. And it would just be wrong. So after a few of these disappointments, we decided to learn how to produce records ourselves so we could make our songs come off the way they were intended."

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