Today is the birthday of the late Jerry Lieber (1933-2011), one half of one of the great songwriting teams of all time, Lieber and Stoller.
I got to speak to Jerry once on the phone back when I was working as the personal assistant to Mr. Tony Bennett. Lieber was, of course, trying to sell Tony a song. I thought, how sad and odd, that a songwriter of this stature still has to travel around, hat in hand, and hawk his songs. At the time, Tony wasn’t even hot (this was a year or so before his big comeback in the 90s). As it happens, Jerry would have his own big comeback that decade, when Smokey Joe’s Cafe became a hit show on Broadway. (This, too, is strange and unnatural. That one of America’s top songwriters, and one so very much in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, doesn’t get a Broadway show for forty years — and when he does, it is with forty year old songs. Something symptomatic there, something unhealthy).
At any rate, if you wrote out a list of famous songs by Jerry Lieber with his pal Mike Stoller, it would, without exageration, be about as long as your arm. Lieber was the lyricist, and one could argue, the more significant and distinctive contributor to the team. Because one notable aspect about their work is the enormous range, both in terms of emotional content and of subject matter, in their songs. On the one hand, the lyrics to “Spanish Harlem” were so beautiful that Lenny Bruce once quoted them in his act as proof that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t so bad. On the other hand, they wrote dozens of humorous songs, songs so gimmicky that they were of the type that ordinarily define “one hit wonders”, yet they had dozens of hits with them, usually(but not always) with their principle mouthpieces The Coasters: “Little Egypt”, “Along Came Jones” (about the star of B movie westerns), “Poison Ivy”, “Love Potion #9”, “Yakety Yak”, “Searchin'” (with its references to Charlie Chan and Bulldog Drummond), “Charlie Brown”, “Three Cool Cats”, “Alligator Wine” (as sung by Screamin Jay Hawkins) etc etc.
Lieber had that rare gift to be able to convey slapstick lyrically, planting hilarious images in the head with only words. From “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”:
“From behind the counter there came a man,
A chef hat on his head and a knife in his hand.
He grabbed me by the collar and he began to shout:
‘You’d better eat up all your beans and get right on out!'”
I’m also very fond of the punchline to “Love Potion #9”:
“But when I kissed a cop down at 23rd and Vine,
He broke my little bottle of Love Potion #9″
The team also had a major association with Elvis Presley, and as so often happens, success proved a kind of undoing. Elvis’s first major national hit was “Hound Dog”, a song the team had written for Big Mama Thornton in 1953. Soon they were supplying songs for his movies that also became hits, songs at once funny and cool, hence perfect for the King: “Jailhouse Rock”, “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care)”, “Bossa Nova Baby”, etc etc etc. As the machine ground on through the sixties however, the product began to descend into hackwork and exhaustion showed: “Girls! Girls! Girls”, “King Creole”, etc.
Their original heyday had a couple of last gasps. “D.W. Washburn” was a minor hit for the Monkees in 1968. The following year, Peggy Lee had a hit with “Is That All There Is?” (later the theme song of our own Miss Astrid). A little known fact, the team (who were also top producers in the 50s and 60s) produced Stealers Wheels’ 1972 hit “Stuck in the Middle With You” (later memorably revived by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs). When I was a kid in the 1970s, Sha Na Na and the ABC hit sit-com Happy Days became the avenues by which I came to know the team’s music. And thereafter their music became principally about nostalgia. (Another example — the title song of Rob Reiner’s film Stand By Me).