Two Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Songwriters Left Us Yesterday

Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Leiber

Lyricist Jerry Leiber and his songwriting partner Mike Stoller wrote much of the soundtrack of my childhood and teenage years. The rest of it was probably written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, but that’s a story for another time.

When I was in junior high school, I started buying 45 RPM records, and I ended up with a huge stack of them over the years. On so many of them, the writing credit was “(Leiber and Stoller). I had no idea who those people were, but they sure made me and a lot of other kids happy back in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Jerry Leiber died yesterday at 78. Here’s an incomplete list of artists who recorded Leiber and Stoller songs: Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, the Clovers, the Coasters, and of course Elvis and the Drifters. They even wrote a song for Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?”

From the NYT obituary:

The team of Leiber and Stoller was formed in 1950, when Mr. Leiber was still a student at Fairfax High in Los Angeles and Mr. Stoller, a fellow rhythm-and-blues fanatic, was a freshman at Los Angeles City College. With Mr. Leiber contributing catchy, street-savvy lyrics and Mr. Stoller, a pianist, composing infectious, bluesy tunes, they set about writing songs with black singers and groups in mind.

In 1952, they wrote “Hound Dog” for the blues singer Big Mama Thornton. The song became an enormous hit for Elvis Presley in 1956 and made Leiber and Stoller the hottest songwriting team in rock ’n’ roll. They later wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” “Loving You,” “Don’t,” “Treat Me Nice,” “King Creole” and other songs for Presley, despite their loathing for his interpretation of “Hound Dog.”

In the late 1950s, having relocated to New York and taken their place among the constellation of talents associated with the Brill Building, they emerged as perhaps the most potent songwriting team in the genre.

Here are some of my favorites:

Okay, so I love the Drifters….

Here’s one of my all-time favorite Leiber and Stoller compositions, Wilbert Harrison singing Kansas City.

This one was a huge hit when I was a kid.

Carole King, who also worked in the Brill Building back in the day “took to Twitter to pay her respects.”

“Farewell, Jerry Leiber: a legend, a friend, and a major influence on Goffin and King. Rest in peace.”

Motown songwriter Nick Ashford also died yesterday at age 70.
Ashford and his writing partner (later wife) Valerie Simpson wrote songs that were recorded by Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and many more great artists.

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson

From The New York Times:

Nickolas Ashford was born in Fairfield, S.C., and raised in Willow Run, Mich., where his father, Calvin, was a construction worker. He got his musical start at Willow Run Baptist Church, singing and writing songs for the gospel choir. He briefly attended Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, before heading to New York, where he tried but failed to find success as a dancer.

In 1964, while homeless, Mr. Ashford went to White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, where he met Ms. Simpson, a 17-year-old recent high school graduate who was studying music. They began writing songs together, selling the first bunch for $64. In 1966, after Ray Charles sang “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” a song Ashford & Simpson wrote with Joey Armstead, the duo signed on with Motown as staff writers and producers.

They wrote for virtually every major act on the label, including Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Didn’t You Know You’d Have to Cry Sometime”) and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (“Who’s Gonna Take the Blame”).

The Guardian had a great article today on songwriting duos by Laura Barton: From Leiber and Stoller to Lennon and McCartney: the alchemy of the duo

Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford: may they rest in peace. The best way to pay tribute to them is by remembering their music. Please post your favorites in the comments, if you’re so inclined.

Forty Years Ago Today, Jim Morrison “Broke on Through to the Other Side”

Forty years ago on June 3, 1971, Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, died in Paris at age 27. He was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery. Two former members of the band were at the grave site earlier today to mark the occasion.

“James Douglas Morrison, 1943-1971,” reads a plaque on the gravestone erected in the 1990s by the singer-poet’s father, who added a Greek phrase often interpreted as “true to his own spirit”.

Band members Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist, and guitarist Robby Krieger, lit candles at the grave of Morrison, who was known by the nickname the “lizard king”.

Fans of Morrison also paid homage at his grave by leaving flowers there. Some wore black T-shirts with a white drawing of Morrison’s face and the words “40th anniversary.”

I discovered The Doors first album when I was in college in 1967. I had never heard their music and simply bought the record on a whim because I liked the spooky cover art. I went home and put it on my turntable and listened. I was completely blown away. It honestly isn’t over the top to say that the music changed the way I experienced the world. It was that powerful for me.

So here’s to Jim and the great music and performances he shared with us during his brief time on this earth. Here are a couple of my favorites.



Clarence Clemons Dies from Complications of Stroke

From The New York Times:

Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, whose jovial onstage manner, soul-rooted style and brotherly relationship with Mr. Springsteen made him one of rock’s most beloved sidemen, died Saturday at a hospital in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 69.

The cause was complications from a stroke, which he suffered last Sunday, said a spokeswoman for Mr. Springsteen….

Clarence Anicholas Clemons was born on Jan. 11, 1942, in Norfolk, Va. His father owned a fish market and his grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher, and although he grew up surrounded by gospel music, the young Mr. Clemons was captivated by rock ’n’ roll. He was given an alto saxophone at age 9 as a Christmas gift; later, following the influence of King Curtis — whose many credits include the jaunty sax part on the Coasters’ 1958 hit “Yakety Yak” — he switched to the tenor.

“I grew up with a very religious background,” he once said in an interview. “I got into the soul music, but I wanted to rock. I was a rocker. I was a born rock ’n’ roll sax player.”

Mr. Clemons was also a gifted athlete, and he attended Maryland State College (now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) on a scholarship for football and music. He tried out for the Dallas Cowboys and the Cleveland Browns, but a knee injury ended his hopes for a football career.

Rolling Stone summarizes the apocryphal story of the night Clemons and Springsteen met and began to play music together.

So much has been said and written about the stormy night in Asbury Park in 1971 when Clemons met Springsteen that it’s hard to separate fact from myth. At the time, Springsteen was a struggling musician playing the New Jersey bar circuit and Clemons was a former college football player who spent his nights playing sax in clubs along the shore. “It was raining and thundering like a motherfucker,” Clemons wrote in his memoir. “When I opened the door it blew off the hinges and flew down the street . . . Somebody introduced me to Bruce, everybody knew everybody, and he asked me if I wanted to sit in.”

Clemons soon became part of Springsteen’s backing band (not yet known as the E Street Band), and when Bruce recorded his debut LP Greetings From Asbury Park in the summer of 1972, Clemons was brought in for the sessions. Over the next two decades, Clemons became the most recognizable member of the E Street Band – for his massive size, equally huge personality and his onstage role as Springsteen’s foil.

May Clemons continue to make music and tell tall tales in Rock’n’Roll Heaven.