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?”
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.
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.