Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Leiber & Stoller: R&R Royalty

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are to R&R what George & Ira Gershwin were to Jazz. In their prime they were genre defining authors and producers. They trumped other great R&R composers in both output and quality. Great as Carole King & Gerry Coffin were, they couldn't touch this dynamic duo, Phil Spector might have been the Tycoon of Teen, he would have been lost without their schooling and Doc Pomus doesn't nearly have as much hits that are locked in our collective memory. Leiber and Stoller were at the synthesis of R&R, helped shape it to the form Elvis Presley tapped into, and finally transformed it and gave it the sophistication it needed to become a lasting force. The funny thing is Leiber & Stoller almost never happened. When Jerry approached Mike to become his song writing partner, Mike turned him down. Stoller hated Pop with a vengeance, ironic for one of the writers responsible for transformer the field a few years down the road, so Mike turned Jerry down. Leiber turned out to be very persistent and pushed until he had the chance to show Stoller some of his songs. When Stoller realized it were R&B tunes he agreed to jump on board. It turned out to be one of R&R's most successful partnerships, both creatively and commercial.

As two young men from Jewish descent Leiber & Stoller may seem like very unlikely characters to shape R&R, especially today. But in the early thirties many of the Jewish-Americans, especially those from European descent, lived in the run down ghettos of the cities. As such Lieber grew up on the edge of Baltimore's black ghetto while Stoller got to learn how to play Booie Woogies from the Black kids at summer camp. Jerry's father had a groceries store where the radio was always playing. Leiber later confessed that "those radios were like magic boxes to me. They played music I never heard anywhere else". Those sounds on the radio would never let go again. Music ran in Stoller's family, his mother had performed on Broadway in one of Gershwin's plays while his father was an engineer. As a teen he used to sneak into Harlem's Jazz clubs. Their passion for Jazz and R&B lit a spark between the two. Their backgrounds would later make it easier to be emphatic to the Black man's trials. It was the Modern label that gave the duo their first shot at recording when they cut "That's What The Good Book Says" for the Robins.

It was with that single that Kent records started their anthology of Leiber and Stoller three years back, only to finish it just recently. Kent's anthology focused on Leiber and Stoller as writers, doing an incredible job on research and compiling material from all the different labels Leiber & Stoller wrote and produced for. The duo seemingly recorded for almost every label that meant something in R&R as well as having a label of their own. "That's What The Good Book Says" is still a pretty much straight forward R&B song, though it did all ready betray their sense of sophistication. Although things would be off to a decent start for Leiber & Stoller things really started shaking when they produced "Hound Dog" for Big Mama Thornton. The single went number one on the R&B charts for seven straight weeks. "Hound Dog" is where the Kent anthology is starting to go wrong. Instead of Thornton's raucous and definitive version, the compilers choose to go for an alternate lesser known version by Freddie Bell & the Bell Boys. Although it is an interesting recording, compared to Big Mama's it kind of sounds flat and stale, just like Elvis' version did. Both fine performances, but they don't come close to Thornton's mighty thunderous voice.

"Hound Dog" would bust it all wide open for the duo, but it would also be their first hard lesson in the dealings of showbiz. Leiber and Stoller never received any royalties on the song. This promted the gentlemen to start their own label, Spark. Since Kent already did an anthology on the output of that label, much of the key material from Spark isn't included on this trilogy. Since the discs boast to be "the Leiber & Stoller story" I feel this is an oversight on their part. The argument Kent uses for their picks doesn't cut any real wood. Although the compilers rightfully claim that Leiber & Stoller produced to much material for an complete overview in three CDs and are troubled by not getting a license for the Elvis material, I feel the anthology turned out to be neither flesh nor fish, despite the quality material that is included. To be truly called the Leiber & Stoller story too many key tracks are missing, yet the trilogy doesn't amount to an alternative route through their career as well. It tries to be a little bit of both and fails to really hit mark because of it.

The compilation does include "There Goes My Baby" by the Drifters for example. As one of the first, if not the, R&B records to include strings it is a true essential from their catalog and rightfully included. "There Goes My Baby" was one of the first tracks where Leiber and Stoller's significance was really starting to shine. Like the Gershwin brothers before them, Leiber and Stoller managed to apply the rules of classical music on a different genre, in their case R&B. Doing so they installed R&B with a new sense of sophistication and granted it with a whole new template for telling stories. Although the lyrics of "There Goes My Baby" are upbeat and dealing with young love, the melancholic undertone betrays that not all is well. Still on the same disc the compilers include "Spanish Harlem" by Clyde McPhatter, significant because it was co-written by their then pupil Phil Spector, is chosen over the land mark hit by Ben E. King. Mohammed Ali's rendition of "Stand By Me" raises even more eyebrows. While "L'Homme A La Moto" (Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots) by Edith Piaff on the first disc had some aesthetic value, Ali's talents were clearly in the boxing ring only. An impressively running mouth doesn't make for an interesting singer, Ali's attempts as such are best forgotten. It might say something about the extent to where Leiber and Stoller's material reached, but a mention in the liner notes would have been just as effective. The same goes for other hits. While the trilogy does include the break through Pop smash "Lucky Lips" for Ruth Brown, it takes Buddy Holly's version of "Smoky Joe's Café" over the by far superior one of the Coasters.

The third installment continues in this slightly frustrating vein. Here we find Jimmy Scott's version of "On Broadway". Interesting again, but not much more. That isn't to say that the compilation isn't without merit. There are a lot of interesting inclusions and somewhat forgotten gems. "Rat Race" by the Drifters is present for example, though on the same note their version of "Only in America" was scratched when Jay & The Americans version was included. Here Kent's defense of going for rare recordings really fails to hit mark as the Drifter's version was originally shelved. Buried as an album track in '72 this fine piece of writing is much overlooked by Soul fans, even though it is one of Leiber & Stoller's best civil rights songs, talking openly about sitting in the back of the bus. A rarity in R&B in 1963. "The Leiber & Stoller Story" could have been what "Back To Mono" was to Phil Spector, even with the omission of their Elvis material. It became a slightly disappointing release instead. Though the compilation shows the full scope of talent of this brilliant duo, including gems by Johnny Cash, the Shangri-Las, The Robins, Ben E King, the Drifters and many others, displaying their prowess as both song writers and producers, omissions of some of the key classics left me with a slight dissatisfaction.

"Hound Dog" by Freddie Bell & the Bell Boys
"L'Homme A La Moto" by Edith Piaff
"Spanish Harlem" by Clyde McPhatter
"Stand By Me" by Mohammed Ali
"Only In America" Jay & The Americans

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