When two Jewish songwriters teamed up with a former “Shabbos goy” in 1956, it helped change the face of popular music.
The “Shabbos goy” was Elvis Presley (who died 24 years ago last week).
When Elvis covered “Hound Dog,” a rhythm-and-blues song composed by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber — originally recorded in 1953 by Big Mama Thornton — it propelled the young Presley’s career to new heights.
But perhaps equally as important, it brought Leiber and Stoller to the attention of top music executives.
Not only did the duo continue to write hits for Elvis (“Jailhouse Rock,” “Treat Me Nice”), they helped revolutionize postwar popular music. They wrote, arranged and produced some of the most enduring pop and rock and roll songs of the last 40 years. A sampling of their work includes” Love Potion No. 9” (the Clovers), “Kansas City” (Wilbert Harrison), “On Broadway” (the Drifters), “Ruby Baby” (Dion) and “Stand By Me” (Ben E. King). They also wrote virtually every major hit by the Coasters (“Searchin’,” “Young Blood,” “Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak” and “Poison Ivy”).
As producers, label executives and publishing magnates, they nurtured the next generation of pop songwriters, many of them Brooklyn Jewish teenagers like Barry Mann and Carole King. Leiber and Stoller’s numerous hits, mostly recorded by young black boy and girl groups, became the soundtrack for the pre-Vietnam War generation.
The fascinating story of how two white Jewish guys hooked up in Los Angeles and became founders of rock and roll as well as lifelong partners and friends unfolds in Morgan Neville’s wonderful new documentary “Words and Music by Leiber and Stoller,” which premieres on Thursday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m. on A&E. Neville skillfully juxtaposes old clips with engaging new interviews to show the deep bond between the two musical pioneers.
The show is part of a weeklong tribute to pop music that begins on Aug. 27 with a two-hour special “Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music,” where Neville focuses on the meteoric rise of such young Jewish New York City songwriters as Neil Sedaka, Gerry Goffin, Mann and wife Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry when they worked in and around Manhattan’s famous Brill Building.
Tuesday night’s special features Dionne Warwick; Wednesday, Bobby Darin; and Friday, Burt Bacharach, a Jewish composer who grew up in Long Island and partnered with lyricist Hal David to produce some of the biggest pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s.
It’s hard to figure out why so much of that era’s musical talent was Jewish, Mann, a graduate of Brooklyn’s Madison High School, told The Jewish Week.
“I think it’s cultural,” said the co-writer of the most recorded song of the 20th century — “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” — as well as such classics as “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” and “Somewhere Out There” from the animated movie “An American Tail.”
“A sociologist could really nail why it happened,” Mann suggested.
Stoller was a Jewish kid from Sunnyside, Queens, who in the 1940s went to a socialist workers summer camp where he fell in love with “black” blues and boogie woogie music. Leiber, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, was also born in 1933 and grew up on the edge of Baltimore’s black ghetto also adopting the gritty black music as his own.
They met in Los Angeles in 1950 through a drummer they both knew, and immediately clicked. Stoller, a classically trained pianist who embraced jazz and R&B, composed the melodies while Leiber provided the words.
“We used to fight over who was blacker,” Stoller relates during the hour-long documentary narrated by actor John Turturro.
One of their first collaborations was 1951’s “That’s What the Good Book Says” recorded by the Robins, later the Coasters. Several years later, Atlantic Records signed them to one of the industry’s first independent production deals.
In the mid 1960s they ran Red Bird Records, which produced a slew of top “girl group” hits like “Chapel of Love,” by the Dixie Cups, and the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack.” They also mentored a then-unknown record producer named Phil Spector, who went on to create a unique “wall of sound” for other musical artists.
Stoller told The Jewish Week he first became enamored with boogie woogie and R&B as a 7-year-old at Camp Wochika, a leftist interracial summer camp in New Jersey co-sponsored by Jewish union groups.
“I was mesmerized” by the new music Stoller said during a telephone interview Tuesday. As a teenager he belonged to a youth club in Harlem where he immersed himself in all forms of blues and jazz. At home in Queens, though, classical music filled the air, courtesy of his parents, who were friends with George and Ira Gershwin.
Stoller isn’t sure why there was such a connection between two Jewish songwriters and black music.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence. There was always a strong attraction culturally between Jews, at least in the U.S. and black people. To out it simply, R&B and blues music is very attractive, and among the early aficionados who were not black were Jewish.”
Of all the groundbreaking work he and Leiber have done over the last 51 years, Stoller calls working with the Coasters in the mid-’50s and early ’60s “the most fun time.” Working with Elvis was “OK” until the duo had a falling out with Elvis’ business manager, Col. Tom Parker.
“They’re good guys, they’re really not pretentious,” said Neville of Lieber and Stoller, noting that the duo own one of the biggest music publishing companies in the business, holding the rights to their songs ranging from James Brown to Donavan. They also support aging R& B artists through the R&B Foundation, he said.
In 1987 they Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the 1990s, they had a huge Broadway hit, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” featuring some of their best and lesser-known works.
Mann and Weil are currently working on a Broadway musical based on their award-winning catalog.
And to see how they all began, it’s worth viewing “Hitmakers” and the rest of Biography’s “Pop Goes the Music Week.” n
“Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music” (Mon., Aug. 27, 8 p.m.); “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” (Tues., Aug. 28, 8 p.m.); “Bobby Darin: I Want to be a Legend” (Wed., Aug. 29, 8 p.m.); “Words and Music by Lieber and Stoller” (Thurs., Aug. 30, 8 p.m.); “Burt Bacharach” (Fri., Aug. 31, 8 p.m.). All will air on A&E.
- New York
- Ellie Greenwich
- Mike Stoller
- Bobby Darin
- Carole King
- Cynthia Weil
- Ben E. King
- Jerry Leiber
- Ruby Baby
- Gerry Goffin
- Burt Bacharach
- Jeff Barry
- Wilbert Harrison
- Brill Building
- The Teens Who Stole Pop Music
- Neil Sedaka
- Barry Mann
- Brooklyn Jewish
- Social Issues
- Staff Writer
- Human Interest
- Los Angeles
- Dionne Warwick
- Charlie Brown
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Kansas City
- Hal David
- Arts Guide