Remembering Jerry Leiber

Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler and songwriter Jerry Leiber both relayed this anecdote: Leiber never went out to see live music — not even his own groups like the Coasters, Drifters or Elvis. But in June 1971, Wexler coaxed him to attend closing night of the Fillmore East, right around the moment The Allman Brothers, an Atlantic/Capricorn group, broke big. Leiber was claustrophobic and couldn't stand crowds.

Furthermore, he told Wexler: "These guys are your band, they're badass musicians — but I don't know who they are, and I don't give a fiddler's fuck about them or the Fillmore."

Wex persuaded him as best he could: "There are people around the world who idolize you. You don't go out to music, you don't fuckin' know. I told Duane Allman I'd bring you up to the dressing room and he said, 'You're full of shit. Jerry Leiber's been dead for years.' I want to prove that my word's good."

Jerry Leiber was half of the songwriting team behind such iconic tracks as “Jailhouse Rock,”
“Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me” and “Love Potion No. 9.”
Zuma Press
Jerry Leiber was half of the songwriting team behind such iconic tracks as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me” and “Love Potion No. 9.”

So they go to the Fillmore, where flowers are arranged on reserved seats for the two Jerrys. They sit in the audience, only to soon be soaking wet — someone set off the sprinkler system, even though there was no fire. Leiber wants to split. Wex begs him to stay. Soon enough, he maneuvers Leiber into the dressing room. Duane Allman is shirtless, pale and skinny, and whacked out of his skull while stringing his Les Paul. (He would be killed in a motorcycle wreck a few months after this night.)

Wex shows off for his artist: "Duane, didn't I promise you? Well, here he is. Jerry Leiber."

Allman stares up hazily at this wet, anxiety-ridden figure.

"You're fulla shit. Jerry Leiber's been dead for four years."

"I'm not kidding you, this is the man," says Wexler. "Tell him who you are, Jer."

Leiber did.

"I wanted to say I'm Max Schmeling, leave, and destroy the moment for Wexler forever," Leiber later remembered. "I could see it meant so much to Wex, so I complied: 'He's telling the truth. I'm Jerry Leiber and I didn't die four years ago.'"

The most potent songwriter and producer of the rock 'n' roll era was such an iconic, remote figure that 24-year-old Allman thought the whole thing was a con. Jerry was a myth, he couldn't possibly exist. Leiber bolted out of there, more resolute than ever to avoid live concerts.

Forty years later, as of last week, Jerry Leiber is now finally not alive.

My father brought him home and introduced me in 1965, when I was nine years old and clueless. Some guy who'd written Elvis' songs before my time. Meant nothing to me. But he also wrote something called "Kansas City" that had just appeared on Beatles '65. That got my attention in a big way. It was straight-out rock 'n' roll, different than regular Beatles songs, the odd music they'd apparently grown up on.

The sheer magnitude of what Leiber & Stoller accomplished is mind-boggling — they fathered rock 'n' roll, they put the dominant AABA song structure in popular music, and were the first to be called "record producer." They began as R&B songwriters, and I wonder if they ever listed their mission statement on tax returns: "Making Black Folks Laugh."

I've never let cosmic distractions, as listed above, get in the way of friendships — especially when preparing cornbread and ribs in the kitchen with Jerry Leiber, like an old Jewish grandma. As with any great figure, though, you're also dealing with a mere human being. He had a preference for writer friends over music people. He grew up in a Baltimore slum speaking Yiddish, but learned meter from Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe (also from Baltimore). He devoured Proust as a child. Privately, he kept revising the lyrics from songs he wrote long ago, always reaching for what he considered to be the perfection of Irving Berlin.

The "playlets" — those 50 two-and-a-half-minute radio plays that Leiber & Stoller did with their alter-ego vaudevillian doo-wop group, The Coasters — were the most lyric-driven canon of songs ever written. Leiber & Stoller's range was magnificent, from early ditch blues to late Sinatra. "The Girls I Never Kissed" would have been a smash had Sinatra's voice only behaved during two attempted recording sessions.

Leiber eventually bequeathed me the only unreleased song from the Leiber & Stoller catalog of the 1950s, "Strike A Match." The song takes place in a dimly lit Negro bar where, after dancing and before the first kiss, the guy tentatively asks the girl to: "Strike a match/Let me see/Yo' face/Yo' face." They'd written it for Howlin' Wolf or Muddy. Then it got lost in a closet for 45 years. Leiber thought the three greatest male blues voices were Memphis Slim, Muddy and Howlin' Wolf.

"I can't sing like that," I said. Didn't want to affect a black voice. Different physiology.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "It's attitude."

"Strike A Match" came out, if such could be said, in 2001. A few years later, Leiber agreed to produce a solo album of me doing his purest blues songs. He hadn't really been in the studio in a few decades. Not since the '70s, when he and Stoller last produced Peggy Lee, Elkie Brooks, Procol Harum, a T-Bone Walker tribute album and Stealers Wheel, including the single "Stuck in the Middle with You." After that, they even refused the Rolling Stones.

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2 comments
Sursum Cor
Sursum Cor

I'm not sure you got the full gist of it - but that's a great story of Wexler, Allman, and Lieber meeting . .

especially when Allman says:

"You're fulla shit. Jerry Leiber's been dead for four years."

That tipped me because in 1967 (four years earlier) - the most potent songwriter and producer of the rock 'n' soul era *had* died prematurely at age 38 - the incredibly talented Bert Berns . .

As some may remember - Wexler. Berns, and Leiber (all Jewish record producers) were contemporaries and had very convoluted and often competitive relationships in the 60s.

ALSO

I seem to remember both Wexler and Allman shared a wicked sense of humor : )

I hope you agree - there was a little bit more to this story : )

Thanks for sharing . .

(soul music lovers will know - but some readers may be wondering who *Bert Berns* was. . he co-wrote TWIST AND SHOUT but do a bing search then listen to Frankie Scott's ARE YOU LONELY FOR ME BABY or Erma Franklin's PIECE OF MY HEART to get fuller appreciation..)

Sursum Cor
Sursum Cor

oops . . in the last sentence - I was thinking Freddie and typing Frankie : )

sorry about that - its been a long long day . .

here's a link so you can hear Freddie:

Freddie Scott - ARE YOU LONELY FOR ME BABY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

 
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