New Music for Old People: A Jerry Leiber Tribute

By , Columnist

Jerry Leiber

This column is like the title says - its intention is to fill the gap for those of us who were satiated musically in the '60s and then searched desperately as we aged for music we could relate to and get the same buzz from nowadaze. iTunes was the answer for me in 2003 and I have been following the new releases every Tuesday ever since I realized there was an endless stream of music I could enjoy there.

I also include older items that I felt were obscure originally and might not have been heard back then. The reason I am writing this column is to make sure others don't miss this wonderful music. These are not top ten items; but they SHOULD'VE been!

Below is a jukebox containing all the songs I picked this week. After you read about them below, go back and listen to whatever you like by just clicking on that title in the jukebox, or stream the whole playlist by clicking on the "play" icon at the top. It's free and it's the entire song. We're not selling anything. We're just in the business of hopefully making your days better by listening to great music.

One of the foundation blocks of rock 'n' roll as we know it has left us peacefully in the middle of the night. Jerry Leiber had various health problems for decades but just kept moving along, admittedly at a slower pace, and stayed in this world as long as he possibly could.

Hound Dog, the excellent autobiography of Leiber and lifetime collaborator Mike Stoller, is an eye-opening read if you are only slightly informed. They co-wrote so many hits that it surely broke all records, or at least 50% of them. I have chosen my favorite Leiber lyrics here, but I was severely limited by only having room for ten choices. The famous ones you, of course, know - but maybe you didn’t know they were all written by the same guy(s). Mike Stoller is a hero of mine and certainly a big influence on my composing, producing, and arranging.


Well, here we go — I hope you enjoy the immortality of what this man did on earth.

1. "Hound Dog" — Big MamaThornton (2:49)

One of their first composed/produced hits, this preceded Elvis’s version by a few years. Elvis heard a male version by Freddie Bell, who opened for him in Vegas, and nicked it. It’s always nice to hear where the song came from, however. They wrote it specifically for Ms. Thornton, a west coast blues shouter.

2. "Love Me" — Elvis Presley (2:44)

A perfect vehicle for Presley at the time. "Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel, but LOVE ME" sets up this semi-masochistic look at love by Leiber. There are abnormal aspects in most of his lyrics, but Stoller's melodies sometime color them so nicely, it takes a third listen to put that knowledgable smile of recognition on your face. Elvis’s impassioned vocal didn’t hurt either.


3. "Three Cool Cats" — Ry Cooder (2:32)

Ry does a great job on this Coasters' semi-obscurity. This shows you that '50s foreplay has lasted 50 years in some respects. Great vocal by Cooder with his usual restraint and respect.

4. "Shopping for Clothes" — The Coasters (2:56)

This is a masterpiece in its genre. Lead singer Billy Guy could not have done any better. The musicians sound like one tuned-in instrument, although I do admit that saxman King Curtis and drummer Gary Chester do stick out a wee bit. Just dwell on this 30-year-old Jewish guy writing this lyric — it sounds like Billy Guy was makin’ it up on the spot. One of the greatest R&B tracks of all time.

5. "On Broadway" — The Drifters (2:58)

This has certainly lasted quite awhile and here it is just in time for today's reality, amazingly: "Cause how ya gonna make some time / When all ya got is one thin dime / And one thin dime won’t even shine your shoes?" Leiber was a man who could write about the past, present and future in three gritty lines. Also contains early Phil Spector lead guitar in the right speaker. It was, to my knowledge, the only collaboration between Leiber and Stoller and Barry Mann and his wife Cynthia Weil.

6. "Down Home Girl" — The Coasters (3:02)

CoastersLS.pngA rare excursion from the side of Stoller, Jerry co-wrote this with session keyboardist and arranger Artie Butler. Somehow two Jewish writers make African-American sense with lines like "Girl I swear the perfume you wear smell like turnip greens." Butler played all the instruments on The Jaynettes' “Sally Go Round The Roses,” so this is no complicated math problem for him. An amazingly accurate collaboration and then cooked to perfection by the always reliable Coasters.

7. "Drip Drop" — Dion (2:35)

A follow-up to yet another Leiber-Stoller oldie, “Ruby Baby” gave Dion his freedom from The Belmomts. Well-produced by Columbia pop staffer Robert Mersey, it retains Dion’s usually great vocals and downright ghetto groove. A great arrangement of the early Drifters track.

8. "Jailhouse Rock" — Elvis Presley (2:27)

One of my favorite Leiber lyrics. Also one of the first gay verses I ever heard in a top ten record - sorry - probably the first one. Describing two inmates in the county jail: "Number 47 said to Number Three / You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see / I sure would be delighted with your company / C’mon and do the Jailhouse Rock with me..." I don’t think they’re discussing terpsichorean tricks here. Only Elvis could have pulled this off (so to speak).

9. "If You Don't Come Back — The Drifters (2:28)

The B side of a rare Drifters' flop “Rat Race” (another great track as well), I used to cover this live back in The Blues Project days although we never did record it. I have always loved this song and the groove sounds like something Becker and Fagen also enjoyed early on. Great lyric, arrangement, and production.

10. "I (Who Have Nothing)" — Al Kooper (3:03)

Fooling around in my home studio, I built this solo track in my spare time. When picking songs for my album in 2008 (White Chocolate) I decided to include this ‘demo’ and added pro female background vocals. We ran out of time on that session, so I had to do the background vocals in the very last part myself. A few steps back now, it sounds to me like a tribute to the Ben E. King version as seen through electronica eyes. I hope Jerry and Mike heard it and I hope they enjoyed it. I really enjoyed recording it. I guess I can’t say enough what an influence Jerry Leiber has been to my lyric writing. I miss him immediately and immensely.

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