One half of the team associated with that diverse song set, Jerry Leiber, died this week. The number of individual songs and artists with which he and his partner Mike Stoller are associated is long and, as I have discovered, more diverse than I thought (more about that later). As prolific as they were as songwriters, their producing chops as denizens of the Brill Building and beyond came in equal quantity.
They lived and breathed music together from the time they were 17 years old, Leiber the lyricist to Stoller's composer. But their shared love of boogie woogie stemmed from a much earlier time (watch this Tavis Smiley interview with them where Stoller describes going to an interracial camp in 1940 at age 8, and never being the same again). What was often referred to then as "race music" just knocked their socks off, and they set about to bring it to the masses by melding its allure with pop lyrics. As luck would have it, when they were still very young, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler anointed them from their perch at Atlantic Records, signing them to the record industry's first independent production deal.
Sometimes I wish I'd been a few years older in 1964, so that the height of the Brill Building influence that Leiber & Stoller personified would have coincided with my high school dances. There's something about that seemingly innocent, all-dancing-all-the-time phase of our history when black music began its crossover into the mainstream that would have been a joy to experience. But I was only 12, and dancing in my room.
Emblematic of that time is the swinging and swaying The Boy From New York City, a song unusual for its female lead singer backed by doo-wopping males instead of the other way around. The line "He's cute in his mohair suit and he keeps his pockets full of spending loot" is one of those lyrics forever lodged in my brain (not penned by Leiber, in this case). It was brought to them as a demo out of a Bayonne, New Jersey, nightclub from a group calling themselves the Ad Libs. (Sadly, their career didn't skyrocket from there.)
It must have been fun to produce. I saw a statement this week from Kenneth Gamble (of the Philadelphia songwriting and producing powerhouse Gamble & Huff), who said, "Jerry Leiber was a great inspiration and was vital to the start of my songwriting career. I also had the fortunate opportunity to play piano on many Leiber & Stoller recording sessions as a musician in the early days. When I had dreams of being a producer, I met Leiber & Stoller in the Brill Building when they called me to play on 'The Boy from New York City.' I was so nervous, but when I started grooving, that's when I really settled down, because Jerry and Mike cut some really groovy records. That was a great time for me as a studio musician."
The dynamic duo is well known for working with the likes of Elvis, the Coasters, the Drifters and scores of other acts, successful and not-so-successful. But who knew that they produced an album for, of all people, my beloved Procol Harum? I admit that my ardor for the band screeched to a halt after Robin Trower departed following the release of Broken Barricades in 1971. So their subsequent output, which included the 1975 Procol's Ninth album and the apparently quite popular marimba-laden Pandora's Box, was unknown to me. It sure is catchy!
Best as I can tell, the connection was made via a degree of separation from Stealers Wheel. You don't stay in the music business as long as they did without being somewhat relevant, and in the early 70s, Leiber & Stoller were in the UK producing Stuck in the Middle With You for Stealers Wheel, the group that spawned one of my fave singer-songwriters, Gerry Rafferty. The success of that debut album led to an overture by Procol's record label, Chrysalis (which they went to after the demise of my favorite label ever, Regal Zonophone).
In these trying times, maybe a Jerry Leiber lyric can give us a life raft when it all seems too much, to wit: "If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze and have a ball. If that's all there is." RIP, sir!