Three thousand miles from Baltimore’s Riggs and McKean avenues, where it all started, Jerry Leiber died of heart failure Monday in Los Angeles, at 78. Mark this as the day the music died.
The national newspaper obituaries got the headline stuff right: how the young Leiber teamed with Mike Stoller to become songwriting godfathers of early rock 'n' roll, and how their music brought the rhythms and comic street smarts of black musicians like the Coasters and the Drifters to the first generation of young white rock 'n' roll fans.
They wrote “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton, and Elvis Presley turned it into one of rock’s early anthems. They wrote “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” for the Coasters, and produced “There Goes My Baby” and “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me” for the Drifters.
What the obits missed, though, was the influence the streets of Baltimore left on Leiber as he was growing up here, and on the music he and Stoller created across several decades. It formed the soundtrack of a generation and landed the two men in the rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame.
It was Leiber pacing back and forth who supplied the comic, street-savvy lyrics that sounded like a kind of journalism—parents and kids hollering back and forth—to the rock 'n' roll fans of the ‘50s and ‘60s:
“Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spending cash
And when you’re finished doing that
Bring in the dog and put out the cat
Don’t talk back.”
And it was Stoller sitting at his piano composing bluesy tunes to go with Leiber’s words: “Jailhouse Rock” and “Don’t” and “Treat Me Nice” and other songs for Presley; “Poison Ivy” and “Young Blood” and “Searchin’” and others for the Coasters; “On Broadway” and “Ruby Baby” for the Drifters; “Chapel of Love,” produced for the Dixie Cups; and “Leader of the Pack” and “Walking in the Sand,” produced for the Shangri-Las; and “Is That All There Is?,” written for Peggy Lee.
But, in an interview last year, Leiber took it all back to his boyhood on the streets of Baltimore.
“My mother would send me on all these errands,” he remembered.
The mother, Manya Leiber, was a widowed Polish immigrant who ran a little grocery store at Riggs and McKean. She sent young Jerry to deliver groceries to nearby homes—including many African-American families, who were beginning to settle for the first time along nearby Fulton Avenue.
It was a time when American neighborhoods and public schools—and music—were still separated by race. The pop music charts were still dominated by bland Perry Como and Patti Page. But Leiber heard the sounds of early rhythm and blues—and it electrified him.
“I was the only white boy that delivered to the black families in the neighborhood,” he recalled when we spoke last year. “They liked me because I brought the light.” He meant soft coal and kerosene. “And I’d hear this music, which just knocked me over. And it stayed in my head forever.”
It was rhythm and blues coming out of black radio stations, and it was young black singers harmonizing on street corners.
It was an American melting pot story in a time when there wasn’t much racial crossover in music. But Leiber heard the likes of Deryck Sampson doing “Boogie Express” and Josh White doing “Outskirts of Town,” and Sonny Til and the Orioles, out of West Baltimore, who were among the first black groups to attract a wide white audience with “Crying in the Chapel” and “It’s Too Soon to Know.”
Leiber moved to Los Angeles as he entered his teens, and in his high school years hooked up with Mike Stoller. One of their earliest compositions was “Hound Dog,” which they wrote for the blues singer Big Mama Thornton.
The song went nowhere for several months. Then Stoller got married and went on his honeymoon. When he returned, Leiber told him, “’Hound Dog’s' number one.”
“Big Mama Thornton?” Stoller said.
“No,” Leiber said. “Some white kid.”
The white kid was Elvis Presley.