Off Topic Messages

Leiber and Stoller better producers than songwriters?

Mon Sep 12, 2005 7:52 am

Hang on kids, have one of those lengthy type posts coming but been thinking about it a lot and need to spew it somewhere.

As Elvis fans, we often discuss the work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller almost always as songwriters. This of course is where L&S gained their greatest fame. "Hound Dog", "Kansas City", "Stand By Me", "Trouble", "Don't", "Ruby Baby", "Drip Drop", "Yakety Yak", "Love Potion #9","Young Blood" and on and on. They were great writers. Chart expert Joel Whitburn claims that L&S's names have appeared as composers on over 90 chart records.

However, I feel that when it is all said and done L&S's greatest and most definitive mark will be a record producers. I think in many ways L&S who often planned most of their records from the ground up would agree with me.

In many ways many of their famous songs were not meant to stand alone. To use just the most obvious examples, think about Coasters hits like "Along Came Jones" or "Charlie Brown" with their vocal theatrics and array of sound effects. The song in these cases was clearly in these cases a total part of the overall picture. Less obviously when you look at some of the really definitive interpretations of Leiber and Stoller songs like Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City", Elvis' "Hound Dog" and "Love Me", and Dion's "Ruby Baby" their classic standing was in part created because the performer completely recreated the song. The "Hound Dog" that almost everyone remakes bears almost no resemblance to their original compositions.

But the real argument for their standing as more producers than songwriters is in the product itself. They were among the first producers with their own sound. They redefined the role of the producer making it more than a just a figure that ensures technical competence and that enough suitable takes get done. They transformed the position into one of its own singular artistic vision. They did not redefine songwriting in a similar way.

Further, while there songs were very much in the R&B tradition, their production exploded the rock tradition. They were among the first rock producers to use strings on their records and their expansion of rock's instrumental palette was a huge influence on their protege' Phil Spector who more than anyone pushed the music into self-conscious art. No L&S no Phil Spector, no Phil Spector no Brian Wilson (at least as we know him) and dozens of other artists maybe even no progressive rock movement.

Most of all though placing L&S in the strict songwriter mode as so much of rock history has done ignores so much of their best work. Records like the Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love", the Ad Libs' "Boy From New York City" Bessie Banks' original "Go Now", and the Drifters' "This Magic Moment", "Up on the Roof" and "I Count the Tears" are all grand examples of Leiber and Stoller's artistry on songs they didn't write. In many ways, Leiber and Stoller's story is the underlying story of the changes in the industry from pop to rock and the misunderstanding that so many fans and writers have when discussing pop music. For most of their career, Leiber and Stoller didn't make songs they made records.

L&S's productions are products of teamwork. Not only with each other but people like arranger Stan Applebaum, the musicians and of course the singer's themselves. Every detail is worked out to an overall whole to make a better record.

Their peak is probably their work with the Drifters and Ben E. King from 1959-1963 before fellow genius Bert Berns took the reins of both artists when L&S went to form their own label. These recordings are seldom written about but they stand up to anything in the whole pantheon of rock and soul. "Sgt. Pepper" looks like artistic chump change in comparison.

From the electricity of their 1957 sessions with Elvis we knew these guys knew how spotlight a great voice and work as a collaborator with the artists. Look at "There Goes My Baby" a Ben E. King original that they helped to finish. But encouraging King's ambitions as a writer was not enough, they also challenged him as a singer by putting the arrangement in a key above King's natural range to heighten the song's sense of poignancy. The song also marked the duo's legendary inaugural string arrangement and the pronounced use of the baion bass which would become a staple of their sound in the coming years. These elements made "There Goes My Baby" as influential and innovative as Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" released the same year.

Look at the way they use the voices on "Save the Last Dance for Me." On the first verse it's just Ben E. King highlighting Doc Pomus' uncommonly beautiful lyric. Then on the second verse the rest of the Drifters join in on with their gorgeous open throated harmonies. On the bridge, the Drifters drop out and a female chorus drops in. They drop out of sight until the final chorus when they chime in a counter to King and the Drifters.

Then it was never just about the singers just as never about just the song. It was about overall artistic ideas. L&S's quirky instrumental choices, anticipating the work done by Burt Bacharach, highlight this. From the mariachi horns on something "I (Who Have Nothing)" or Phil Spector's dazzling and weird guitar solo, I can call up great moments from L&S records on a moment's notice. They're unforgettable.

"This Magic Moment" is almost like a symphony in the way it almost shifts in movements and momentum from verse to chorus to bridge to chorus. A swirling string intro (a cliche's at the time but beautifully done here) King comes accompanied by the sparest of backdrops and more instruments join in each verse. The bridge is something special as Mexican style acoustic guitar bouys King's interpretation of Doc Pomus' almost poetic lyric.

Some say they shaved the edge of rock and roll with some of these productions. But the street harmonies that underly something like "Last Dance" belie that claim. And who can argue with the gospel cries of King on something like "Stand By Me" (remade dozens but the best only a fraction of what is done here) or Bessie Banks on "Go Now".

What L&S really did was take all of the tricks available to the rest of pop music and applied them to rock and roll. In the process they matured the music.

I'm still not sure what my intent is here. I guess mostly to get discussion started on two great artists who don't get discussed enough. It's a shame that five years into the 20th Century, new music fans will fall over themselves to hear say Jim Morrison or Pink Floyd but this great music has somehow slipped through the cracks. And these truly great musicians are reduced to two guys who wrote few hits for Elvis and a few novelty songs in the '50s.

Tue Sep 13, 2005 11:52 pm



Nice piece, 'Bike. I guess I've forgotten about their great production
work on the classics you mention. I can hear nearly all those
great songs as you describe them.

It's a pity that the script became that "rock died in the late '50s"
- only to be revived by the Beatles in '64. (Cue the opening
chords of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and newsreal of the arrival
at JFK, etc.)

Elvis' '70s work (with orchestra, etc.) very much is a continuation
of their melding of "adult"-flavored pop records. We worship
at the alter of unadulterated rock (bass, drums, the rawness of a
Sun Records studio, etc.) but too often put down any use
of "pop" arrangements and instrumentation.

The Rolling Stone school that slaps Elvis even for his post '50s work
(effectively panning "Elvis is Back") is the same one that ignores
giants like Ben E. King - and Leiber & Stoller, etc. Hence, article
after article on the "genius" of Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Morrison,
Joplin, Cobain, etc.

And as for your title question, when they "produced" with Elvis,
it was magic. When they later just handed him songs, no dice.

Wed Sep 14, 2005 12:21 am

I'm not sure I agree with that last statement Greg. In many ways a track like "She's Not You" is a kind extension of the work that L&S were doing with the Drifters and King and a few others. I agree that it was never electric as those "Jailhouse Rock" sessions but it was still inspired work. The L&S name on a song, at least in the studio, still meant something for Elvis. Even though on something like "Girls! Girls! Girls!" I can see your point. I would point out though that it's not one of the best Coasters' records although it is funnier than Elvis record.

I definitely agree about the way that the best work of the 59-63 period has been ignored despite the fact that the production techniques pioneered by L&S and Spector during this time set the template for everything that followed. I get a kick out of the fact that when the Beatles or Jefferson Airplane or Pink Floyd in the late '60s added exotic or elaborate instrumentation they were expanding the bounds of the music whereas L&S or Elvis were softening up and selling out. Ironically, the work done by Elvis and L&S etc. did a better job of retaining the central elements of rock and R&B music like the harmonies, the gospel phrasing, the beat and the elevation of emotion. I just think when all is said and done this stuff is the better work, truer to what rock and R&B is all about.

Wed Sep 14, 2005 12:28 am

likethebike...awesome post!

I admit my ignorance on many of the influences mentioned.

Especially interesting when you look at the link between him and Brian Wilson. Very well done article and if you don't mind I am gonna send this onto another fan that I email.

Wed Sep 14, 2005 12:40 am

The post also reminded me of that fond time when people tried
to make that one "record" that would "hit." Some say the single
(downloads, etc.) is coming back, but our tastes are so compartmentalized, that,like I think Lester Bangs said:
"we'll never agree on anything
again like we did on Elvis."

LTB, I actually was referring to some of the last few songs he did by
them such as "Three Corn Patches." Having heard a decent
a decent version by T-Bone Walker in '75 (and I think they
were involved with the production), I wonder if the song could
have been salvaged if they produced him.
I know, I know: impossible. :oops: But I've always
liked the basic Chicago blues structure of the song, if not the lyrics
and the back-up singers.

I like the early '60s stuff, by and large. But for years,
I also found the post ELVIS IS BACK studio stuff too muted for my
tastes, which were effected by the rock school of thought.

As for the music you discuss, I always found that in spite
of things like ROLLING STONE, oldies stations like New York's
WCBS-FM (Rest in Peace) definitely paid homage to this era of
rock -almost to a fault. In some ways, the early '60s really
was a coming alive time for people - all sans Beatles. At least
it was not a "dead zone" for music as sometimes painted.

Tue Sep 20, 2005 6:32 am

Thanks Genesim. You can send it any place.

Greg- I agree about Elvis' later interpretations of L&S but I always thought that was due to his depression at the time. It's interesting how those songs popped into the session after Elvis hadn't recorded anything by L&S in five years. Does anyone know if Elvis brought the songs to the '73 session or was it Felton's idea?

I don't think that there is any doubt of the enjoyment the general public gets from the early '60s hits. However, the period does not enjoy the press or music cult reputation as the later '60s/early '70s stuff. (Sadly these great tracks like the '5os tunes are being written off the playlists of most oldies stations these days.)

The critical dismissal of the '59-63 period has been befuddling to me. Many of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's most illustrious members were doing some their best work in this period- Dion, Ray Charles, Orbison, Del Shannon, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Sam Cooke, the Four Seaons, the Everly Brothers etc.. Even more many classic '50s rockers like Elvis and Fats had not disappeared from the scene. Further the seeds of the late '60s were already planted as both Stax and Motown were already under way, the Beach Boys were tearing up and James Brown was putting on the best live show on Earth. Some people say there wasn't as much of an edge. There wasn't as much raunch and thunder across the board but it was still there. You have Wilbert Harrison's definitive and defiant "Kansas City", Dion redefining swagger on his hits, Don Gardner and Dee Ford ripping through "I Need Your Lovin' Every Day" and Brother Ray's orgiastic "What'd I Say". A track like the Crystals "Da Do Ron Ron" has a tough sexual power driven by Hal Blaine's drumming that the Hollies wish they had. The music was just so diverse during this time and some of its finest practitioners like L&S were taking it in different more melodic directions.

When you get down to it, the period was just dismissed as a bit of mythmaking? It sounds better to have the Beatles come in and save rock and roll.

Tue Sep 20, 2005 6:58 am

I sometimes wonder how much power a Jan Wenner of ROLLING STONE
has wielded over the years in forming (or reflecting?) the "consensus"
version of rock history, resulting in what you lament about the forgotten '59 to '63 acts.

I was thumbing through my ROLLING STONE "500 Greatest Albums" magazine (the most recent one, from 2003, I think) just earlier.

The top ten is cluttered with great records by the Beatles, the Stones,
the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. I say great, but I also say: predictable.

Where's the King? At number 11 - for "The Sun Sessions," itself a revealingly predictable choice, almost begrudging, if you ask me.

Even the reverence for "albums" goes against the terrific history
of singles acts (so-called) who made great individual records that only later were compiled into albums.

Some of the acts you mention are in the magazine, no doubt, but it
again reflects the notion that the world stopped spinning on its axis
when the Beatles arrived in '64.

Tue Sep 20, 2005 8:06 am

Wenner has yielded tremendous power. Remember his greatest singles list which started in 1963. The intro read something to the effect that there were some great singles made in the 50s but rock n' roll was missing something until that point. A few years ago they did a greatest moments in pop history which started with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand". Wenner's appreciation for music is locked into '64-74 because that was the period that shaped him. However, recently demographics have driven this move as well as Wenner's taste. The magazine wants to appear hip to younger readers and "oldies" dampen that image. Wenner makes sure his Gods though are never absent from one of his lists.

Interestingly though, despite Wenner, many of the magazine's early writers (Ed Ward, Greil Marcus, John Morthland, Dave Marsh, even Lester Bangs) wrote well and often of early rock. In the 1970s, when a '50s rocker or a great blues man would die or something, RS was the only place to read about it and the magazine went out of its way to accord these musicians the respect that they deserved. The Elvis tribute is but one of many examples.

Of course it hasn't been limited to Rolling Stone. Many boomer critics feel compelled to make the distinction between mere "entertainers" like Elvis and Chuck Berry and true artistes like Dylan and the Beatles ignoring the fact that just as much passion and care and ingenuity went into the creative process of the early rockers except no one thought to call it art.

A huge irony is that some of the RS Gods like Springsteen and the Beatles are actually steeped in the '59-63 stuff. The Beatles redid tunes by the Isley Brothers, the Shirelles, Arthur Alexander, the Miracles, the Cookies, and others from this period. I remember a little fan club blurb about the group from this time and one of the Beatles, I think McCartney listed Ben E. King as one of his favorite singers. Later on, there were two non-Beatles rockers on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. One was Dylan, the other was Dion.

That Springsteen was so steeped in the period is a part of what made him seem so fresh to a lot of critics at the time. They had just missed this stuff before. I'm not saying he wasn't a true original but a lot of his vision and drive comes from the music that was made in this period. "Born to Run" in particular is an extension of Spector ideas.

As for the emphasis on albums over singles, I believe this has thrown all of rock history out of whack. It has resulted in the elevation of relatively minor artists like Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane/Starship and the complete marginalization of almost every soul or country influenced artist in addition to the early rockers. People like Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson have no place at the table because they expressed themselves primarily through the single format. And these are some of the greatest artists who have made some of the greatest music that that rock and soul has produced.

Thu Sep 22, 2005 12:04 am

Good points, all.

Yes, I"ve noticed Wenner can put his old guys (like the Stones this week!)
on the cover again at the drop of a hat. Marsh, Bangs, Guralnick
all moved on - sometimes I think it was for such reasons.

Marsh's RockRap site is interesting. I don't subscribe but I do get the
e-mails of various music related stories for free from various sources.

Sadly, when Bruce, Dylan, Paul, etc. are gone, we will have lost some of the last people who can say: "Wait: the blues did it for me..or Elvis was great" etc.

At least fans are one step removed. But when you have people
idolizing "old school" Hip Hop like it's an oracle (say 1989's Public
Enemy) thing's are out of wack. To them, old school is James Brown's later funkperiod - and that 's it!

Maybe we need another ten years or so for this all to shake out.
When Wenner is gone, etc. I'm not optimistic but I'm hoping music fans never give up on the much better 20th century. I can see it being
a golden age for years to come ...long after the last bump of Hip
Hop is heard...

Thu Sep 22, 2005 7:05 am

While I wouldn't want hip hop to be the only music in the world, I definitely think there is some work there.

I do agree with your larger point as I would hate to see this music fade away because of a lack of interest in pop history.

I wish very much that there would be a revival like the swing music revival a few years back. Maybe rockabilly or doo wop or early soul. There is a bit of going on as the movies have told the story of Bobby Darin and Ray Charles recently two dominant figures from the '55 to '65 era. The Darin movement has been under way for some time. If only we could Chaz Palmientieri's Dion movie going.

This stuff is never going to be mass taste again but I hope people will continue to listen to it. As much as the Pink Floyds or Jefferson Airplanes of the world, it deserves an audience.