What are the qualities of a good song? A catchy beat? A memorable chorus? A great singer? All of these elements play important parts in a tune, but well-crafted lyrics still distinguish a classic from a forgettable song. Imagine lyrics that tell stories of wild women, tough guys, crime, society's underworld, prejudice, gypsies, cheating lovers, confident ladies, and lovelorn teens. For over 60 years, few have unfolded these tales as expertly as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Their names don't ring any bells? Perhaps you've heard of a few little tunes they've written: "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Stand by Me."
Initially bonding over their mutual love of the blues, Leiber (singer/lyricist) and Stoller (pianist) formed their partnership at 17. Intent on writing authentic R&B, they eventually wrote for blues legends such as Jimmy Witherspoon, Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown, and Big Mama Thornton (who recorded the original version of "Hound Dog"). They also dabbled in pop, jazz and cabaret, but never lost their tough edge.
In addition, their lyrics and bluesy sound resonated with all audiences. On the back cover of their biography, Hound Dog, Ray Charles is quoted as saying, "They were those bad white boys who wrote the blackest songs this side of the Mississippi. I loved what they did." Indeed, Leiber and Stoller proved they could write authentic soul that vast audiences could appreciate, and broke down color barriers in the process.
Even today, Leiber and Stoller's work sounds tough, defiant, and at times humorous. Their gift for storytelling, whether describing a teenage boy's quest for love through drinking a magic potion or a man's struggle with being unjustly charged with a crime, remains unparalleled.
Amazingly, the duo possessed a talent for writing from a female perspective, particularly through their work with jazz singer Peggy Lee. Delving into their catalog exposes the foundation of rock & roll and its dangerous, rebellious origins. Their songs also demonstrate the close relationships among R&B, blues, jazz, and rock. To learn about their history as well as the songwriting process, their biography Hound Dog is a must read.
The following list explores some of their best material—some songs are well-known, while others rarely receive radio airplay. But they all demonstrate Leiber and Stoller's artistry and uniqueness. Note that many of these tracks have been covered several times, and the most famous recordings may not actually be the original versions.
"Some Other Guy," Richie Barrett (1962): Covered several times, "Some Other Guy" at its best is a club stomper, an angry story of another man stealing the protagonist's woman. Barrett's original version reveals Stoller's love of boogie-woogie piano and the vocals reveal its bluesy roots. But The Beatles's high-speed live version, available on Live at the BBC, best conveys lyrics such as "Some other guy/Is making me very, very mad/Some other guy, now/Is making my past seem oh so bad."
"I Keep Forgettin'," Chuck Jackson (1962): This strangely compelling song contains a slightly off-kilter, plodding beat, and a surprising xylophone section. Yet Leiber and Stoller make these eccentric elements work over Jackson's lamenting vocals. Another interesting fact: Michael McDonald loosely based the chorus of his 1982 hit, also titled "I Keep Forgettin'," on this track's chorus.
"Kansas City," Wilbert Harrison (1959): Yes, this song has been covered too many times to count. But Harrison's bluesy vocals effective communicates the cockiness of the lyrics. Clearly Leiber and Stoller's protagonist isn't looking for good clean fun: "They've got some crazy little women there/And I'm gonna get me one," he boasts. Standing with his "bottle of Kansas City wine," he states that he needs to find one of these women, since if he stays with his current love "I know I'm gonna die." A shuffling beat, bluesy chord progression, and slightly naughty lyrics: these are Leiber and Stoller hallmarks.
"D. W. Washburn," The Monkees (1968): One of their oddest tunes, "D. W. Washburn" possesses a burlesque quality. Another example of compelling storytelling, the song's lyrics start with well-intentioned people wanting to save the drunk, homeless narrator. But in an amusing twist, Washburn replies, "thanks, but no thanks" — he enjoys lying in the gutter, not having any responsibilities, and drinking his wine. "I'd like to thank all you good people," he concludes, but "I believe I got it made." Mickey Dolenz's corny performance nearly overshadows the lyrics, but a closer listen exposes clever, entertaining lyrics.
"I'm A Woman," Peggy Lee (1962): "I'm a woman," brags Lee, "W-O-M-A-N/Let me say it again." Sure, some of the boasting involves cooking and cleaning, but she also promises to "make a man out of you." These lyrics paint a picture of strong, aggressive, highly confident femininity, surely a revelation in 1962. Lee's swaggering delivery ultimately sells the song, but Leiber and Stoller show a remarkable ability to write from a woman's perspective.
"Spanish Harlem," Ben E. King (1960): This classic tune is notable for many reasons, particularly because Leiber co-wrote the song with Phil Spector. According to Hound Dog, Leiber and Stoller functioned as unwilling mentors for Spector, mainly because a friend hailed Spector as a promising songwriter and producer. The strings-laden arrangement foreshadows Spector's elaborate "wall of sound," while the Spanish-tinged percussion signals Leiber and Stoller's ongoing experiments with incorporating world music into their lyrics. Finally, Lee's absolutely beautiful voice simply glides over the challenging tempo; in my opinion, this track remains his vocal tour-de-force.
"Hound Dog," Big Mama Thornton (1953): Yes, Elvis Presley's cover is iconic. But Leiber and Stoller's original, written expressly for Thornton, is more dangerous and suggestive than Presley's relatively tame version. Thornton's big, bawdy voice snarls such lines as "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog/Quit snoopin' round my door," and "You can wag your tail/But I ain't gonna feed you no more." These words come straight out of traditional blues tunes and early blues-rock songs such as "Roll with Me Henry," and perhaps were just too racy for mainstream audiences. Thornton's winking performance added more innuendo to the words, and serve as an interesting comparison to Presley's lip-curling version: "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog/Cryin' all the time."
"Love Potion #9," The Clovers (1959): Like few other tunes, this one embodies Leiber and Stoller's storytelling talent. Unlike their traditional blues lyrics, "Love Potion's" themes include typical teenage angst. Since he is a "flop with chicks," the narrator seeks out a gypsy who promises romantic success if he drinks her magic potion. After drinking the apparently nasty-tasting concoction, he ends up loving everyone, including an unwitting policeman: "But when I kissed the cop down on 34th and Vine/He broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number 9." The lyrics still raise a chuckle, although the more famous version remains The Searchers' 1965 cover.
"Only in America," Jay and the Americans (1962): Sounding as if it belongs in West Side Story, "Only in America" features a twist. At first the words seem to address how anyone in American can succeed. But "success" turns out to be romantic instead of financial: only in America "could a dream like this come true/Could a guy like me start out with nothing/And end up with you," the lead singer croons. Another interesting facet of the tune is the continuing experiments with Spanish elements, such as percussion and trumpets.
"Saved," Lavern Baker (1961): Blues, gospel, and rock melded into one irresistible mixture: this blend comprises "Saved," along with Baker's spirited, enthusiastic performance. Her sins include "cussing" and "stepping on people's feet," suggesting the comedic slant to the tune. Listen to this track, and find yourself clapping and humming along.
"Trouble," Elvis Presley (1958): Leiber and Stoller seemed to write this song to perfectly suit Presley's edgy image: "If you're looking for trouble/You've come to the right place," he snarls. The songwriters clearly drew from blues conventions with lines such as "I was born standing up/And talking back/My daddy was a green-eyed mountain jack." Presley greatly respected the blues tradition, and his convincing performance demonstrates this fact. In my opinion, however, the best version is from Presley's 1968 comeback special.
Finally, some of Leiber and Stoller's best work was for the classic doo-wop groups The Coasters and The Drifters. The following list contains some of their best collaborations:
"Young Blood" (1957): One word in this rocker illustrates how to challenge your listeners' expectations. As the Coasters croon about losing their cool whenever they see a particular woman, they sing "I took one look and I was fractured/I tried to walk but I was lame." Normally such a lyric would say "I took one look and I was smitten" or the like. The word "fractured" holds different connotations; it suggests a complete lack of control, something more distressing. Another interesting word is "tough," as in "What crazy stuff! She looked so tough/I had to follow her all the way home." As in songs like "Kansas City," this is not the virginal young lady present in Johnny Mathis tunes (hugely popular in 1957).
"Framed" (recorded under the name The Robins, 1954): The lyrics's subject, being falsely accused of a crime, has a timeless resonance. Add in an African-American group, and what results is social commentary. In Hound Dog, Leiber said the song "refers to the legal brutality that impacted the black community." Ritchie Valens later covered the song; in 1987, Los Lobos rerecorded the classic for the Valens biopic La Bamba
"Three Cool Cats" (1959): The Beatles covered this fun track during their early live shows, eventually recording a version as part of their Decca Records audition. Lyrically, the song contains typical Leiber and Stoller humor. The three men in the title are exposed as less than cool: "Parked on the corner in a beat-up car/Dividing up a nickel candy bar/Talking all about how sharp they are." Next they encounter "three cool chicks," who are "walkin' down the street swingin' their hips/Splitting up a bag of potato chips." The "potato chips" reference just adds to the absurdity of the situation. In the end, the women "made three fools out of/Three cool cats." Like "Young Blood," this track exudes the musical equivalent of strutting; both times this cockiness is played for comic effect.
Other noteworthy Coasters tunes:
"Riot in Cell Block #9" (1954), "Searchin'" (1957)
"Ruby Baby" (1955): While the lyrics may not shatter stereotypes or function as social commentary, they will remain in your head long after the first listen. The first line, "I got a girl and Ruby is her name," immediately pops in my head whenever I hear merely the song's title. Leiber and Stoller also make the most of The Drifters's superb harmonies with simple, short, yet catchy words. This is what good pop music is all about—memorable lyrics, a catchy beat, and lyrics that make the listener feel good. These are important aspects of any songwriter's art.
"On Broadway" (1963): My favorite Leiber and Stoller track, "On Broadway" contains all the elements of a quality song: vivid lyrics, a good story, and a magnificent vocal performance. Yes, George Benson scored a major hit with his live cover, but the original retains the heartache and darkness the songwriters intended. Each stanza begins with idealistic visions of Broadway: the "neon lights," "magic," the girls that are "something else." But these images are countered with world-weary lines such as "But when you're walking down that street/And you ain't had enough to eat/The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere." The narrator stresses his penniless status with a very descriptive lyric: "And one thin dime won't even shine your shoes." In the end, the narrator expresses hope that since he can play guitar, he "won't quit till I'm a star on Broadway." There are no false illusions in this track—will the main character make it? Listeners are left with no happy resolution to the story. Leiber and Stoller's sobering picture of Broadway goes against the cliché "everyone can be a star"; The Drifters's smooth harmonies beautifully convey the longing and melancholy theme.