Friday, August 26, 2011

The Jewboy

Jerry Leiber has died, aged 78. The sad news has been known for some days now.
His is a name that needs no introduction, and so I won't give any. Just some words about his early years.

He grew up in Baltimore, and his first language was Yiddish. His neighborhood was mainly Polish and Italian, with many Jews and blacks around. Jerry was one of the »Jewboys«. Aged 12, he moved to L.A. with his mother and sister. All was to begin there, and it was there that he teamed up with Mike Stoller. They had their first record out in 1951.
In memoriam of Jerry Leiber I thought I might play today three songs: words by Jerry, music by Mike. The framed photo above shows them both seated at the piano; standing behind, Jerry Wexler from Atlantic (2nd from left) and the Coasters.
     Actually, Leiber & Stoller did not produce many songs over the decades, but almost all of them charted. Two of the most famous, and most widely covered over the years, are »Kansas City (Here I Come)« and »Hound Dog«. Equally popular are some tunes they wrote (or co-wrote) for the Drifters during the '60s, such as »On Broadway«.

Kansas City. One of their first songs, written in 1952 for Little Willie Littlefield. Here, you can hear the version of Shirley Ellis, from her 1965 LP »The Name Game« (Congress # CGL-3003, mono). In order to fit her »female version«, the lyrics were changed to »... they got some crazy little fellows there and I'm gonna get me one« (instead of »they got a crazy way of loving there and I'm gonna get me some«).

Shirley Ellis: »Kansas City« from the Congress LP »The Name Game« (1965, mono):

Hound Dog. This song was penned in 1953 for »Big Mama« Thornton. There are quite a few anecdotes about how this happened and what the chemistry was like between the singer and Jerry. According to Jerry, the song had »a country-funky feel« (Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, with David Ritz: Hound Dog. The Leiber and Stoller Autobio- graphy, London - New York 2010, p. 62). Infamously, the song's lyrics, much to the dismay of Leiber, were changed substantially in order not to offend the white public when the song was re-recorded by a Tupelo-born celebrity. It was this version by Elvis that made the song worldfamous. The original lines, as written by Jerry, run »... quit snooping 'round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more«, and appeared in Elvis's version as »... crying all the time. You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine«. Jerry later said: »To this day I have no idea what that rabbit business is all about. The song is not about a dog ... Elvis's version makes no sense to me, and, even more irritatingly, it is not the song that Mike and I wrote« (Hound Dog, p. 94). Yet he also acknowledged that the tremen- dous sales success of Elvis's »Hound Dog« »took the sting out of it«, that is, he accepted the garbled lyrics, went along with it and cashed in on the credits. After
all, Jerry Leiber was a song-seller, not a moralist. In the following, you can hear
the rather unlikely cha cha cha-version of the song as recorded by Betty Everett in October 1963. Good thing is that Betty's version has the original lyrics. The song title is given as »Hounddog« on the cover, as »Hound Dog« on the label of Side 1.

Betty Everett: »Hound Dog« from the Vee-Jay LP # 1077 (second release) »It's In His Kiss« (1964):

On Broadway. One of the best-known songs of the Drifters. This tune was originally composed by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Mann had it conceived as »a Gersh- winesque kind of melody« (Ken Emerson: Always Magic in the Air. The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, London - New York 2005, p. 137), and Weil added the lyrics because she was infatuated with Broadway. However, the song eventually wasn't satisfying. So in January 1963, Mann & Weil took the song to Leiber & Stoller. They re-wrote it to a great extent, thus earning their credits. The version you can listen to in the following was recorded in the Uptown Theatre of Philadelphia on July 24, 1964, and released on Atlantic LP # # 8101 (Saturday Night At The Uptown) later that year. It certainly is the most unusual version of the song you are likely to hear: apart from the excitement of the crowd, the song is done »properly« in the first part, but gradually slips into an ad-hoc group improvisation in the second part. During their performance, the Drifters at one point change »Broadway« into »Broad Street«, »in honor of the Philadelphia thoroughfare« as the notes on the back cover duly remark.

The Drifters: »On Broadway« (live) from the Atlantic LP »Saturday Night At The Uptown« (1964):

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