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Jerry Leiber, at 78; lyricist for blues, rock classics

Jerry Leiber (right), and Mike Stoller went over “Jailhouse Rock’’ with Elvis Presley. Jerry Leiber (right), and Mike Stoller went over “Jailhouse Rock’’ with Elvis Presley. (Business Wire)
By Jacob Adelman
Associated Press / August 23, 2011

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LOS ANGELES - Jerry Leiber, who with longtime partner Mike Stoller wrote “Hound Dog,’’ “Jailhouse Rock,’’ “Yakety Yak,’’ and other hit songs that came to define early rock ’n’ roll, died in Los Angeles yesterday at age 78, said his publicist, Bobbi Marcus.

With Mr. Leiber as lyricist and Stoller as composer, the team channeled their blues and jazz backgrounds into pop songs performed by such artists as Elvis Presley, Dion and the Belmonts, the Coasters, the Drifters, and Ben E. King in a way that would help create a joyous new musical style.

From their breakout hit, blues great Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 rendition of “Hound Dog,’’ until their songwriting took a more serious turn in 1969 with Peggy Lee’s recording of “Is That All There Is?’’ the pair remained one of the most successful teams in pop music history.

Their writing prowess and influence over the recording industry as pioneering independent producers earned them induction into the nonperformer category of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

“The music world lost today one of its greatest poet laureates,’’ said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “Jerry not only wrote the words that everyone was singing, he led the way in how we verbalized our feelings about the societal changes we were living with in post-World War II life. Appropriately, his vehicles of choice were the emerging populist musical genres of rhythm and blues and then rock and roll.’’

Mr. Leiber, who like Stoller was white, said his musical inspiration came from the close identification he had with black American culture during his boyhood and teenage years in Baltimore and Los Angeles.

Thus he was the perfect lyricist for bluesy, jazz-inflected compositions like “Kansas City,’’ “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,’’ “Charlie Brown,’’ “Drip Drop,’’ “Stand By Me,’’ and “On Broadway.’’

The lyrics could be poignant, as in “On Broadway,’’ or full of humor, as in the antics of high school goofball Charlie Brown, who “calls the English teacher Daddy-O’’ and laments, “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?’’

The result was a serious departure from the classically inflected music that had been produced by a previous generation of pop songwriters that included George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

“Irving Berlin was the greatest songwriter of all time,’’ Mr. Leiber told The Los Angeles Times’s West magazine in 2006. “I was in awe of him. But his music wasn’t my music. My music was the blues.’’

Over their career, the two men had 15 number one hits in a variety of genres by 10 different artists. They were instrumental in helping to launch Presley’s career with such songs as “Hound Dog’’ and “Jailhouse Rock.’’

The two far preferred Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog’’ to Presley’s, in part because the latter version changed some of the lyrics.

In the 1990s their songs became the centerpiece of a long-running Broadway revue, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,’’ which won a Grammy for best musical show album in 1996.

Their last song to reach wide acclaim was the 1969 ballad “Is That All There Is?’’

Jerry Leiber was born in Baltimore. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. He met Stoller after moving to Los Angeles with his mother in 1950.

The pair had grown tired of writing pop hits by the late 1960s, Mr. Leiber once said, and decided to concentrate on more serious music. Those later efforts never found the wide audience that their earlier work did, but Mr. Leiber said that was fine with him and his partner.

“The earlier market of swing and Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington was pretty much gone, but we liked that kind of sound and wanted to imitate it,’’ he told The New York Times in 1995. “In a way, we had helped kill it with what we had done.’’