Pioneering rock ‘n’ roll songwriter Jerry Leiber died today at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of cardiopulmonary failure. He was 78.
Along with Mike Stoller, Leiber penned some of the most famous songs of rock’s early years: “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “On Broadway,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “There Goes My Baby,” "Stand By Me," and “Love Potion No. 9,” among many others. When it comes to the magical alchemy at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll—that blend of hard-core blues and R&B with a mainstream pop sense that made black music palatable for a white audience without sacrificing any of its power or sexiness—the partnership of Leiber and Stoller was absolutely essential in creating one of the most dominant forms of popular music in the 20th century and beyond.
Born on April 25, 1933, Leiber moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles, eventually meeting Stoller in 1950 when he was a senior in high school and Stoller was a college freshman. They formed an instant bond—with Leiber taking care of the lyrics and Stoller the music—and quickly began writing songs for blues and R&B singers like Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Big Mama Thornton, who recorded the first hit version of “Hound Dog” in 1953. That same year, Leiber and Stoller founded an indie label, Spark Records, which was later bought by Atlantic Records.
In late ’50s and early ’60s, Leiber and Stoller were in-demand record producers with the freedom (per their contract with Atlantic) to work with whomever they pleased. They teamed up with groups like The Drifters and The Coasters, and shepherded along a young Phil Spector, who served an apprenticeship with them. By the ’70s, the duo’s prominence had faded, though it did score a hit in 1972 by producing “Stuck In The Middle With You” for Stealers Wheel.
Leiber and Stoller were later inducted in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1985, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Of Fame in 1987. But the duo’s true legacy can be heard any time you turn on the radio, and hear songs so classic and timeless that they seem to have been around forever.