Legendary songwriter Jerry Leiber, who wrote a canon’s worth of popular music with partner Mike Stolle in the years following World War II, passed away of cardiopulmonary failure earlier today. He was 78 years old.
During his 61-year run with Stoller, Leiber concocted some of the definitive songs in early rock and roll, including hits for Elvis Presley (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”) and a number of rhythm and blues stars (“Stand By Me,” “Young Blood,” “On Broadway”).
Born in Baltimore, Leiber made his way to Los Angeles and met Stoller when he was still in high school. The pair bonded over their love of early blues and R&B, and they began constructing songs together almost immediately.
Stoller crafted most of the music, with Leiber taking on the role of lyricist. They sold their first song in 1950, and by 1952 scored their first real hit with “Kansas City.” In 1953, the pair formed their own record label, but really took off in 1956 when Presley took “Hound Dog” (which Leiber and Stoller had originally penned for Big Mama Thornton) and turned it into a gigantic hit when he performed it on The Milton Berle Show—the notorious television appearance that made images of Presley’s hips as dangerous as a thermo-nuclear device.
Leiber and Stoller’s success skyrocketed thanks to Presley’s continued use of their songs (including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t,” and “Loving You”) and their blossoming abilities as producers—even Phil Spector apprenticed under them for a time. Though they last had a major hit in 1972 (they produced Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You,” which is probably most notorious for being the song that scores the ear slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs), their impact on early rock and roll is secure.
Leiber, along with Stoller, is in both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a whole new generation was introduced to their music via Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a lavish Broadway musical review that included 39 of the duo;s classic hits. And, of course, they got their very own episode of American Idol earlier this year.
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