June 22, 2009

Books, Gigs

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“You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other major achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you’ll always be remembered as the guys who wrote ‘Hound Dog.'” — Nesuhi Ertegun (undated quote from the first page of Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography)

jacketimage1Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a creative pairing as significant as any in the history of Our Music, have written a book. Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography (Simon & Schuster). Their story is told entirely in their own words, with co-author David Ritz acting as chief interrogator and structural engineer in the style of his earlier collaborations with Ray Charles (Brother Ray, 1978), Etta James (Rage To Survive, 1995), and Jerry Wexler (Rhythm and The Blues, 1993). However, Randy Poe’s appended discography (“The Songs”) is necessarily limited to the Leiber & Stoller’s charting tunes: Deeper diggers may turn to the mind-boggling Nearly Complete Leiber & Stoller Discography. (You won’t believe how many people have cut “Kansas City” in the wake of Little Willie Littlefield and especially Wilbert Harrison.)

Jerry Leiber and MIke Stoller, along with David Ritz, came to Barnes & Noble (Lincoln Center) on the evening of 6/10/09. Born just weeks apart, the two songwriters turned 76 in the spring of this year. Stoller (the bald one) was alert, energetic, and witty. Leiber was more subdued and rather inert physically (in the book, he refers to a 20-year history of heart problems) but conversationally he got his licks in. Sadly but predictably, this SRO in-store attracted almost no one under 45 with a few notable exceptions such as Lincoln Barron (son of ace lensman Ted Barron) and Doc Pomus‘ grand-daughter. Actress Loretta Swit (of TV’s “M.A.S.H.”) and Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer were importuned for autographs by some of the pale, unshaven, middle-aged men in unironed shirts who are always part of the crowd at such events.

A 25-minute conversation in which the songwriters answered questions posed by David Ritz mostly just recapped anecdotes from the book or even widely known from previous books, interviews, TV documentaries, etc. A lengthy Q&A session proved only slightly more productive, with valuable time taken by such inquiries as: “I’m a singer, and my question is, when a vocalist is interpreting your material, what elements of the song do you think he or she should focus on?

Leiber, after pausing to stare silently at the speaker: “I didn’t answer because I’m still trying to understand your question.”

Vocalist: “What I’m trying to say is, what are the most important aspects of your compositions that a singer should understand or concentrate on?”

Stoller: “The WORDS and the MELODY.”

Asked by my friend Arthur Levy about their early relationship with Phil Spector early in the career of the boy-genius-turned-convicted-murderer, Jerry Leiber replied with this incomplete but telling sentence: “I never knew what a headache was…”

Mike Stoller: “Phil was probably 18 or 19 then but he’d tell people he was younger, like 16. We were 17 when we cut ‘Hound Dog’ so Phil had to be, you know, more of a prodigy than we’d been.”

An elderly gent raised his hand to announce himself “probably the only person in this room to have co-written a song with you.”

“Ray Passman, is that you?” replied Stoller, peering into the audience. “Ray, are you still alive?” (“Get Him,” a 1963 rarity by the Exciters, was co-written by Leiber, Stoller, Passman, and “Bert Russell” a/k/a Bert Berns.)

yaketyyak-cover_The event lasted for over three hours, mainly because of the sheer number of people who stood in line to get their books signed, have their pictures taken with the authors, and/or chat with L&S in order to lavish them with doofy if heartfelt compliments and reveal that person’s bottomless knowledge of the duo’s career, etc. Finally, after a tedious 45-minute wait, L&S signed my book (as did David Ritz, always genuinely warm and friendly) and both my LPs. One was a UK collection of Presley versions of their tunes, with a nice cover shot of the team and Elvis. The other was Yakety Yak, a 1958 Atlantic album by “The Leiber & Stoller Big Band” — actually the entire Count Basie organization playing jazz arrangements (both swinging and hilarious) of “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” etc. and complete with deadly serious liner notes by Nat Hentoff.

Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiographyreview by Geoffrey Himes (Baltimore City Paper, 8.12.2009)