The Songwriters – Leiber and Stoller

So far in this series we’ve seen some pretty impressive catalogues in terms of numbers, but Leiber and Stoller make everyone else look like slackers. To mention every hit they have written would amount to a list, rather than an article, so you will find some notable ones missing and the ones I mention might be included because I like them, not because they’re more important.

They got their big break through Elvis Presley with Hound Dog, followed by Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, King Creole, Trouble and more.

For other people there was Poison Ivy (The Paramounts, including future Procol Harum members), Yakety Yak, Kansas City, Along Came Jones, Love Potion No. 9 and Charlie Brown – and that was all before the end of the 1950s. At that point many of us might have  pushed off to the Bahamas to live off the royalties for the rest of our lives, but whatever was driving Leiber and Stoller just kept them turning up at the coalface every day. And so to the 60s and Stand By Me (Ben E. King and everyone from Cassius Clay in 1964 to John Lennon in 1975). On Broadway by The Drifters, Some Other Guy (Beatles album track) and I Who Have Nothing (Ben E. King again, and in the UK Shirley Bassey).

The sheer coverability of these songs was illustrated to me in 2013 in a bar on the Caribbean island of Tobago, when a 20-something local guy did a karaoke reggae version of I Who Have Nothing. We were the only two singers – the only two customers – and I was trying to choose material that didn’t age me too much, but he blithely came up with that wizened old thing.

In 1968 a Leiber and Stoller song called Is That All There Is was a US hit for Leslie Uggams, a one-hit wonder whose  existence has eluded me until now. The song was also recorded by singing sex bomb Peggy Lee and crooner Tony Bennett, and it is interesting lyrically, being the bored, seen-it-all reminiscences of someone too cool for school. In the light of that, it’s hard to understand what Bennett saw in it, but there was a much more satisfying take on it in 1980 by a sneering American rich kid called Cristina, who added a masochistic verse about being beaten up by a man. Leiber and Stoller were not amused, sued her and had her version banned for several years. I like it.

On a completely different note there is Pearl’s a Singer, a 1977 hit for Elkie Brooks (Dino and Sembello in the US) and then the divine I Keep Forgetting, sung by the exceedingly earnest-sounding Michael McDonald.

The tune cropped up again in 1994 when rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg used it to tell a sordid tale of gangs and sex. For those who maintain that in rap the c is silent, it’s melodic refrains such as this that make the motherf***ing things bearable, and indeed Regulate is quite nice as long as you don’t listen too closely.

Now, what Leiber and Stoller gems have we missed? They wrote Spanish Harlem, a fabulous tune that makes the setting sound more romantic than it perhaps is, and Jackson, the stomping, riotously funny argument between a frustrated man and his cynically realistic wife. Johnny Cash and June Carter did it, but in my opinion Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood did it better.

And Leiber had a hand in Past Present and Future, a heartbreakingly wistful song based on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The singer seems to be carrying some terrible secret, possibly more than the emotional distress of a broken relationship and even having been sexually assaulted. It’s hardly conventional pop  material, and the lyrics don’t make it clear, but it’s haunting and thought-provoking.

The song was originally recorded by the Shangri-Las and there was a version in the late 80s but I’m damned if I can find it. It was  just about note-for-note like the original, but sung less theatrically, I seem to recall. Not Agnetha Faltskog of Abba – that was 2004. If you happen to know it, please let me know. In the meantime, here’s the Shangri-las.

The wisdom of pop songs – Tearjerkers vol. 1

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Cheer up, mate. She wasn’t happy, was she? Probably better off out of it

The history of pop music is strewn with the dead flowers of broken romances, because that is what makes songwriters want to share their feelings with us.

But there is a subgenre that takes us further down the road of unhappiness into the land of abuse, illness and death. Some artistes thrive on this, and country music is particularly full of it, so where better to begin than with Kenny Rogers?

The wider world’s first experience of this master of the unpleasant was Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town, written in the late 1960s by another country singer, Mel Tillis. Rogers’ version has a deceptively cheery, chugalong rhythm and quite a warm atmosphere as long as you don’t listen too closely to the lyrics, which deal with a paralysed Vietnam veteran watching his wife get ready to go out and, he is convinced, get from some able-bodied man the sort of sexual seeing-to that he is now unable to give her.

It’s a story that has probably been played out for real countless times, but Rogers revels in it, putting a deep, fake rasp in his voice to underline the man’s pain, and it was just the first of a string of hits in which he told us stories of things we would perhaps rather not think about. Rape, for instance.

This rare 19th century colour photograph shows Billy (centre, rear) starting to go.

Coward of the County brings us the tale of redemption of a ‘cowardly’ man, who is in fact only acting on the dying wishes of his father, who urged him to “walk away from trouble if you can”. Everyone thinks he is “yeller” except the narrator, who knows the truth.

Old Yeller’s chance to set the record straight comes at the expense of his wife, who is sexually assaulted by the three Gatlin boys, local no-goods. When our hero finds out, he goes to the saloon, where the Gatlins are drinking, and shoots them all.

And so his life changes, but you can’t help thinking he might have preferred to still have his old problem rather than the horrible new situation.

Rogers didn’t write that one, either, but he picked it and sang it and made it his own.

He did the same with Lucille, a relatively cheerful number in that nobody dies or gets violated. It’s just that a man’s wife walks out and leaves him “with four hungry children and a crop in the fields”. Mercifully, the writers left it at that rather than giving the man herpes and cancer, but maybe they had trouble fitting those in.

See? He can see the funny side

The late 60s was the heyday (or perhaps the nadir) of the tearjerker, with Bobby Goldsboro talking about his Honey, who seems to be crying every time he comes home. But maybe she knows something, because she dies in the end, and the singer assures her “I’m being good”. Was he asking for it? Had he been bad? We will never know.

Then there was Terry Jacks with Seasons in the Sun, which is not a country song at all. It portrays a man dying and bidding farewell to his friends and family in a mawkish, sickly way, although the original lyrics, by the respected Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, was much more subtle and laced with sarcasm and backhanded compliments.

In 1974 we endured Billy Don’t Be A Hero, a song about a man going to fight in the American Civil War, although it was written by the successful if never-serious British team of Mitch Murray and Peter Callender. Here, the girlfriend of the titular Billy urges him “keep your pretty head low”, but of course he doesn’t – he volunteers for a dangerous assignment and gets his pretty head blown off.

Is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing? Yeah, bitch. He’s mine forever – or until the sound effects come in, anyway

The catalyst for all this melodrama was probably Leader of the Pack, the Shangri-Las’ 1964 smash about a young man who dies in a motorcycle crash, which was sadly quite common in those pre-compulsory helmet days. The song was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me, Be My Baby) and Shadow Morton, who apparently just couldn’t help themselves.


Hmm, there’s a lot of this stuff. So that’s all for now. More next week.