Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Jerry Leiber



Very sad to read that Jerry Leiber (above, left) is dead.

Click here for a link to a 2001 interview with Leiber and Stoller at the NFT to promote a documentary about their work. I remember it well because I was present and even got to ask a question. It covers most bases and is well worth reading in full. Below are some brief extracts.

But if you're in a hurry, what with your busy schedule and lack of any sense of musical history, the gist is: they put in the hours and we all benefited.
Q: How unfinished was the song Stand By Me when Ben E King brought it to you, did you make the arrangement on the spot?


MS: Well, the song wasn't finished when he brought it in. However, it was totally finished before the recording session took place. That's a figment of somebody's imagination, because the arrangement... the bass line I created for it, was picked up and played by the strings, it had bass and guitar playing from the top, and it was a fully orchestrated piece. As was Spanish Harlem. It was the same session. It turned out to be three and a half hours, and what Jerry was referring to [in the documentary] about the half-hour overtime, was that Atlantic was complaining about spending the extra money on this first session for Ben E King as a solo singer. It proved to be worthwhile to them - they had two smash hits.

JL: And one other thing, we never went into a session where every note of the orchestration wasn't written down and in triplicate, so it could be changed quickly. Everybody who could write had a copy of it. We were very well organized. [...]

Q: How did you do your song writing? Did you treat it like a nine-to five job, going into the office everyday?

MS: No, we wrote and planned records for about eighteen hours every day, in an office or our homes.

Q: Did you get more satisfaction from the writing or the production?

JL: The same. If you write something and you like it, and you like it well enough that you can look at it the next morning - which sometimes doesn't happen - and then you execute. That's the toughest part, the execution. To make it sound right and feel right. So it's really a situation that is joined, and if you get both ends together, then it's great.
Things I'll remember: Stand By Me, regardless of who contributed what; a sudden realisation of the precision of Love Potion Number Nine:
She bent down and turned around and gave me a wink
She said I'm gonna make it up right here in the sink
It smelled like turpentine, it looked like Indian ink
I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink
And if Jerry Leiber had given nothing else to the world, that unforgettable couplet:
You're gonna need an ocean
Of Calamine Lotion
would have secured his immortality.

By coincidence, I was listening to Chuck Berry's Too Pooped to Pop the other day, and trying to work out just why it was so bad.

And the answer suddenly came to me: it's Leiber and Stoller. He's trying to do a Leiber and Stoller (there's even a yaketty sax player). But clearly he hadn't, on this occasion, put the hours in, nor been struck by inspiration, and it sounded lumpen.

This is what I wrote in an earlier post about the programme Leiber and Stoller were promoting at the NFT:
The Songmakers Collection is a series of five interconnected documentaries about Brill Building writers and performers. In addition to the programme entitled Words and Music by Leiber and Stoller, there are programmes on Bobby Darin, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick and one entitled The Hitmakers, which features interviews with Goffin and King, Mann and Weil (plus clips of performers including the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers). It's a while since I've actually watched all the programmes so I can't give a blow by blow account but I think that the four are interviewed together, so there is that additional poignancy of time passing to which I referred in the Always Magic in the Air review - in fact I think Ken Emerson drew on these documentaries. Each lasts about fifty five minutes and the most useful thing I can say is they feel substantial. They can be bought together relatively inexpensively.
Now, the present day me was about to add something like: "And now there is further poignancy in the passing of time" - and perhaps a lesser blogger would have done so.

And it wouldn't have been too terrible a way of ending the post, just - alright, maybe it would.

Luckily, I was saved from myself by remembering something Ben E King said in the documentary: singing Leiber and Stoller songs was like putting on a series of different, but expertly, made suits: the implication, I think, was - and Mr King appears to be a modest man - the songs made him look good, and were each a pleasure to inhabit.

This, coupled with the extracts from the NFT interview, reminds me of a remark Ian Whitcomb made about a veteran songwriter who, seeing some interest in an old number, immediately began asking whether the person involved (can't remember whether it was Ian himself) would like an extra verse here, another section there - in other words seeing himself as a tailor, cutting the cloth to fit the client.


Review of Tribute to Leiber and Stoller DVD here.
Ken Emerson's book on Leiber and Stoller and the Brill Building here.
The tangled origins of Stand By Me here and here - and a footnote here.

Oh, and in the interests of balance, because one of this blog's stated aims is to be fair towards all rock'n'roll innovators, the B side of Too Pooped to Pop was ...
Let It Rock.

For which Mr Berry may be forgiven much.



Postscript: Have just found the Leiber and Stoller documentary on youtube. I suspect it won't be there long, so watch while you can.

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