A revealing, accessible career overview of two of rock ’n’ roll’s primary architects.
With conversational prose as rhythmic as the music and language in their well-known compositions, Leiber and Stoller continue their creative partnership in this collaborative autobiography. The songwriting giants behind hits like “Hound Dog” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak” and “Love Potion No. 9” trade remembrances and anecdotes in a call-and-response reflection on their professional and, to a lesser extent, personal lives. Born in Baltimore and Queens, N.Y., respectively, Leiber and Stoller discovered an abiding love for black rhythm-and-blues music as youngsters. Stoller learned structure from legendary pianist James P. Johnson, and Leiber absorbed the street language of the Puerto Rican and African-American kids on his block. The pair met in Los Angeles in 1950 and sold their first song as teenagers. Soon they were writing hits for the Drifters, the Coasters and Ben E. King, among others. In 1952 they penned the multimillion-selling “Hound Dog,” originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton and then popularized by Elvis. Yet the book makes it clear that Leiber and Stoller were never great businessmen. In fact, they don’t seem to mind that they were bilked out of $18,000 by the notoriously crooked Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. The authors also recount forgettable experiences with the likes of Colonel Tom Parker and a young, arrogant Phil Spector. As the nature of the industry changed in the mid-’60s, Leiber and Stoller’s attempts to adapt to the new musical climate met with limited success. They reluctantly pay lip service to the world-changing onslaught of Beatlemania—the Fab Four weren’t “funky” enough for Leiber—but they never hit upon why their currency was waning: The biggest rock acts of the day—Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, to name a few—were self-sufficient hit makers. The reign of the Leiber-and-Stoller–style Brill Building songwriter was all but over by the late ’60s.
Informative and opinionated—a treasure trove for fans of rock music.