Songwriter Jerry Leiber Dies

The songwriting world lost one of its icons today with the passing of Jerry Leiber. He was 78.

Leiber passed away in Los Angeles this morning, a victim of cardio-pulmonary failure according to NPR citing a source at Leiber and Stoller Enterprises.

You’d have to search the far reaches of the globe to find someone who has never heard a single song penned by the 50-year songwriting partnership of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The two then-fledgling writers met for the first time in 1950s Los Angeles and almost immediately began writing the songs that would form their legacy. With Stoller writing mostly melodies while Leiber came up with the words, the pair pretty much set the standard for the then-emerging rock ‘n’ roll sound.

Photo: AP Photo
Jerry Leiber, right, and Mike Stoller arrive at the 25th annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards in Los Angeles.

A 1952 Leiber / Stoller composition originally recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, “Hound Dog” was transformed into a career-defining mega-hit by Elvis Presley in 1956. However, Leiber wasn’t all that happy when Elvis changed a few of the song’s words.

“To this day I have no idea what that rabbit business is about,” Leiber said in 2009, according to Rolling Stone. “The song is not about a dog; it’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’ version makes no sense to me, and, even more irritatingly, it is not the song that Mike and I wrote. Of course, the fact that it sold more than seven million copies took the sting out of what seemed to be a capricious changes of lyrics.”

Other hits in the Leiber and Stoller catalog included “Kansas City,” first recorded by Little Willie Littlefield in 1952 and covered by everyone from Wilbert Harrison to Little Richard to The Beatles, and “Stand By Me,” recorded by Ben E. King and covered more than 400 times by artists ranging from Otis Redding to Jimi Hendrix to Elton John.

The 1950s vocal group also racked up several hits written by Leiber and Stoller, including “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy.”

The pair’s legacy as songwriting masters didn’t stop in the 1950s. The Leiber and Stoller magic was still evident during the 1970s when their “Stuck In The Middle With You” became a hit for Stealers Wheel. In 1995 the duo’s almost infinite list of hits became the basis for Broadway’s “Smokey Joe’s Café” and last spring “American Idol” honored them by having contestants devote an entire evening to singing their songs.

Appearing on NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 1991, Leiber said his partnership with Stoller consisted of “long, long years of … stepping on each other’s toes … and words and sentences and, also, finishing each other’s lines on songs.”

Photo: AP Photo
1992 file photo, songwriters Mike Stoller, left, and Jerry Leiber pose in the Russian Tea Room in New York.

Funeral arrangements are pending.