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Songwriting Legend Jerry Leiber, 1933 – 2011

August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber, who was born and raised in Baltimore before becoming one of the greatest lyricists in rock ‘n ‘roll history, died of cardio-pulmonary failure in Los Angeles Monday. He was 78. Leiber’s lyrics, almost always set to music by his longtime partner Mike Stoller, were recorded by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, T-Bone Walker, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, the Drifters, the Coasters, Los Lobos, Little Richard, Peggy Lee, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Merle Haggard, and many more.

Yet Leiber almost never sang his own lyrics in public. He thought the whole concept of the singer/songwriter was a foolish one. Some people are good singers and some people are good songwriters, he maintained; very rarely is anyone both. He wasn’t bashful about his own talent as a lyricist; he knew he was very good. But he also had no illusions about his singing voice.

“I think Dylan is a kind of contemporary street poet,” Leiber told me in 1996. “He was as a monumental force in pop music. I’m just not as excited by what he did as I am by Memphis Slim or Muddy Waters. I’m not so interested in a voice that works around an idea–I’m happier to hear a voice that is thrilling.

“When Dylan came along, it was suggested that I should do the same,” he added. “It would have been the way to go, but I didn’t approve of that. I didn’t want to go up there and sound like what I sound like and have Jimmy Witherspoon coming up behind me and burn me down to my socks. I was much happier getting a great singer to record my songs, because if you make a great record it lives forever, if you make an adequate record, it lasts for maybe a season.”

So Leiber and Stoller stayed behind the scenes as songwriters and producers, giving up a greater fame to make greater records. Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, Ray Davies, Curtis Mayfield, and Randy Newman (a Leiber protégé) are better known as lyricists because they made records under their own names, but their satiric wit, linguistic dexterity, and wild imagery aren’t all that different from Leiber’s. Like Dylan, Simon, and Newman, Leiber was a Jewish kid who fell in love with African-American music. Unlike them, he did it in Baltimore.

“On a real subliminal level,” Leiber added in 1996, “there’s a connection between black music and Hebraic music. If you listen to Ray Charles and a chazen in a synagogue, you’ll hear some amazing similarities. You’ll ask, `Are they from the same shetl?’

“I made a lot of deliveries in the black neighborhood,” he said of his mother’s West Baltimore grocery store, “and I’d often be invited into these smoky, mysterious houses. I’d be told to sit down and eat, and I developed a taste for pig’s feet, pork shoulder, greens, yams, and all that Southern food that I still love today. The radio might be on, and somebody would be playing something funky on a guitar or saxophone. I heard Meade Lux Lewis playing boogie-woogie piano, I heard Josh White singing folk blues, I heard Big Joe Turner belting out big-band blues, and I loved it all.”