April 25: Jerry Leiber

Jerry LeiberIt was on this day in 1933 that one of the most important songwriters of the early rock and roll era was born: Jerry Leiber who, along with his writing partner Mike Stoller, composed some of the greatest songs of the 1950s and 1960s. These guys could write everything from meaty R&B (“Kansas City”) to goofy novelties (“Yakety Yak”) to doo-wop street corner symphonies (“Stand By Me”).

Leiber and Stoller’s first major hit was Charles Brown’s 1953 recording of their rhythm and blues song “Hard Times” which went to number one on the R and B charts. However, their first big pop hit came in the form of Elvis Presley’s take on their 1952 song “Hound Dog”. But how did the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll come to record what became his signature song?

“Hound Dog” was originally recorded by blues singer Big Mama Thornton in an absolutely smoldering version. This record proved to be quite popular and led to dozens of covers, response songs and rip-offs, like the song “Two Hound Dogs” which was recorded by Bill Haley and The Comets. In 1955, the bosses at Philadelphia’s Teen Records thought that a sanitized and more rocking version of “Hound Dog” could be a big hit, and they hired Las Vegas lounge act Freddie Bell and the Bellboys to rework the song. Bell removed the more obliquely sexual lyrics that referred to a human hound dog, and replaced them with lines that literally refer to a hound dog with a poor track record of hunting rabbits. Leiber didn’t care for the lyrical changes, saying that the song now made “no sense”. The Bellboys’ big band rock version was a local hit in Philadelphia in 1955, but didn’t make much of a buzz in the rest of the country.

In the spring of 1956, Elvis Presley was booked to play the Venus Room at Las Vegas’ New Frontier Hotel and Casino. At the time the Bellhops were the hottest act in town, and Presley and his band checked out their show and decided that “Hound Dog” would be a great addition to their repertoire. Presley’s “Hound Dog” was an instant hit, bringing Leiber and Stoller plenty of royalties. Bell attempted to sue the two composers for a share of the royalties because he had changed the lyrics, but there was one little problem; because Bell never asked permission from Leiber and Stoller to make those changes, it was ruled that he was not entitled to royalties.

Unfortunately, we already made the Hound Dog way back in June, so we’ll have to make a drink named after another Leiber and Stoller composition. “Love Potion #9″ was originally performed by The Clovers in 1959 and has been covered by many bands. Unsurprisingly, there is a cocktail called Love Potion #9 and thankfully unlike the potion in the song, it does not smell like turpentine or look like India ink. Instead, it’s a sweet pink alcoholic milkshake.

Love Potion #9

  • 1 ounce Vodka
  • 1/2 ounce White Creme de Cacao
  • 1/2 cup cut strawberries
  • 1 scoop vanilla ice cream
  • 1/2 cup ice

Pour all ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a chilled tulip glass and garnish with a strawberry.

Tomorrow: A man who shaped America’s urban landscape.

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One response

  1. Bruce Harris | Reply

    Started reading backwards from May 4. Infectious! April 25 prompted me to comment. “Stand by Me” has been in the news recently after Ben E. King’s recording was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, and with King’s recent passing. I’d been given to understand the Ben E. King composed “Stand by Me” on his own. Googled “Stand by Me,” and discovered that King co-wrote the song with Leiber and Stoller. Thanks to reading your blog, I’m better informed about the origins of this very special song. Perhaps Ben E. King could get a mention next year. Good on ya!

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