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They’re Playing Our Song: Jerry Leiber and the Power of Collaboration

Posted in News on September 6, 2011 by
Pictured in 2009 at BMI’s Los Angeles offices during a reception in honor of Leiber and Stoller are Mike Stoller, BMI President & CEO Del Bryant and Jerry Leiber.
Pictured in 2009 at BMI’s Los Angeles offices during a reception in honor of Leiber and Stoller are Mike Stoller, BMI President & CEO Del Bryant and Jerry Leiber. Photo: Lester Cohen

Last month, the world lost one of the greatest songwriting collaborators of all time — Jerry Leiber.

A legendary and iconic BMI songwriter, Leiber was instrumental in shaping the sound and subject matter of rock & roll and early rhythm & blues. The songs Jerry Leiber wrote with his longtime friend and writing partner Mike Stoller — risqué, funny, tongue-in-cheek and exquisitely crafted — were able to accelerate rapidly antiquating social conventions, foreshadowing and even sparking the dramatic social changes that soon followed.

Leiber and Stoller’s extraordinary perspective, wit and eye for detail transcended race and gender in ways that can still leave listeners wondering how a couple of young Jewish kids could even know some of these specifics, much less shape them effortlessly into couplets that would burst with absolute authenticity from the grooves of 45s by the Coasters, Big Mama Thornton, Elvis Presley, Ben E. King and others.

Here is the first verse of Leiber’s “Down Home Girl,” recorded by New Orleans r&b guitarist Alvin Robinson, and later by the Coasters and the Rolling Stones:

“Lord I swear the perfume you wear Was made out of turnip greens And every time I kiss you girl It tastes like pork and beans Even though you’re wearin’ them Citified high heels I can tell by your giant step You been walkin’ through the cotton fields Oh, you’re so down home girl”

The list of Leiber and Stoller’s hits is awe-inspiring: “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City,” “Yakety Yak,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Searchin’,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion #9,” “Is That All There Is?” and many, many more. Leiber’s life was a testament to the power of popular music to capture our imaginations, shape our memories and transcend our boundaries and divisions.

Importantly, though, it was also a tribute to the possibilities of collaboration.

It’s something I understand personally. My late parents were Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, Nashville’s first professional songwriters, immensely influential in country and early rock & roll. My parents wrote “Bye Bye, Love,” “Wake Up, Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Love Hurts” and many other hits for the Everly Brothers, as well as “Raining in My Heart” by Buddy Holly, the bluegrass classic “Rocky Top,” and many others. To see them write and work together was extraordinary, and also a window into the unique demands of this delicate and special balancing act.

So much of art is grounded in the image of the mysterious and lonely auteur. And in a business often seemed to be driven by powerful undercurrents of ego and one-upmanship, there is something particularly poignant about two songwriters coming together for the singular purpose of creating something great and at the same time having fun—forging two burning and brilliant talents into one perfect piece of work. I am so fortunate to have been able to witness this happen again and again while still a child. It has profoundly shaped the way I see the world and our copyright industry, and the creativity that blooms from co-writers when at their best.

It requires patience, humility, honesty and self-knowledge to work so closely with another person—especially another songwriter, a friend, a mate, a wife—to share credit, glory, royalties and even entire professional lives and reputations for the sake of the songs.

Music is collaborative, listening to and inspiring one another to greater heights of creativity. And it is still something we experience collectively. You see a lot of headphones these days, especially worn by young people—a long way from how we once communally experienced music when listening with our friends. And while there is a level of intimacy and scrutiny that comes from listening on headphones, the sad passing of Jerry Leiber reminds me of watching my parents work, creating these beautifully crafted gems of popular culture, and then later hearing them with my friends as they thundered out of jukeboxes, car radios and rec room record players. What started as the shared vision of two became the shared experience of millions.

The songs Jerry Leiber crafted with Mike Stoller will truly live forever. It is nice to imagine that every time they are played, the spirit of collaboration and fun with which they were created is set free, a reminder of what amazing things can be accomplished when creators work together within an industry that appreciates and compensates them for their efforts.

This editorial originally ran in U.K. publication Music Week on Tuesday, August 30, 2011.