Leiber-Stoller, Songwriting Partnership Extraordinaire

I believe Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first entered my radar screen as a 13-year-old when I got an Elvis Presley songbook for guitar. It was shortly after I had started taking lessons and was able to play a few chords. Elvis was my idol at the time. What I didn’t know then and frankly didn’t fully appreciate until conducting some research for this post was the enormous scope of Leiber-Stoller’s work, which goes far beyond some of the best-known early classic rock & roll tunes.

For some time, I had contemplated writing about important songwriting partnerships including Leiber-Stoller, but once I noticed how many songs these guys wrote and how many artists they worked with, I felt they warranted a dedicated post. I also decided to largely exclude their production work and primarily focus on their writing during the ’50s and early ’60s, which is their most exciting period, in my opinion.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber was born as Jerome Leiber on April 25, 1933 in Baltimore, Md. Composer Michael Stoller, who later changed his legal fist name to Mike, was born on March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. In addition to being born the same year to Jewish families, Leiber and Stoller also shared a love for blues, boogie-woogie and black culture. They met in Los Angeles in 1950, while Leiber was a senior in high school and Stoller was a college freshman.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Mike Stoller (l) & Jerry Leiber in 1980

According to an extended interview Lieber and Stoller gave to NAMM Oral History Program in December 2007, Leiber had written some lyrics and knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was how to write music. A drummer referred him to piano player Mike Stoller. Once they met and Stoller looked at some of Leiber’s lyrics, he noticed they were 12-bar blues. He said, “I love the blues” and started playing the piano, with Leiber singing along. And Stoller said, “Mike, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Okay, I made up that last quote, borrowing from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time. What is true is that day the two men agreed to form a partnership that would generate some of the best-known songs of the ’50s and ’60s.

The first artist who recorded a Leiber-Stoller composition was Jimmy Witherspoon, one of the blues singers the duo followed to help them develop their “black style” of writing music and lyrics. Real Ugly Woman appeared as a single in 1951. The words are just as lovely as the title! ūüôā A little excerpt: Well, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yeah, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yes, and every time she comes around/she runs all my friends away

The following year in 1952, Leiber and Stoller scored their first hit with Hard Times, which was recorded by Charles Brown. The tune climbed to no. 7 on the Billboard R&B Chart.

1952 also saw one of Leiber and Stoller’s best-known songs, Hound Dog, which was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It was also the first time the duo produced music, though the production credits went to Johnny Otis, who was supposed to lead the recording session but ended up playing the drums on the tune. Released in February that year, it sold more than half a million copies and topped the Billboard R&B Chart. Three years later, Elvis Presley turned Hound Dog into a mega-hit. I like his version but have to say Thornton really killed it, so here’s her original.

Another early rock & roll classic penned by Lieber-Stoller is Kansas City, which according to Wikipedia is one of their most recorded tunes with over three hundred versions – they had to count them all! Initially, the tune was titled K.C. Loving and recorded by American boogie-woogie pianist and singer Little Willie Littlefield. It appeared in August 1952. While the song had some regional success, it didn’t chart nationally. That changed in April 1959 when Wilbert Harrison released his version, which became a no. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts. Here’s the original. Feel free to shuffle along!

Going back to Elvis, while Leiber and Stoller¬†didn’t mind having written a million-seller with Hound Dog, they weren’t particularly fond of Presley’s cover. But it led to writing more songs for Elvis, including one of my favorite ’50s rock & roll tunes of all time: Jailhouse Rock. Released in September 1957, is was the title track of the Elvis motion picture that came out in November of the same year. Leiber-Stoller played a prominent role in the making of the film’s soundtrack. Apart from Jailhouse Rock, they wrote three other tunes and worked with Elvis in the studio. Of course, I had to take a clip from the picture, which has to be one of the most iconic dance scenes ever captured on film. Doesn’t it feel a bit like watching an early version of a Michael Jackson music video?

Blues and rock & roll represent the early years of Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting. Beginning in the mid-’50s after they had started working for Atlantic Records, the duo branched out and became more pop-oriented. Among other artists, they wrote a number of songs for The Drifters and The Coasters. Here’s Ruby Baby, a great soulful, groovy, doo-wop tune from 1956. More than 25 years later, Donald Fagen became one of the other artists covering the song, when he included it on his excellent debut solo album The Nightfly from October 1982.

Next up: Yakety Yak by The Coasters. The song was released in April 1958 and topped the Billboard Pop Chart, Billboard R&B Chart and Cash Box Pop Chart. The track was also produced by Leiber-Stoller and became the biggest hit for The Coasters.

The last Leiber-Stoller tune I’d like to highlight is Stand By Me, which they co-wrote with Ben E. King. He first recorded it in April 1961, a year after he had left The Drifters to start a solo career. In addition to writing, once again Leiber-Stoller also produced the beautiful track, which remains one of my favorite ’60s songs to this day.

Asked during the above NAMM interview to comment on the fact that “nice Jewish boys didn’t really write a whole lot of hit records for blues singers at that point” (in the early ’50s), Stoller said, “Actually, they did later on, or at least later on we did know…It was considered to be somewhat peculiar at the time.” Added Lieber: “Black people always thought we were black until they came in contact with us and saw that we weren’t.” BTW, if you’re into rock & roll history, you may enjoy watching the entire interview, even though it’s close to 90 minutes. Again, you can do so here.

Altogether, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote or co-wrote 70-plus chart hits. According to lieberstoller.com, their songs have been performed by more than 1,000 artists, who in addition to the above include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Joe Williams, Tom Jones, Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and even Edith Piaf, among others – wow, it almost poses the question which artists did not sing their songs!

Leiber-Stoller’s work has extensively and rightly been recognized. Accolades include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and 1985, respectively, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters in 1996. As reported by The New York Times, Jerry Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure on August 22, 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Mike Stoller is 86 years old and still alive. He can be heard introducing Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul on their great 2018 Soulfire Live! album for a gig at the Orpheum Theatre in New York – priceless!

Sources: Wikipedia; NAMM; Leiberstoller.com; The New York Times; YouTube

Little Steven Releases New Album Summer Of Sorcery

Van Zandt’s first studio record of new original material in 20 years features mighty backing band The Disciples of Soul

Steven Van Zandt is back in full force on Summer of Sorcery,¬†and he’s pulling all the stops on what is his first album of new original music in 20 years. The launch activities include record release shows this evening in Los Angeles and next Wednesday in Asbury Park, N.J. Since yesterday afternoon, Van Zandt has also “taken over” SiriusXM’s Classic Vinyl¬†(Ch. 26), where he presents vintage and classic rock tracks, as well as songs from the new album throughout the weekend. Moreover,¬†Summer of Sorcery will be supported with an extended tour through Europe and North America.

Little Steven clearly has been reenergized as a solo artist since the May 2017 release of predecessor Soulfire¬†and that record’s supporting tour, which was also captured on last April’s¬†Soulfire Live!¬†album. He cut down the time between solo record releases from almost 20 to two years –¬†Born Again Savage, the album prior to Soulfire, came out in 1999. And why not? With Bruce Springsteen’s previous Broadway engagement and his upcoming solo album Western Stars, the timing has been perfect for the E Street Band guitarist to focus on his own music.

Little Steven Tour Banner

In many ways, Summer of Sorcery represents a continuation of Soulfire. On both albums,¬†Little Steven is backed by the¬†impressive 14-piece band The Disciples of Soul,¬†and both releases represent¬†a musical journey back to the ’60s and ’70s. If one music artist can pull this off, it is Van Zandt, who frequently showcases his encyclopedic knowledge of music history on his SiriusXM program Underground Garage. He also did so when I saw him and the Disciples in September 2017 during the Soulfire tour.

The key difference between the two records is that Summer of Sorcery features new original music, whereas Soulfire includes songs Van Zandt wrote or co-wrote throughout his career. Most of the tracks on Soulfire¬†also did not appear under his name but were released by other artists, such as¬†Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the band Van Zandt co-founded with John Lyon (‚ÄúSouthside Johnny‚ÄĚ) in the mid-70s and whose first three albums he produced, and Gary U.S. Bonds. You can read more about Soulfire here. Time to get to some new music!

Here’s the opener Communion, a brassy soul rocker and one of the 10 original tunes on the album.

Next up perhaps is a bit of a surprise, at least from my perspective: a Latin song called Party Mambo!¬†I asked my wife who is from Puerto Rico about the tune. She expressed some doubts that fellow Hispanics will like it. While it may not 100 percent authentic, I think it’s groovy.

Vortex throws in blaxploitation, a genre that Little Steven clearly seems to like. Soulfire¬†features a cool cover of¬†Down And Out In New York City, which James Brown first recorded for the soundtrack album of the 1973 blaxploitation crime drama¬†Black Cesar. Unlike that tune, Vortex is an original, which sounds like an homage to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. When I’m listening to the tune, I can literally hear the backing vocalists in Shaft.

The title of the next track I’d like to call out pretty much says it all: Soul Power Twist. Another original, the soul horns-meet rock tune could have appeared on an album by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. It has a Sam Cooke vibe to it.

How about some blues? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s I Visit The Blues.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track and closer. “The whole theme of the album is summed up in that song, that wizardry, that magic mixture of falling in love in the summer,” Van Zandt stated in a press release. With clocking in at over eight minutes, it’s perhaps not your typical love song.

“With this record I really wanted to travel back to a time when life was exciting, when unlimited possibilities were there every day,” Van Zandt further pointed out. “That was the feeling in the ’60s, the thrill of the unexpected coming at you. Our minds were blown every single day, one amazing thing after another, constantly lifting you up. So you kind of walked around six inches off the ground all the time, there was something that kept you buoyant in your spirit. I wanted to try and capture that first and foremost.”

Van Zandt seems to be a smart man, so I assume his above statement refers to the world of music, or he simply got carried away by excitement over his new album. The real world in America during the ’60s certainly was much more complicated, with racial segregation, the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War, to name some the events that happened during that period.

Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in concert
Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in concert (2017)

Summer of Sorcery, which was produced by Van Zandt and appears on Wicked Cool/UMe, is available on CD, digitally, and on vinyl as double LP on 180-gram black vinyl. There is also a limited edition double LP on 180-gram psychedelic swirl vinyl one can get exclusively via uDiscover. The album was mixed and mastered by veteran Bob Clearmountain, who has worked in various capacities with Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Toto and many other top music artists.

In my opinion, Summer of Sorcery is a fun listening experience, even though it’s perhaps not quite as compelling as Soulfire. Like on that album, the production is a bit massive, but The Disciples of Soul are a hell of a band. Directionally speaking, I also agree with American Songwriter, which wrote¬†the tracks¬†“are often little more than revitalized riffs, melodies and rhythms of already existing songs retrofitted with new words and creative, even complex, rearrangements” – a little harsh, in my opinion. They added the album pulls out “all the stops to make this sonic smorgasbord explode out of the speakers with passion and clout.” I don’t think Van Zandt would claim the music represents anything new; in fact, I would argue it was his clear intention to pay homage to artists and music of the past, so the album’s retro sound isn’t surprising and doesn’t bother me.

As noted above, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul are going on the road. Following the above two album release gigs in the U.S., a 19-date European tour kicks off on¬†May 16 in Liverpool, UK. Some of the other gigs include Berlin, Germany (May 28); Stockholm, Sweden (June 1); Brussels, Belgium (June 7) and Zurich, Switzerland (June 11), before that leg wraps up on June 23 in Paris, France. This is followed by 13 North American gigs, starting on June 29 in Syracuse, N.Y. and finishing on July 28 in Annapolis, Md. Then it’s back again to Europe until the beginning of September, before the band returns to North America with four shows in Las Vegas from September 5-8. There are plenty of additional dates during that second North American leg, including Tuscon, Ariz. (Sep 15); Austin, Texas (Sep 29); Birmingham, Ala. (Oct 3); Chicago (Oct 23); and New York City (Nov 6), the last listed gig. The current tour schedule is included in the above press release.

Sources: Wikipedia, UMe press release, Little Steven website, American Songwriter, YouTube

My Busy 2018 Music Journey Part 2: New Music & 2019 Preview

Part 1 of this 2-part series looked back on the concerts I was fortunate to catch this year. Another significant aspect of my 2018 journey was listening to music, both familiar and new. While most of the music that’s coming out these days isn’t my cup of tea, I still ended up reviewing 24 new releases this year. About half (13) are studio albums, while the remainder is a mix of reissues, vault type releases and live records. Even if you only consider the new studio releases, 13 albums over the course of one year, or an average of approximately one per month, isn’t so bad for somebody who almost entirely lives in the past when it comes to music.

From the above studio albums, I’d like to call out the following: John Mellencamp, Other People’s Stuff, Dec 7 (review); Greta Van Fleet, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, Oct 19 (review); Paul McCartney, Egypt Station, Sep 7 (review); Buddy Guy, The Blues Is Alive And Well, Jun 15 (review); Roger Daltrey, As Long As I Have You, June 1 (review); and Sting & Shaggy, 44/876, Apr 20 (review). Following are some clips.

Teardrops Will Fall, a ’60s tune co-written by Gerry Granaham¬†and¬†Marion Smith, was first recorded by John Mellencamp for his June 2003 album Trouble No More. But it actually sounds he could have taken the tune from his 1987 gem The¬†Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp’s first record where he moved away from straight rock toward a more roots-oriented sound.

While Greta Van Fleet will probably need to find a more original style to ensure their longevity, selfishly, I can’t deny getting a kick out of their¬†Led Zeppelin-style rock.¬†The Cold Wind from their new album is a great example. I don’t know of any other band that sounds like the mighty early Zep. One thing is for sure:¬†Robert Plant¬†can no longer deliver vocals with this degree of intensity.

Egypt Station is Paul McCartney’s 17th solo study album. Here’s I Don’t Know, a classic McCartney piano-driven pop song. Yes, Macca’s voice has noticeably changed since New from October 2013, but I actually think it goes pretty well with his latest songs. Based on YouTube clips I’ve watched, I’m less sure about Beatles tunes. Many are in high keys and as such tough to sing, so Macca may have to make some adjustments.

Moving on to Buddy Guy, who at age 82 shows no signs of slowing down. One of the highlights of his latest record is Cognac, where he trades guitar licks with Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. If you’re a guitarist with basic blues skills, you just feel like grabbing your instrument and joining in!

As Long As I Have You is Roger Daltrey’s first solo album in close to 26 years. Here’s the excellent title track, a cover of a tune that initially was recorded by soul singer¬†Garnet Mimms¬†in 1964.¬†The Who also played it in their early days.

Last but not least in the new studio album category is what at first sight may look like a somewhat odd pairing: Sting & Jamaican pop reggae fusion artist¬†Shaggy. But they actually blend quite well, and here’s some pretty groovy evidence: Just One Lifetime.

This year also saw various great reissues and songs from the vault type albums. The two releases I’d like to highlight here are the reissue of The Beatles’ White Album¬†(review) and Songs For Judy, an excellent Neil Young compilation of live solo performances from his November 1976 tour with Crazy Horse¬†(review).

To me the true revelation of the Beatles’ reissue are the so-called Esher Demos, early and unplugged versions of most of the original album tracks, along with a few additional songs that didn‚Äôt make the White Album. They were all recorded at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher located to the southwest of London. Here’s the Esher demo of Revolution.

The song I’d like to call out from Neil Young’s¬†recent vault release is¬†The Needle And The Damage Done. It remains one of my favorite tunes from Harvest, Young’s fourth studio album that came out in February 1972.

I also would like to acknowledge two Jimi Hendrix releases: The reissue of Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Both Sides Of The Sky, the third in a trilogy of posthumous albums after Valleys Of Neptune  (2010) and People, Hell and Angels (2013).

The last category of 2018 albums I’d like to touch on are live releases. I already noted Neil Young’s record. Three others that deserve to be called out are Bruce Springsteen’s Springsteen On Broadway (review),¬†Sheryl Crow’s Live At The Capitol Theatre¬†(review) and Soulfire Live¬†(review) by¬†Little Steven and¬†The Disciples of Soul.¬†Springsteen On Broadway is one of the best new albums I’ve heard this year. While Bruce Springsteen as a great music performer wasn’t any news to me, I had not fully appreciated his compelling verbal story-telling capabilities. There’s a bit of that on the Live/1975-1985 box set where Springsteen talks about how he was drafted for Vietnam and that his dad was happy they didn’t take him. Springsteen on Broadway takes his story-telling to another level. In fact, Springsteen’s monologues that precede his songs are almost more compelling than the music performances. Here’s part 1 of the introduction to My Hometown.

Next up: Sheryl Crow.¬†If It Makes You Happy¬†is one of my favorite Crow tunes from her eponymous second studio album released in September 1996. On the new live album, she starts off with another unidentified song I don’t recognize, before launching into Happy.

On to Little Steven. Soulfire Live captures his 2017 tour with¬†The Disciples of Soul¬†in support of his excellent Soulfire album, one of my favorite new records from that year. Among the live album’s highlights is a terrific cover of the Etta James tune Blues Is My Business. In addition to Steven demonstrating that he can be more than just a side-kick,¬† The Disciples of Soul¬†prove what a terrific backing band they are.

So what’s in store for my music journey next year? On the concert front the only thing I can say for sure is I’m thrilled I got a ticket for¬†The Rolling Stones on June 13 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It will only be my second time to see the Stones. Three other artists who are currently on my radar screen are John Mellencamp, John Mayall¬† and Paul McCartney.

Mellencamp has a series of gigs in New Jersey and New York at the end of February. I’d definitely enjoy seeing him again! Mayall has started booking dates in Europe for February and March. I’ve never been to one of his shows and hope he’ll¬†add a U.S. leg to the tour that includes at least one logistically feasible concert.¬†As for McCartney, his current tour schedule shows U.S. gigs between late May and mid-June. Unfortunately, none of them are within reasonable reach, so hopefully there will be additional dates closer to my location.

To frequent visitors of the blog it won’t come as a shock that I have every intention to continue seeing tribute bands. In fact, I already have a ticket for Neil Young tribute Decade for January 11 in Asbury Park, N.J., where they are going to recreate Young’s MTV Unplugged concert from 1993 – should be pretty cool! On February 23, I’m hoping to see Good Stuff, a great new tribute to Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder. I’m planning to do more about these guys in the near future. Assuming the above¬†British Invasion and Rock The Farm festivals will happen again in 2019, I certainly want to return to both events. Undoubtedly, there will also be plenty of other tribute opportunities.

2019 Outlook

Before finally wrapping up this post, I also would like to take the opportunity to reflect on the current status of the blog. I’m generally pretty happy where things stand at this time. Sticking with it wasn’t necessarily a given when I started out in late June 2016. While I’ve always emphasized I’m doing this because of my passion about the subject of music, not to become “famous,” I cannot deny that getting recognition in the form of comments, likes and followers is encouraging. I’m happy traffic has multiplied from 2017 and to date includes visitors from more than 70 countries.

I’d like to thank all readers, especially those who keep returning and leave comments. Apart from learning new stuff about music, feedback can also help me gain new perspectives. Whether you’re a fist-time visitor or one of the regulars, I’d like to wish you¬†a great and peaceful Holiday season. And if you’re a fellow music blogger, to borrow creatively from Neil Young, keep on rockin’ in the blogosphere!

Christian

Rocking Bitmoji

Sources: Wikipedia, Christian’s Music Musings, YouTube

Little Steven Captures 2017 Tour In Great Live Album

“Soulfire Live!” is a journey through rock history

Today, I coincidentally came across this great new live album from Steven Van Zandt and his excellent Disciples Of Soul backing band in Apple Music. I had completely missed Soulfire Live! when it appeared on April 27 on digital platforms for streaming and downloading. According to an announcement, the “surprise release” came just before Little Steven and the band embarked on a new tour through the U.S. in late April, which will last through May and be followed by dates in Europe in late June and July.

Recorded at 2017 shows in Europe and North America, the 24-track collection features original tunes by Little Steven and covers. It includes various tracks from his excellent last studio album Soulfire from May 2017, his first new record in nearly 18 years and one of my favorite albums from last year. I previously wrote about it here. And since I really dig the music, I also decided to catch Little Steven and The Disciples at one of their U.S. gigs in September last year. I also had something to say about that show here.

Soulfire Live! nicely captures the concert atmosphere. At least as intriguing as the music are some of Little Steven’s announcements, during which he provides his perspective on music and shares anecdotes from the past, reminiscent to what he does on his excellent Underground Garage radio show.¬†But the highlight of the talking undoubtedly is Mike Stoller, who the introduced the band at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles last October¬†– yep, The Mike Stoller who together with Jerry Leiber wrote numerous legendary tunes for artists like Big Mama Thornton (Hound Dog), The Drifters (Fools Fall In Love), Ben E. King (Stand By Me) and of course Elvis Presley (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Treat Me Nice, etc.).

Stoller notes he was an usher at the theatre 67 years ago until got into an argument with his boss and was fired. After that he says he decided to team up with his friend Jerry Leiber to write songs, dryly adding it worked out pretty good. Listen for yourself – it’s priceless!

On to some music. Here is one of my favorite covers from this collection, which also appeared on the Soulfire studio album: Blues Is My Business, a tune co-written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cerney and sung by Etta James on her 2003 blues record Let’s Roll. The band is just killing it!

One of the original Little Steven tunes is Angel Eyes, which he recorded for his 1982 solo debut record Men Without Women. That tune has a nice soul groove.

Standing In The Line Of Fire is another song by Little Steven. He wrote it for Gary U.S. Bonds, and it became the title track of a studio album Bonds released in September 1984. Little Steven also co-produced the record. I like the song’s Hank Marvin-style guitar intro.

Another superb cover is the blaxploitation tune Down And Out In New York City. It was written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon, and recorded by James Brown for Black Caesar, a soundtrack album for the motion picture of the same name, which appeared in February 1973. The track was also included on Soulfire, though the live version is extended.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is another cover, Groovin’ Is Easy,¬†by American blues rock and soul band The Electric Flag. The song was written by the band’s guitarist Nick Gravenites and appeared on their debut album A Long Time Comin’ from March 1968. Based on some of their music I‚Äôve heard, I have to check out these guys more closely.

Soulfire Live! was produced and arranged by Van Zandt, and appears on his rock and roll label Wicked Cool Records. It was mixed by heavy hitter Bob Clearmountain, who has worked with artists like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and The Who, among many others. The album will also become available on CD, Blu-ray and vinyl editions this summer.

Sources: Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) press release, NJArts.net, Wikipedia, YouTube