Yesterday, the music world lost one of its greatest poet laureates with the passing of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Jerry Leiber. As the lyricist on countless iconic chart topping songs and so many more hit records, Leiber not only wrote the words that everyone was singing, but also led the way in how we verbalized our feelings about the societal changes we were living with in post–World War ll life. Appropriately, his vehicles of choice were the emerging populist musical genres of rhythm and blues, and then rock and roll.
Beyond the songs he penned, the team of Leiber and Stoller (Mike Stoller) also produced an untold string of hits. Inducted together into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, they also saw their music become the basis for the longest running musical revue in Broadway history, Smokey Joe’s Café, a title lifted from one of their early hits by the Robins.
I loved the Robins/Coasters growing up. They represented to me the real gestalt of rock and roll, the music helping me call the shots on the important things in life – how I dressed, how I cut my hair, how I talked, etc.
Raised in a small town in lower Alabama, I started cutting yards in the summer when I was 12 years old. I needed folding money, money to pay for movies and records, money to fulfill my fantasies. I needed five bucks to fund my adventures. The only problem was that there were no theaters or record stores where I lived. Once a week, I would flag down the Greyhound bus on Highway 98 and head for my weekly adventure in the big metropolis of Mobile, 25 miles away.
Although I often enjoyed watching the new double features each week and dining at the Krystal (read: White Castle, if you are not from the South), the real highlights of my trips to Mobile were visits to Jesse French or Rutz Music, the nearest meccas for records.
Both stores had listening booths. Even a kid with a nascent pompadour, wearing shorts – or worse, an all-red getup with white shoes and a skinny white belt – could take a fistful of 45s into these private hideaways and stay for hours trying to decide which one he would purchase for $1.
Much of my psychic energy and physical stamina went into choosing just one record every seven days or so. I remember the day when I was so torn between which 45 to buy: "Searchin” or “Youngblood.” My God, how could I choose?
And then a miracle: I discover that they were both by the Coasters and, better still, they were on the same record! I was dumbstruck by the luck and the magic of it all!
I can still recall that delicious feeling of surprise and good fortune. In addition, that was the point in time when I happened to read the credits for the writers of these life changing compositions: Leiber-Stoller. For many years to come, I could always set my musical compass by this constellation.
Thank you Jerry Leiber. Some days I feel that they still can hear me a comin’, ‘cause I’m gonna walk right down that street like Bulldog Drummond.