034: Dionne Warwick, ‘Walk On By’ (Burt Bacharach)

Posted by jeff on Apr 15, 2010 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

If the choice of our Song of The Week seems a bit obvious, pedestrian, or overdone, don’t blame me. I didn’t choose it – it chose itself.

First of all, I had occasion to touch on it with a 30-year old soprano, M.H. “Oh, I know that song,” she said. “Gabrielle sings it.”
Well, folks, I listened to Gabrielle’s version of it. At first, I thought my stereo system was having a panic attack. Then I thought perhaps it was being invaded by alien lizards. Then I thought the Merry Pranksters had spiked my decaf tea. But no, it was just this new century creeping up on me. Gabrielle wears a sequined eye patch; the father of her son murdered his stepfather with a machete; and for a living she electronically samples songs like “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” beyond recognition.

I gave M.H. the original version of “Walk On By“. M.H. heard it and said, “Wow, Jeff, that’s so much better than Gabrielle’s version. Who sings it?”

That was the self-same day that another reader of SoTW, one David Axelrod (whom I don’t know personally, but I understand has some real fiery issues himself), referred to “the slightly crazy pedantic tone of the writer.” Crazy I knew, but pedantic? But, yes, I admit to a certain pedantic compulsion to explain to 30-year old sopranos why they might do better listening to Dionne than Gabrielle. So this week’s song is for you, M.H. And pedestrian though the choice may be, the song certainly isn’t.

“Walk On By” was originally sung of course by Dionne Warwick, lyrics by Hal David, music and arrangement by Burt Bacharach. It was born in December, 1963, 7 years before Gabrielle, 16 years before M.H.
It’s listed as #70 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.It’s been covered hundreds of times, by everyone from Johnny Mathis to Vanilla Fudge. Here’s a YouTube playlist of 57 varieties of the song! But as M.H. knows, none of them can touch the original.

Burt Bacharach: “‘Walk On By’ was the first time that I tried putting two grand pianos on a record in the studio. I can’t remember if I played and Artie Butler played or if Paul Griffin and Artie Butler played but here were two grand pianos going on. I knew the song had something. It was a great date. I walked out of that studio and we had done two tunes in a three-hour session, ‘Walk On By’ and ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart.’ I felt very good leaving knowing that I had two monster hits on my hands. You never know for sure but you feel a great satisfaction.”

For the sharpies out there, quick, what’s the one Bacharach-David song The Beatles recorded? C’mon, quick!

The song itself talks about the public face of private heartbreak. The dark, incisive production employs a mixture of disparate elements, if we really need to dissect it. There’s an R&B chicken-scratch guitar riff giving a funky edginess throughout; a rich, intelligent piano base; flavors of vibraphone, woodblocks and Bacharach’s signature flugelhorn; MOR strings and vocal harmony filler; at the end of the verse, gospel-inspired backing singers (‘Don’t! Stop!’) over the rhythmically sprung piano roll. And that vocal, that vocal.

Burt Bacharach (b. 1928) and Hal David (b. 1921) were among the many Jewish kids churning out hits in the Brill Building in the late 50s (with Lieber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Goffin & King, Barry & Greenwich, Mann & Weil–the last three being married couples).

Prior to “Walk On By” (April, 1964), the Bacharach/David had already put almost 30 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100, including ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, ‘Only Love Can Break a Heart’, ’24 Hours from Tulsa’ (Gene Pitney), ‘Any Day Now’ (Chuck Jackson), ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ (Dionne Warwick), ‘Blue On Blue’ (Bobby Vinton), and ‘Baby, It’s You’ (The Shirelles—bingo!).

Subsequent classics of Bacharach include ‘Close To You’ (the Carpenters), ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ (B.J. Thomas) and ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ (Aretha Franklin), ‘The Look of Love’ (Dusty Springfield), ‘Alfie’ (Cilla Black), ‘What the World Needs Now’ (Jackie DeShannon) and ‘Arthur’s Theme’ (Christopher Cross). According to one account, Bacharach has had 66 Top Forty hits.

Tall, elegant, stately Dionne Warwick (b. 1940) was doing backup vocals in NYC while still in high school, and then during her conservatory studies at Hartt College of Music (where she earned her doctorate in 1973).

While singing background on Bacharach’s production of The Drifters’ “Mexican Divorce”, she caught his eye. In this clip he waxes nostalgic about their meeting, his appreciation of her talent, his feelings for her and their relationship, and sings a medley with her beginning with ‘Walk On By’.

Over the next 20 years, Warwick charted 38 singles co-written or produced by Bacharach, including 22 Top-40, 12 Top-20, and nine Top-10 hits on the American Billboard Hot 100 charts. Some of my favorite Bacharach/Warwick collaborations (beyond of course the great early triad of ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, ‘Walk On By’) are ‘Trains and Boats and Planes’, ‘Promises, Promises’, ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’, ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose’, and the original ‘I Say a Little Prayer’. They all carry the stamp of a real partnership, music and lyrics and arrangement and vocals. Bacharach stated, “She has a tremendous strong side and a delicacy when singing softly—like miniature ships in bottles.” Musically, she was “no play-safe girl. What emotion I could get away with!”

In itself, that’s a very impressive body of auteur pop – complex rhythmically and harmonically, inventive in the sound palette, highly charged emotionally, witty and urbane. Many historians of the field consider Bacharach to be virtually the only legitimate post-rock-and-roll member of the Great American Songbook pantheon, that which stretches from Tin Pan Alley through the Broadway and Hollywood musicals, 1920-1960. Bacharach and David have a lot in common with Arlen, Bernstein, Berlin, Dietz, the Gershwins, Hammerstein, Hart, Kern, Loesser, Rodgers, Schwartz, and Styne. They all wrote wonderful, memorable songs that continue today to transcend the very common denominator of the pop medium.

They’re also all Jewish men writing stellar songs best rendered by black women. That’s a subject that I’d love to delve into, but I assume that my lack of sensitivity to what is politically acceptable today (a consequence of my expatriatism) would cause such faux pas that I’d be dragged in front of HUAC for a public flogging.

Explaining what he tries to put into his songwriting, Bacharach said, “So it’s not, you listen four or five times and you love it, and then you say, ‘OK, enough with that.’ If I get tired of it quicker than I should, I have to rethink it.” How many times have I heard the song? I couldn’t count. Many hundreds, probably. Maybe thousands. Well, good job, Burt. And, yes, M.H., there is a Dionne Warwick.

If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by

Make believe
that you don’t see the tears
Just let me grieve
in private ’cause each time I see you
I break down and cry
And walk on by (don’t stop)
And walk on by (don’t stop)
And walk on by

I just can’t get over losing you
And so if I seem broken and blue
Walk on by, walk on by

Foolish pride
Is all that I have left
So let me hide
The tears and the sadness you gave me
When you said goodbye
Walk on by
and walk on by
and walk by (don’t stop)

Walk on by, walk on by
Foolish pride
Is all that I have left
So let me hide
The tears and the sadness you gave me
When you said goodbye
Walk on by (don’t stop)
and walk on by (don’t stop)
and walk by (don’t stop)


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

117: Carole King, ‘It Might as Well Rain Until September’

062: Martha and The Vandellas, ‘Heat Wave’

042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)



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033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)

Posted by jeff on Apr 15, 2010 in Nordic, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Everybody goes for a love story. Okay, here’s one. I’m in love. Love at first sight.
Well, maybe not love. But real, true, deep infatuation that will last at least until I open my eyes.

The biggest problem right now is that I have a lot of trouble remembering her name. Radka Toneff. You have to admit, that’s objectively a hard name to remember, even if you’re in love with her. Just as lovers revel in reconstructing how they first met, I’m trying to remember how I stumbled on her. I guess I was looking at all the YouTube hits for ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘ or – hey, Jeff, the music?

Radka Toneff (1952-1982) was a Norwegian singer “of legendary stature”. Well, in knowledgeable jazz circles in Oslo, perhaps. For me she was new. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Scandinavian music over the last couple of years, and I’m working hard at cultivating that taste and broadening my knowledge.

I admit a certain bias towards Nordic singing. At its best, it’s flawless, perfect, precise, technically refined on a level we just don’t encounter in our more familiar neighborhoods. With male pianists, that can get pretty boring for me. But with female singers it can be intoxicating.

It all depends on the material. When my new love Radka (I need to practice using her name) hits on the right material–which she does sometimes, not too regularly–it can really be breathtaking.

For convenience’s sake, we’ll call Radka Toneff a jazz singer, though that’s not really accurate. She recorded a wide range of material – from rarified jazz to hackneyed pop, a pinch of Bulgarian folk (her father was a Bulgarian folk singer), with a little bit of soul thrown in, paying her Nordic dues to the mothers of her music.

If you did the math above, you got that she died at the age of 30. It’s usually called a suicide, but the fullest version I found (in English) says: “Her sudden death was described by newspapers as a suicide, but friends said that although she brought it on herself, it was an accident.”

A few weeks ago I wrote about Eva Cassidy, in Song of The Week 29. The similarities between Eva and Radka are rather uncanny. Eva died from cancer at 36, a restrained and tasteful singer of an unclassifiably wide range of material. If you remember Eva’s “Over the Rainbow“, especially as compared to the other versions we compared it to, it’s a model of good taste and control, of the tension created by strongly felt passion being expressed without histrionics—a fan dance of the heart.

Eva had no career whatsoever. Radka recorded 3 albums–”Angel Heart”, “Fairy Tales”, and the posthumously released “Live in Hamburg”. There are also 2 compilations of other cuts, and a lot of live videos in all kinds of settings–small combo, big band, orchestra, many with material not found on the CDs.

Radka’s material includes classic jazz. One of my favorites is her treatment of ‘My Funny Valentine‘. I have a lot of respect for that song, and I’ve heard it butchered and demeaned more often than I care to remember. Her version is heart-rending. (Ever wonder why singers always make the song mournful? The lyric is quite loving. Hmm.) There’s also ‘Nature Boy‘, sung pretty much perfectly, but a song I’ve never warmed up to; a Nina Simone; one by Kurt Weil and Maxwell Anderson!; two personal beatnik favorites of mine by Frances Landesman and Thomas Wolf, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ and ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘.

But there’s also a lot of ‘pop’ (ouch): Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, an unfortunate Bob Dylan, 2 surprising Paul Simon selections (a lovely live ‘Something So Right‘ and the rightfully minor ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Day’), Elton John, Jerry Jeff Walker, our Song of The Week, Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’.

Her upbeat songs, and the ones that try to be black, are uniformly unsuccessful. Oh, but when she hits the bulls-eye, it’s right to the heart of your heart.

Jimmy Webb is a story to himself. Excepting Burt Bacharach, the only ‘non-performing’ (we wish) songwriter of our time to get his name above the title. He’s the auteur of hits such as ‘Up, Up and Away’ (5th Dimension), Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, and the Richard Harris epic ‘MacArthur Park’. That’s some very, very fine music there.

But there are a couple of problems with Mr Webb. First of all, he kept trying to become a singer, which only damaged his reputation. But more significantly, he was so talent-inebriated that he couldn’t walk a straight line, constantly teetering from the sublime to the grotesque, from the poignant to the maudlin. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’? C’mon. If that’s not bad enough, he (or someone) chose that as the name for one of the compilations of his greatest hits. Jimmy Webb, haunting at his best, embarrassing at his worst.

I don’t want to detract from those Glenn Campbell songs. Glenn Campbell is also a story in and of himself. (Why do people say I ramble?) He was a studio guitarist on Blonde on Blonde!!! He has the God-given voice of a cowboy angel, and the good sense and taste and intelligence of a Texas Longhorn steer.

Glenn Campbell had the initial hit of ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’. Judy Collins also got a hit out of it (you’re lucky I couldn’t find that on YouTube—it’s a pretty horrifying experience), as did Joe Cocker (well, Joe, you know). It got a lovely, respectful treatment by  Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on “Beyond The Missouri Sky”. Versions such as Jimmy Webb’s own and that of Joan Baez, believe me, you don’t want to hear.

It’s not hard to get why so many people want to do this song. The title, by the way, is that of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “about a lunar colony‘s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel expresses and discusses libertarian ideals in a speculative context.” (Thanks, Mr Wikipedia). What that has to do with this lovely song is beyond me. Listen to the mean modulation at “I fell out of her eyes,” right at the shift in the lyric from the outer to the inner.

The one other version I do recommend you take a listen to is that of Linda Ronstadt. We Americans think of Linda as having a pure, gimmick-free voice. Well, listen to her version. Then listen to that of Radka Toneff. I’m sure you’ll hear how precise, fine, dignified, and moving a singer she is. And maybe you’ll see why I used to be in love with Linda, but now it’s Radka who holds my heart.

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’



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036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

Posted by jeff on Apr 8, 2010 in Rock, Song Of the week

I had an epiphanous listening experience today, of the type that make all that training and preparation and drudgework worthwhile.

I had a playlist for the day of things I wanted to get through: Don Friedman (a fine Bill Evans-styled pianist), the 5 CDs I own, because he’s coming to town next week, and I’m planning on seeing him; a new one by Liz Story, a youngish Californian Bill Evans-styled pianist who impresses me greatly every time I listen to her; and ‘At Last’, recorded in 1959 by cool bop clarinetist Tony Scott, backed by the very young, um, Bill Evans himself. Now, it’s true I start my listening most days with Bill Evans and 2 cups of brewed coffee, to ease my way into the real world. But by 9:30 I’m usually awake enough that the grey matter is beginning to stir, and I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I’m going to have to activate it at some point. That’s when I put on something a bit spicier than Bill Evans. Pick up the tempo. Add a saxophone or a singer.

But today Messrs Friedman and Evans and Ms Story held me in this very elegant, very gentle groove till way into the afternoon. So by about 4 o’clock I was ready to rip the roof off. And I’d been listening to new music, so it was time to allow myself my daily portion of the familiar. If I ever have rocking hours, it’s those.

And what did our fancy fall upon? One of our 10 Desert Island Rock Albums. Now, that’s a special occasion because, believe me, folks, no balanced person walks around listening to his DIRAs regularly. You gotta save them for the DI, right? You don’t want to wear them out. But the catch is how did they become DIRAs? Because you’ve known them and loved them and listened to them so hard and for so long that they’re often consigned to the same box in the back of the attic of your mind as the security blanket you slept with until you were six. Or fourteen.

So it’s 4:30, and we’re on the treadmill at the gym, and thank heavens there’s no one there and I’ve put MTV on mute, plugged into my Zen Creative, and–whoosh, my old aural lover, Laura Nyro’s “Eli and the 13th Confession”.

I had to pick one song to present you from this almost uniformly sublime album, no easy choice for me. So we went for one that’s fairly well known, “Sweet Blindness“, a paean to getting drunk on wine. But it just as well could have been ‘Luckie‘ or ‘Lu‘ or ‘Eli’s Coming’ or ‘Timer‘ or ‘Stoned Soul Picnic‘ or ‘Emmie‘ or ‘The Confession’.

How much do I love Laura Nyro? Well, enough that at the time my friend Mike and I intended to drive from Ohio to NYC to tell her how just much we loved her. (The pilgrimage fell through when Maybelline, my 1962 Triumph Herald, broke an axle.) She accompanied me through the darkest night of my life. And I’ve been listening to her for, well, 42 years now, and my admiration and enjoyment haven’t diminished a whit.

A lot of people don’t love Laura Nyro (pronounced ‘nero’). She was booed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. She was affected, eccentric, at times self-indulgent and annoying. Her voice could put a banshee to shame.

But she also wrote a more than respectable list of hits embedded in the public’s ear: The 5th Dimension’s “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save The Country” and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary’s “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love”, and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man)”.

But of course that’s not the music I have cared about so deeply and so long.

She was born Laura Nigro in 1947 to an Italian musician father and a Jewish mother. Grew up in NYC, listening to ’50’s and ‘60’s girl groups, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, Mary Wells, Dusty Springfield, and the early Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs of Dionne Warwick, Leontyne Price, Ravel, Debussy and Persicetti, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Beatles. Laura always “adored” the music of Van Morrison.

Her writing is a unique blend of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, show tunes and rock.

Her first album (1967) included a few enduring gems despite a disastrous recording session: the divine, ebullient “Wedding Bell Blues“, the prescient “And When I Die“. She was considering an offer to become lead singer for Blood, Sweat and Tears after Al Kooper split, but was dissuaded by her new manager and close partner David Geffen.

“Eli & the 13th Confession” was released Feb 15, 1968. It was her second album, it had a perfumed lyric sheet insert (at a time when lyrics were not yet being printed), and it made her a cult heroine upon its release. That’s no small achievement, considering that at that time it was competing for attention with The White Album, Beggar’s Banquet, Astral Weeks (in my mind, always Eli’s soul brother), Music from Big Pink, Bookends, Notorious Byrd Brothers, Cheap Thrills, Child is Father to the Man. Pretty heady company, huh? And it takes a back seat to not one of them.

Then the fine but less-than-divine follow-ups “New York Tendaberry” and “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat.” Then in 1971 a very funky album of covers with Labelle, “Gonna Take a Miracle”. Then she married a carpenter and retired from the music business at the age of 24. Then in 1976 she got a divorce and made her first of several comebacks, accompanied by a handful of lackluster albums over the next 20 years. Then in 1977 she began a life-long relationship with painter Maria Desiderio. Then she had a kid. Laura Nyro died at 49 in 1997 of ovarian cancer.

During these last 20 years, she wrote and sang songs about her pregnancy, animal rights, the unjust relocation of the Navajo people, and her menstruation cycle – you don’t believe me? “The descent of Luna Rosé (dedicated to my period)” from her 1993 CD “walk the dog & light the light”.  But that doesn’t diminish what she did in 1968.

Joni Mitchell owes her a great debt musically. The influence on Rickie Lee Jones can’t be overstated. She’s been praised most highly, and her impact acknowledged by the likes of Elvis Costello, Elton John and Bob Dylan (who reportedly went up to her at a party and said “I love your chords”). Alvin Ailey choreographed 5 dances to her music.

In recent years, Laura has been widely promoted as a lesbian voice. Well, that’s fine, I suppose. I do think that interpreting a song such as ‘Emmie’ (‘You were my friend, and I loved you’ as a Sapphic statement is creatively rewriting history. In any case, I’m sure not going to get passionate about any music or musician because of his/her/its sexual predilections.

So why do I have this intimate, passionate relationship with “Eli & the 13th Confession”? It’s a pageant of bright lights and fierce emotions. It’s gospel and doo-wop and a spiritual carpet ride through sex, love, the elation and deflation of relationships, drugs, God, the devil. The entire gallery of experiences of an eccentric, passionate, spiritual, loving person. She embraces her lover like a god, her God like a lover. It’s a trip.

Her words: There’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone, Walking on God’s good side. A little magic, a little kindness. God is a jigsaw timer. Time and wine, red yellow honey sassafras and moonshine. The natural snow, the unstudied sea, a cameo. Super ride inside my lovething.

Catch the lyric—insisting that she “Ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking”, and then she does just that: “Wine of wonder”. Listen to the ebullient vocals, lead and backing. Laura’s wonderful blue-eyed soul piano. The terrific, brash, brassy New York studio musicianship. The shifting tempos (check the humor and funk in the ritardando when she segues from the intro into the opening lyric, and then shifts back a tempo in the refrain.

Oh, Jeff, shaddup already and let them enjoy this great, glorious music.

Let’s go down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, get happy.

Down by the grapevine, drink my daddy’s wine, get happy, happy.

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Four leaves on a clover, I’m just a bit of a shade hung over.

Come on baby, do a slow float, you’re a good looking riverboat

And ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?


Let’s go down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, good morning.

Down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, good morning, morning.

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Please don’t tell my mother, I’m a saloon and a moonshine lover.

Come on baby, do a slow float you’re a good looking riverboat

And ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?


Don’t ask me cause I ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking,

Ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking, ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking–

Wine of wonder, wonder, (by the way).

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Don’t let daddy hear it, he don’t believe in the gin mill spirit.

Don’t let daddy hear it, he don’t believe in the gin mill spirit.

Come on baby, do a slow float you’re a good looking riverboat

and ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?

Now ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Van Morrison SoTWs
SoTW 28: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’
SoTW 66: Rickie Lee Jones, ‘Skeletons’

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042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)

Posted by jeff on Mar 12, 2010 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week


lieber & stroller 01I recently had the distinct pleasure of reading “Hound Dog,” the autobiography of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They were the first great record makers of rock and roll, although they themselves said all they ever wanted to do was make good rhythm and blues. So our Song of The Week is naturally going to be one of my favorites of their many, many, many hits. I hope you’ll bear with me if a take a somewhat circuitous route in getting to it. Know what a shaggy dog story is? “An extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline.” Well, that’s me to a T. But maybe you’ll find some of those incidents surrounding Leiber and Stoller as interesting as I do. If not, I won’t be hurt. Just click on the links and enjoy their very fine music.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were both born in 1933.

Stoller grew up in a wealthy Jewish home in NY. His first exposure to black music was at an integrated sleep-away camp in 1941(!), where Paul Robeson was a guest artist singing spirituals and Hebrew folksongs. Stoller heard a black kid playing boogie-woogie in barn, which he says changed his life. Back home, he took piano lessons with James P. Johnson (1894-1955), king of the stride piano, composer of “The Charleston”, mentor of Fats Waller, compadre of Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Bessie Smith. In his early teens, Stoller fell under the spell of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the luminaries of bebop.

Leiber grew up in poor Baltimore, fought in street gangs, blacks and black music an integral part of the social landscape. He says that his musical revelation was as a kid washing dishes in an all-night diner, he watched the short-order cook leaning back with a joint hanging out of his mouth, listening to Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business“.

Leiber and Stoller met up in 1950 in LA, two 17-year old Jewish boys bubbling with enthusiasm for R&B. In 1951 they managed to get a few songs recorded for some ‘minor labels with major talents’, including even the young Ray Charles. In 1952 they wrote “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield, which became a hit for Wilbert Harrison in 1959, and was eventually recorded by some 300 artists including The Beatles.

One morning they got a call from guitarist/producer Johnny Otis. He was in his garage rehearsing with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. He needed a song for her. Our boys wrote it in minutes, and drove over to Otis’s garage. There they met Ms. Thornton attired in her combat boots and oversized overalls. Mike played the song on the piano, and she began to croon it.

“Big Mama,” Jerry suggested gently, “maybe if you’d attack it with a little more–”

“Come here, boy,” she said, motioning me to stand even closer to her. “I’ll tell you what you can attack. Attack this…” she added, pointing to her crotch.

Johnny Otis came to the rescue, saying “You sing it Jerry, you show Big Mama how it goes.” This is the result.

Leiber and Stoller were paid $1200 for the song, but the check bounced. Released in 1953, it did fairly well by R&B’s modest commercial standards, but within one month 5 more versions had been recorded.

In the mid-50s, white kids were beginning to become attracted to the dangerous sexuality of black rhythm and blues – but it was a bit too raw and threatening, so they greatly preferred to buy white versions of black music. The first commercially successful rock and roll songs were Bill Haley’s 1954 sanitized cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll”, and “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955.

There were lots of clones and imitators of Bill Haley, including a long-forgotten Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They were having a successful run in Las Vegas, and one of their popular numbers was a jokey, novelty version of Big Mama’s “Hound Dog”. Elvis Presley and his band were having an unsuccessful run in Vegas at the same time. They watched Freddy Bell nightly. Elvis liked the song, decided to try it himself. He appeared with it on Milton Berle’s TV show. Over 40,000,000 people saw the performance, and the network received thousands of letters of complaint about how ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ was promoting juvenile delinquency.

I guess that’s when life as we’ve known it in the second half of the twentieth century really started.

In 1956, Stoller was honeymooning in Paris. He and his bride were returning to New York on the luxury liner the S.S. Andrea Doria. It collided with another ship and 46 passengers died. Stoller and his wife made it into lifeboats.

Jerry ran up to me on the pier saying, “Mike, you’re okay!” before adding, “We have a smash hit.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Hound Dog.”

“Big Mama Thornton?”

“No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.”

Although Leiber and Stoller had great respect for Elvis as a performer, they never really liked what he did to the song. They eventually became the main source of music for his movies, writing dozens of songs which Elvis recorded, including “Love Me,” “Loving You,” “Don’t,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” For a while they were becoming quite friendly with Elvis, but Colonel Parker didn’t like those Jewish boys hanging around his golden rooster and kept them away.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Leiber and Stoller had met up with Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertugun, sons of the Turkish ambassador to the US, great jazz and R&B fans, owners of Atlantic Records.  Leiber and Stoller started grinding out major hits for Atlantic for a group called The Robins, which soon morphed into The Coasters.

They used The Coasters to paint aural pictures, their own very wonderful version of comic-book blues.

These hits left an indelible mark on popular music for two reasons. First, because as L&S said, “We didn’t write songs; we wrote records.” They wrote not just the song, but also the arrangement, the style, the sound, the nuances of the vocal performances, the entire production. And in that, they were the first real creative artists in the popular idiom. In that, they predated the Brill Building songwriters, not to mention The Beatles and Dylan and the generations of music makers they inspired.

Oh, yeah, and secondly—well, just listen to how great these hits are: “Riot in Cell Block #9”, “Smokey Joe’s Café”, “Down in Mexico”, “Young Blood”, “Searchin'”, “Yakety Yak”, “Charlie Brown”, “Along Came Jones”, “Poison Ivy”, “Little Egypt”.

Impossible a task it is, but house rules say I have to pick just one for our SoTW. Should it be the first, “Riot in Cell Block #9“, the manic genius anarchical jailhouse opera production? The paean to STD “Poison Ivy” (sorry for the visuals, the only original I could find) with the greatest couplet in rock annals, “You’re gonna need an ocean/of calamine lotion”? No, let’s just go with the greatest of the great, the anthem of all the sullen, acned, lethargic adolescents we all were–”Yakety Yak“. Written just for me and ‘all my hoodlum friends outside’.

Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Just finish cleanin’ up your room
Let’s see that dust fly with that broom
Get all that garbage out of sight
Or you don’t go out Friday night
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

You just put on your coat and hat

And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doin’ that

Bring in the dog and put out the cat
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Don’t you give me no dirty looks
Your father’s hip; he knows what cooks
Just tell your hoodlum friend outside
You ain’t got time to take a ride
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Leiber and Stoller’s career didn’t end there. They hundreds and hundreds of memorable hits (‘On Broadway’, ‘Under the Boardwalk’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Chapel of Love’, ‘Leader of the Pack’, ‘Ruby Baby’, ‘She Cried’, ‘Only in America’, ‘Is That All There Is?’, 20 songs by Elvis, many if not most of The Beatles first recordings), and still write on occasion.

One reader told me that I was focusing too much on singers with morbid, sensationalist, Yellow Journalism sob story bios – Blind Willie Johnson, Eva Cassidy, Radke Toneff. Well, no one’s going to make an afternoon TV movie about Leiber and Stoller. But someone did make a very successful Broadway show.

In 1995, Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller opened on Broadway – forty songs by L&S, running for over five years, the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history.

So there.


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