Obituary by Sean O'Connell
For I know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you,
when that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath,
I'll be saying to myself,
Is that all there is? Is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
-“Is That All There Is?”
Lyricist Jerry Leiber passed away earlier today. Alongside his writing partner Mike Stoller, they wrote some of the most enduring hits of the '50s and '60s, including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion #9,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Stand By Me.” He was 78 years old.
Leiber met Stoller in the early '50s when he was a senior at Fairfax high school. Within two years of meeting they had their first hit with Little Willie Littlefield's mid-tempo take on “Kansas City.” The song was eventually recorded by over 300 artists ranging from Little Richard to the Beatles to Muddy Waters. They followed that success with “Hound Dog,” which sold well for Big Mama Thornton and sold even better for Elvis three years later. “'Hound Dog' took like twelve minutes,” Leiber told Rolling Stone magazine. “That's not a complicated piece of work. But the rhyme scheme was difficult. Also the metric structure of the music was not easy. 'Kansas City' was maybe eight minutes, if that. Writing the early blues was spontaneous. You can hear the energy in the work.”
Leiber and Stoller quickly grew to become the most successful writing duo in R&B, breaking open the market to white teenagers eager for new 45s. “We lived a black lifestyle as young guys. We had black girlfriends for years,” recounted Leiber. “In the general sense, it was extreme. But not in the environment that we moved in. They were amused by us, two white kids doing the blues. They thought it was goofy, a lot of fun.” That fun also turned into bundles of royalty checks.
In the mid-'50s, they sold their newly-formed label Spark to Atlantic Records and became hired hands for numerous Atlantic acts like the Drifters, producing “There Goes My Baby” and co-writing “On Broadway” alongside Brill Building songsters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. “Jerry would write in a much more abstract way, kind of throwing out lines. I was always very linear,” recalled Cynthia Weil to Taxi.com. ” I had to be a good girl and finish verse one before I would allow myself to have the pleasure of verse two. But Jerry said, 'Just loosen up, woman, and let's just write the song. We'll throw out lines that we think are good, and then we'll see where they go and if we can use any of them.' That's the way we kind of approached it. Then it all came together.”
Their success continued through the '60s starting with productions for Ben E. King (“Spanish Harlem” and “Stand By Me”) and closing with the cabaret-inflected “Is That All There Is?” – a top ten hit for Peggy Lee. The duo's last major hit was as producers of “Stuck in the Middle With You” – the rambling Dylan-esque song performed by Stealers Wheels and immortalized by Quentin Tarantino.
The music industry, from the executives to the consumers, was forever changed because of the contributions of Jerry Leiber. His clever lyrics and straight-forward rhymes were accessible to hundreds of artists and millions of listeners. He broadened the listening base for R&B and helped the lead the charge for countless musical trends for over twenty years, helping to shape the sound of rock and roll. His unparalleled legacy will be revisited for untold generations to come. He will be missed.