Influential lyricist and producer Jerry Leiber, who penned such indelible rock ‘n’ roll standards as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand by Me,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Love Potion No. 9” alongside partner Mike Stoller, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of cardiopulmonary failure. He was 78.
Throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s, the Leiber-Stoller tandem was instrumental in bringing rhythm-and-blues music into the pop realm, and vice-versa, writing hit songs for artists on both sides of the color line. Leiber’s early lyrics tapped into a comedic and often double entendre-laden teenage idiom — from the anti-chores lament of “Yakety Yak” to the rather brazen extended STD metaphor in “Poison Ivy” (both recorded by the Coasters) — while other works, such as “On Broadway” and “Is That All There Is?,” displayed a darkly poetic insight.
“He was my friend, my buddy, my writing partner for 61 years,” Stoller said Monday. “We met when we were 17 years old. He had a way with words. There was nobody better. I’m going to miss him.”
Jerome Leiber was born in Baltimore and raised largely in the black areas of the city, cementing his love for race-repertoire music and R&B. As a teenager he moved to Los Angeles, where he met the then college-aged Stoller while a student at Fairfax High School. With Stoller as composer and Leiber as lyricist, the two began writing R&B songs during 12-hour marathon sessions in Stoller’s home; 1952’s “Hard Times” and “Kansas City” were their first hits.
The Leiber and Stoller-penned “Hound Dog” was a hit for Big Mama Thornton in 1953, but it was Elvis Presley’s 1956 version that truly set the duo’s name in lights, though Leiber was annoyed by Presley’s changes to the original’s lyrics. According to the duo’s joint autobiography, they were informed of Presley’s success with the song immediately upon arriving in New York after surviving the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria (the two were returning from a Paris meeting with Edith Piaf, who had notched a hit with a French version of their “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”).
In 1953 Leiber and Stoller had established their own record label, Spark Records, which was later absorbed into Atlantic Records. The duo composed a string of hits for the Drifters and the Coasters while at Atlantic and served as mentors for a young Phil Spector. After leaving Atlantic in the ’60s, the duo also ran the Tiger and Daisy labels, and, with George Goldner, the Red Bird and Blue Cat imprints, home of the Shangri-Las, the Dixie Cups and the Ad Libs.
Though their hitmaking cooled as the 1960s progressed, the two once again hit paydirt as composers of “Is That All There Is?” (made famous by Peggy Lee in 1969) and as producers of 1972’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.
The duo’s music formed the backbone of 1995 jukebox musical “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” which ran on Broadway for more than 2,000 performances. Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and they were granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. The two published “Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography” with David Ritz in 2009, and last season’s “American Idol” featured an episode dedicated entirely to the Leiber and Stoller catalog.
Leiber is survived by his three sons and two granddaughters.
(Christopher Morris contributed to this report.)