Wednesday, August 24, 2011


With all the other news, I haven't had a chance to comment on Jerry Leiber's passing. It's been a heavy week of losses for the music world. Nickolas Ashford from the great husband and wife songwriting singing duo Ashford and Simpson (their most famous hit being "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"). As well as Ross Barbour of Four Freshman fame.

Both of the latter two had a big impact on the world of popular music, though Ashford had less of an impact on me than Barbour (so I don't have much to say about Ashford except my favorite song he co-wrote with his wife was "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing Baby" [or whatever the title is actually called], but here's a good obituary for him).

As for Barbour, after rock'n'roll became just "rock," groups like The Four Freshman were often denigrated by younger musicians who didn't get that there wouldn't have been The Beach Boys or even The Beatles as we know them if it weren't for The Four Freshman. And being a jazz musician as a young man, I didn't know any other musicians back then who didn't dig the Freshman because of their amazing musicianship, especially their harmonies (which they basically invented, or at least their innovative use of chords which led to a kind of harmonic "discord" that was totally "jazzy" at the time (they were often at the top of any lists for vocal groups in the jazz magazine Downbeat) which not only made them sound like there were more of them than just four, but also put them close to the realm of a Thelonious Monk or Stan Kenton et. al. to the ears of many back then who found all that kind of harmony "discordant." (Thanks to Bob Berner for sending me a link to this great NY Times obit).

And here's an early version of their original style (they were all great musicians too, and might have been The Beach Boys or The Beatles had they played those electrified rock'n'roll instruments that came later):

[Ross is the one not playing an instrument, his brother Don is on guitar.]

So Barbour and his quartet's influence cannot be minimized. But the one whose  music impacted my world more than Ashford or Barbour was Jerry Leiber. I feel I'm acknowledging awfully late in the game the influence his lyrics had on me. When I was younger, and throughout my life, I've written and spoken of the influence the lyrics of Johnny Mercer, Chuck Berry and Jon Hendicks had on me as a poet early on. But I never mentioned Jerry Leiber, and I should have.

Some of his couplets from the lyrics to "Yakkety Yak" or "On Broadway" or "Poison Ivy" or "Charlie Brown" etc. are engraved on my brain, like probably most people who were young when those songs first made it to the radio. Not to mention "There Goes My Baby," "Searchin'," "Kansas City," "Young Blood," "Jailhouse Rock," "Spanish Harlem," Loving You," "Don't," "Treat Me Nice," Stand By Me," and the title song from my favorite Elvis movie "King Creole."

I actually had some slight interaction with Lieber a few years after his last great hit, and Peggy Lee's, "Is That All There Is?" He was living with (maybe married to, I don't remember now) an art historian and critic whose loft was in the building next to mine back when Soho was just becoming "Soho" (1975).

Our street, Sullivan between Houston and Prince, was still strictly an adjunct of "Little Italy," with not one but two "social clubs" anchoring each end of the block, Saint Anthony's church and the festival named for it each summer (which always exited my kids, having Italian sausage carts right in front of our stoop and game booths etc. until halfway through the week when the smells and noise had become too much for them and they wished it was over already), an Italian bakery, butcher shop, fish store, deli, candy store, etc.

But one of the most exciting additions to the neighborhood was Jerry Leiber because of the classic (I think '56) Cadillac convertible he drove (I remember it as green, but who knows now) which, as I heard it, had been a gift from Elvis back when a tune Leiber and his partner Mike Stoller (Leiber & Stoller were so linked in the 1950s that you never said one without the other) wrote for "Big Mama" Thornton a few years before became Elvis's biggest—and life changing, actually world changing—hit: "Hound Dog" (though as the obit linked to below points out, Elvis changed the lyrics in ways Leiber hated, though he didn't object to the royalties).

The woman Leiber lived with had a daughter who babysat for my now older son Miles, and maybe for him and his sister Caitlin after she joined us (though I don't think there was any more babysitting by then). She was a great kid, and the few times I encountered Leiber, he seemed like a genuine and unpretentious person himself.

I give my belated praise to a man whose lyrics probably influenced more writers who grew up in the 1950s than any literary icon in the academic canon: Jerry Leiber.

[Here's a great obit from TIME.]


Anonymous said...

It's nice to read your blog about these amazing men, actually passing on the same day. You may know Arnold was a great friend of Jerry. Tony and I occasionally saw Jerry here in LA, but we are great friends of his ex-wife Gaby Rodgers, who also lives in LA. We last saw Jerry at a lovely birthday party he gave for Gaby a year ago.
And, Ashford & Simpson were one of the first groups Tony directed when he was directing MTV videos.
Bless them both.

Robert Berner said...

Dear Lal--Thanks for posting the link to that TIME obit for Jerry Leiber. It was way better than the one in the Times, either NY's or LA's. Thanks too for the Four Fresh-men video. We should look around and see if we can find a video of the Freshmen doing "Angel Eyes," the song I wooed my first college girl-friend with in 1959. The tune has a drop-dead gorgeous bridge and a beautiful minor-key finale.
Bob B.

Lally said...

Suzanne, amazing the personal connections we all have to so many people and events of our days. I love it and am fascinated by it, so thanks for sharing that. I never got to know Leiber, but what I did see of him, he came across as a really cool, nice guy.
And Bob, as soon as I read your comment I could here that Four Freshman version of Angels Eyes in my mind's ear. Beautiful.