Doggy Style

Hound Dog, written with David Ritz, is the autobiography of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote not only that “title track” but a whole string of classics--“There Goes My Baby,” “Young Blood,” “Stand By Me,” “Love Potion Number 9,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Kansas City,” “On Broadway,” “Poison Ivy,”  “I (Who Have Nothing),” “Framed,” “Spanish Harlem,” “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” Their famous declaration that “We don’t write songs, we write records” is literally true—they produced and arranged most of the records, with Leiber creating the scratch vocals as a guide and with Stoller on keyboards.

 

Although they were native New Yorkers who were a key part of the Brill Building scene, they met and began to collaborate in Los Angeles while in high school, this opened up their sensibilities to Pachuco styles and much more. “I liked Belmont High School,” Stoller writes. “Half the kids were Mexicans. Then there were Chinese and Japanese kids, black kids and kids from the South Sea Islands. All the hipsters in New York warned me that LA was really square, but they were wrong.”

 

Yet Leiber and Stoller themselves were hipsters--jazz snobs, fans of the theater and literature and high art—who could never resolve the tension between that and their bedrock, the blues (a young Stoller once took piano lessons from stride master James P. Johnson). They embraced it all and out of that tension came the wildest variety—the goofy playlets of the Coasters (“Yakety yak! Don’t talk back”) and songs of stunning beauty driven by orchestral ambitions (Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby”).

 

Hound Dog, presented as a conversation between Leiber and Stoller, is about more than how those songs were written and recorded. It details their efforts to rise above the constraints of the music business, in the process enduring conflicts with Colonel Parker, Phil Spector, and Atlantic Records. There is plenty of sex and booze and drama (drag racing with James Dean, Stoller ending up in the ocean when the Andrea Doria sinks) and the heart-rending attempts of two flawed men trying to build marriages and families.

 

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are keenly aware of their place in history (Stoller again: “We can’t and won’t claim credit as the inventors of rap, but if you listen to our early output, you’ll hear lots of black men talking poem-stories over a heavy backbeat.”). What comes across more fundamentally is their sense of wonder at all that human beings are able to create, their determination to drink it all in and then, in every way possible, to spit it back out.

 

 

Rock & Rap Confidential / 2010