Jerry Leiber, who with longtime partner Mike Stoller wrote "Hound Dog," ''Jailhouse Rock," ''Yakety Yak" and other hit songs that came to define early rock 'n' roll, died Monday. He was 78.
He was surrounded by family when he died unexpectedly of cardiopulmonary failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his longtime publicist, Bobbi Marcus.
With Leiber as lyricist and Stoller as composer, the team channeled their blues and jazz backgrounds into pop songs performed by such artists as Elvis Presley, Dion and the Belmonts, the Coasters, the Drifters and Ben E. King in a way that would help create a joyous new musical style.
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From their breakout hit, blues great Big Mama Thornton's 1953 rendition of "Hound Dog," until their songwriting took a more serious turn in 1969 with Peggy Lee's recording of "Is That All There Is?" the pair remained one of the most successful teams in pop music history.
"He was my friend, my buddy, my writing partner for 61 years," Stoller said. "We met when we were 17 years old. He had a way with words. There was nobody better. I am going to miss him."
The two chronicled their lifelong partnership, which Leiber called "the longest running argument in show business," in their 2009 memoir, "Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography." The pair's writing prowess and influence over the recording industry as pioneering independent producers earned them induction into the non-performer category of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
"The music world lost today one of its greatest poet laureates," said Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. "Jerry not only wrote the words that everyone was singing, he led the way in how we verbalized our feelings about the societal changes we were living with in post-World War II life. Appropriately, his vehicles of choice were the emerging populist musical genres of rhythm and blues and then rock and roll."
Leiber, who like Stoller was white, said his musical inspiration came from the close identification he had with black American culture during his boyhood and teen years in Baltimore and Los Angeles.
Thus he was the perfect lyricist for bluesy, jazz-inflected compositions like "Kansas City," ''Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots," ''Charlie Brown," ''Drip Drop," ''Stand By Me" and "On Broadway."
The lyrics could be poignant, as in "On Broadway," or full of humor, as in the antics of high school goofball Charlie Brown, who "calls the English teacher Daddy-O" and laments, "Why's everybody always pickin' on me?"
The result was a serious departure from the classically inflected music that had been produced by a previous generation of pop songwriters that included George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.
"Irving Berlin was the greatest songwriter of all time," Leiber told The Los Angeles Times' "West" magazine in 2006. "I was in awe of him. But his music wasn't my music. My music was the blues."
Over their career, they had 15 No. 1 hits in a variety of genres by 10 different artists. Among the performers who sang their songs were Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Otis Redding.
Leiber and Stoller were instrumental in helping launch Presley's career with such songs as "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." The two far preferred Thornton's version of "Hound Dog" to Presley's, in part because the latter version changed some of the lyrics.
"Lick for lick, there's no comparison between the Presley version and the Big Mama original," Leiber said in the pair's dual autobiography, "Hound Dog," published in 2009. Stoller said he was annoyed by the Presley version, but still praised the "edge of danger and mystery" that Presley brought to his covers of R&B records.
In the 1990s, their songs became the centerpiece of a long-running Broadway revue, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," which won a Grammy for best musical show album in 1996.
"The songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller remains one of the greatest and most prolific partnerships of all time," said Martin N. Bandier, chairman and chief executive of Sony/ATV Music Publishing. "Like the lyrics in his iconic songs, Jerry was humorous, insightful and always memorable. He will be missed by everyone who knew him, but lucky for all of us his songs will live on for generations."
Their last song to reach wide acclaim was the 1969 ballad, "Is That All There Is?" Lee's moody rendition of the song, whose lyrics are based on an 1896 short story by German author Thomas Mann, reached the top 20.
Leiber and Stoller continued to collaborate on earnest, eclectic projects, including 1975's "Mirrors."
Leiber was born in Baltimore in 1933 to Jewish immigrants from Poland. He met Stoller after moving to Los Angeles with his mother in 1950.
The two immediately began collaborating and formed their own record label, Spark, in 1953.
The pair had grown tired of writing pop hits by the late 1960s, Leiber once said, and decided to concentrate on more serious music. Those later efforts never found the wide audience that their earlier work did, but Leiber said that was fine with him and his partner.
"The earlier market of swing and Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington was pretty much gone, but we liked that kind of sound and wanted to imitate it," he told The New York Times in 1995. "In a way, we had helped kill it with what we had done. We had helped bring down the cathedral, and now we didn't know where to pray."
Leiber was survived by three children, Jed, Oliver, and Jake; and two grandchildren, Chloe and Daphne.