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Soulful legacy; Remembering Jerry Leiber and his impact on rock 'n' roll

Like many a Beatles fanatic before me, I first fell beneath the sway of the music of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller through the Fabs.

I was mildly curious that the song "Kansas City," from the "Beatles For Sale" LP, was not credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and that curiosity was piqued when I remembered where I'd first seen the Leiber/Stoller songwriting credit -- beneath "Hound Dog," on an Elvis Presley collection I'd borrowed from the library and tried, in vain, to find a way of keeping. (Mom wasn't having any of that, thank you very much.)

Too young at the time -- 5, roughly -- to really muster the energy to dig deeper than my idols, and with Google still merely a glimmer in the local library card catalog's eye, I let it go. But the whole Leiber/Stoller thing kept on reappearing. In the mid-1970s, my favorite tune on Lennon's all-covers solo album "Rock and Roll" was his vocal cord-bursting take on "Stand By Me." There they were again.

It seems fitting, with the benefit of recollection, that my introduction to Leiber -- who passed away at the age of 78 on Monday -- and Stoller came via a white British band obsessed with African-American songs. Leiber and Stoller were always about cross-pollination anyway.

The duo -- Leiber the lyricist able to capture the essence of teenage angst with an unrivaled economy of verse, Stoller the boogie-woogie pianist with an ear for indelible melodies -- started out in the 1950s writing what were still called, inexcusably, "race records."

"Hound Dog" was in fact originally penned for Big Mama Thornton, as a bawdy, blatantly sexual slab of roadhouse rhythm and blues.

By the time it reached me -- and millions of others -- via Presley's take on the tune, it had lost none of its frank funkiness and leering lasciviousness. These had, after all, been written into the tune.

As a 5-year-old, I had no real idea what was going on with this song, but it scared the hell out of me, and without my knowing it, dictated the course of my life from that point forward. The time spent since has really been all about recapturing the thrill of hearing McCartney belt out "Kansas City," or Elvis sneering through "Hound Dog," or Lennon pouring his entire being into "Stand By Me," all over again.

Reflecting on Leiber's accomplishments this week, it struck me that he and his writing partner were in possession of a soulfulness that managed to transcend race. Unlike the cynics who attempted to water down African-American music for white teens by taking all of the sex and swagger out of it -- Pat Boone's desecration of Little Richard comes to mind -- these two knew implicitly that soulfulness was not only black and plasticity not only white. Music is bigger than such notions.

Of course, one of the many endless pleasures that comes along with being a music-obsessed freak involves tracing your idols' influences backward. If you happen to be a Bob Dylan devotee, for example, the soil runs deep and is incredibly rich, leading to such fascinating artists as the Mississippi Sheiks and Blind Willie Johnson, to name only two of the hundreds Dylan's art points back toward.

And so Lennon's take on "Stand By Me" led me back to Ben E. King, and then I fell for King's take on "Spanish Harlem." There's Leiber again, this time working with Phil Spector to create one of the most luscious and deeply romantic rock ballads of all time.

Most of us who consider ourselves to be musicians would be happy to write a single song that makes it beyond its immediate milieu and broaches the upper regions of the timeless. Leiber and Stoller managed to come up with at least 50 songs that fit that bill -- a conservative estimate, in fact.

How did they do it? In Robert Palmer's "Baby, That Was Rock 'n' Roll: The Legendary Leiber & Stoller," Leiber is quoted thus: "Often I would have a start, two or four lines Mike would sit at the piano and start to jam, just playing, fooling around, and I'd throw out a line. He'd accommodate the line -- metrically, rhythmically." And then they were off.

So some of the most memorable songs in rock history were born out of jam sessions? There's a lesson in this, particularly today, when pop songs are penned by committee, tested on focus groups, and produced to death, or at least near-death, by a team of audio clinicians invariably dressed in overpriced track suits.

This may be the Leiber and Stoller legacy, then. No, not the overpriced track suits, but that ability to follow the thread of a joyful inspiration wherever it led, beyond the concerns and constraints of race and place, toward something that distills the simple but multifaceted joy of creation.

Leiber may be gone, but that joy remains. You can hear it in everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the Black Keys. And you'll hear it again, every time a kid picks up a guitar or sits down at the piano and lets the inspiration flow.


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