Leiber and Stoller? They Wrote the Memories

By Judith Newmark Post-Dispatch Theater Critic | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

Leiber and Stoller? They Wrote the Memories


Judith Newmark Post-Dispatch Theater Critic, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


IF jukeboxes, 45 rpm record players or "modern" bedside radios in pastel shades of plastic figure in your memories, chances are good that the soundtrack of your life includes the music of Leiber and Stoller. Maybe you still like to listen to it, tuning in an oldies station or popping in a cassette or CD you ordered from late-night TV.

When the music plays, you can head into rush-hour traffic or the after-school pick-up line with the delicious illusion that, instead of being a responsible adult with things to do, you are once again 16, carefree and cool.

Among baby boomers, it's a nearly universal experience. Strange to say, however, the men behind much of that music are not listening with you. These days, composer Mike Stoller relaxes with cabaret music and show tunes, plus longtime jazz and classical favorites. His partner, lyricist Jerry Leiber, finds his taste running to an eclectic musical mix: baroque, swing and classic blues by artists like Charlie Parker. "I stopped listening to rock 'n' roll almost before the Beatles came onto the scene," Leiber admitted. "To me, rock 'n' roll is work." Nice work if you can get it. Now in its 47th year, Leiber and Stoller's immensely productive partnership created countless hits, among them "Hound Dog," "Love Potion #9," "Stand by Me," "Yackety Yak," "Jailhouse Rock" "Spanish Harlem," "Kansas City" and "On Broadway." Which, as it happens, is where they've ended up. Aggressively democratic and unpretentious, Leiber and Stoller's teen-age sound seems to be about as far from Broadway musicals, with their stiff prices and well-groomed, well-heeled audiences, as you could get - a situation the men behind it always relished. ("We didn't write songs," they liked to say. "We wrote records.") But what do you know - "Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller" has been running on Broadway for an impressive two years. The tour will play the Fox Theatre this week. The two men are delighted with the show, an ebullient, plotless song-and-dance revue. When it opened, the reviews were poor. "Variety said, don't waste your money on parking," Stoller said, recalling the pre-Broadway run in LA. "But there was a line outside the theater every night, people waiting for cancellations." The audience enthusiasm continued in New York, no surprise to Leiber. People love the show, he said, because when they hear those songs, "they celebrate their own histories." As grandiose as that may sound, Leiber is probably right. Just look at the way that moviemakers use Top 40 hits of the '50s and '60s to tap a common store of memories and associations; as much as anyone, Leiber and Stoller invented the emotional shorthand of a generation. True, the generation wasn't theirs. Both men were born in 1933. But they were only 17 when they started working together, part of the age group that would embrace their work. The teens, who lived in LA, were introduced by a mutual friend who told Leiber, an aspiring lyricist, that Stoller was not only a good instrumentalist but also actually knew how to read and write music, uncommon skills. Leiber said, "I called Mike and I said, `I heard you might be interested in writing songs? Are you?' He said, nope. Well, he was very resistant - sometimes he still is. "But I couldn't believe anybody wouldn't want to write songs. …

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