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Standing by Jerry Leiber (1933-2011)

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Jerry Leiber passed away yesterday at the age of 78. With his writing partner Mike Stoller, the two were that rarity: unknown, famous people. You know Jerry Leiber. You just don't know that you do. I was trying to think of what I wanted to say about the loss, when I realized that what I wanted to say about Jerry Leiber was precisely what I wrote here five years ago.

I wanted to say that it's almost incomprehensible that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller haven't been presented with the Kennedy Center Honors. And that they should be. And why.

It wasn't that they were merely legendary songwriters, it's that they changed popular culture. And rather than explain that in a new way, it's probably best to let the past speak for itself.

December 28, 2006

This year's Kennedy Center Honors for performing arts have now officially passed.

And that officially begs the question -- who to honor next?

It's all utterly subjective, of course. But it's fair to say that what makes the Kennedy Center Honors special is when they're able to go far beyond what the Oscars, Emmys or Grammys are about, giving awards, specifically lifetime achievement awards to those who have honored their specific craft.

Instead, when at its best, the Kennedy Center Honors applies a different standard. After all, it's recognition from the nation itself. Not just for being wondrously talented and producing work the public loves, but for doing something more. Not just being A Star. But for being iconic in American culture. The stuff of legends. Transforming the art form itself to become ingrained in the national consciousness.

The Kennedy Center Honors don't always hit those heights, but whenever they do it's why some honorees haven't been well-known to the general public -- or known at all. What tiny percent of the public ever heard of Maria Tallchief, Alexander Schneider or Katherine Dunham?

Yet these are all artists who transcended their time and general popularity, and deeply enriched American culture, beyond "just" entertaining it.

Such honorees like Fred Astaire, Count Basie, Arthur Miller, Richard Rodgers, George Ballanchine and Billy Wilder.

At its heart, the Kennedy Center Honors shouldn't be just about talent, popularity and whose name can bring in a big TV audience... but rather about those special few who made our cultural life better, who influenced their craft in ways it hadn't gone before, even if we didn't know it, even if we didn't know them.

Which brings us again to that question, who to honor next?

Any list would have names swirling around like a cyclone, and taming it is a subjective near-impossibility.

But two names leap out to me.

Indeed, they've been leaping out for the past decade, and it remains bewildering that they've not yet been honored. Perhaps that will change soon.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Right now, I can hear most people uttering a confused, "Who???" But in fairness, a loud contingent is smiling, "Oh!! Yeahhhhhh..."

Leiber and Stoller are a songwriting team so legendary that they're the soundtrack of generations. It doesn't matter if you haven't heard of them. You've heard of their music. Endlessly, even if your ears goe back only a decade or two.

But even if you don't know their music, the influence from it has impacted American cultural life. Leiber and Stoller took rhythm & blues, mixed it with rock 'n roll, and merged the sounds of black and white music into something that erupted onto America.

Rather than describe who they are, though -- far better to list just a small jukebox of songs they wrote. You'll understand.

Stand By Me
Spanish Harlem
On Broadway
Love Potion #9
Hound Dog
Jailhouse Rock
Ruby Baby
Kansas City
Poison Ivy
I'm a Woman (W-O-M-A-N)
Is That All There Is?
There Goes My Baby
Yakety Yak
Charlie Brown
Fools Fall in Love
Searchin'
D.W. Washburn
I (Who Have Nothing)

That's just a handful. There are more. Hundreds.

And it doesn't even include all the songs that they produced for others. Like "Up on the Roof," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "This Magic Moment," and "Chapel of Love," and -- there are so many more of these, too.

And yet the thing about Leiber & Stoller is that their worth isn't just about culture-changing songwriting alone, but their larger influence on the popular culture.

The two met at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in 1950 -- and had their first single that same year.

Eventually they moved to NY and the famed Brill Building, the heart of American popular music. But the two didn't just write the songs: they arranged them, picked the musicians and produced the records. Soon, they did the unprecedented: formed their own label, Red Bird in 1964, and their influence grew even further. The company was home for many of the most popular girl groups of the era, like the Shangri-La's ("Leader of the Pack") and Dixie Cups ("Chapel of Love"). Leiber and Stoller hired other songwriters, notably Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who themselves added to the Great American Songbook, with classics like "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Be My Baby" and "Doo Wah Diddy". They hired a young Phil Spector, who went on to become one the most famous record producers in recording history.

Leiber (lyrics) and Stoller (the music) wrote well-over 20 songs for Elvis Presley, and had hits with artists ranging from the Coasters to Peggy Lee and blues legends Big Mama Thornton and Jimmy Witherspoon.

Their work spanned styles, emotions and generations, lasting over 50 years to the present day in new recordings, movies and commercials. In 1987, they were elected to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, and had a Broadway show "Smokey Joe's Café" of their music.

And both men are still around. Still friends. Still working.

And it's about time they received the Kennedy Center Honor.


*

And they still should.

It's too late, unfortunately, for Jerry Leiber to be around to be honored, but he worked as part of a team. But it's not too late for the team. And the team lives on.

So, too, does the remarkable legacy of Jerry Leiber.