Saturday, 10 September 2011

don't talk back

When I was a student in Manchester in the mid-1960s, I spent quite a lot of time combing second-hand shops on the lookout for old 45s. This period coincided with the so-called ‘beat boom’ in the UK, when many bands were issuing cover versions of old rhythm and blues songs. I was looking for the original versions, but I also came across many songs and many artists of whom I’d never heard. In these circumstances, I would usually buy the record in question if it met one of two criteria.

The first criterion was the record label. Anything on Decca’s London-American or EMI’s Stateside labels was snapped up immediately, largely because so much of the output of small and obscure American labels was released in the UK on one of these two. Not everything was obscure though: the output of Atlantic Records appeared in the UK on London-American before being given its own label, while both Tamla and Motown records were released on Stateside before EMI decided to follow Decca’s lead and create a label specifically for records from this studio.

The second criterion was the composer(s). In 1963/64, Poison Ivy was covered by several British bands, and when I finally got my hands on the original version, by the Coasters, I discovered that it had been written by two people whose names I’d not previously encountered, although I’d already heard many of their songs without being aware of the composers’ names. I soon learned that any song with the composing credit ‘Leiber/Stoller’ was well worth buying.

I found myself reminiscing about my student days last month when I heard about the death of lyricist Jerry Leiber, who, with composer Mike Stoller, had provided the soundtrack to much of the 1950s.

Leiber’s death was widely reported, but the obituaries tended to focus on three of the duo’s many songs: Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, and Ben E. King’s Stand by Me. All three are excellent songs, but the pair's most important work was with black vocal group the Coasters. However, the original version of Hound Dog, by Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, was their first major hit, and the song provides an interesting insight into the racial tensions that existed in the music scene in fifties America.

Hound Dog was a classic blues in its original form, and it followed a longstanding blues tradition of incorporating some sexual imagery and innuendo into the lyric. However, in Presley’s version the words were altered (not by Leiber) to avoid offending a predominantly white audience. A comparison is striking:
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,
Been snoopin’ round my door.
You can wag your tail,
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more.

Big Mama Thornton version.
You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,
Cryin’ all the time.
You ain’t never caught a rabbit,
And you ain’t no friend of mine.

Elvis Presley version.
Although Leiber and Stoller later wrote other songs specifically for Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole being the best-known examples, it is their work with black artists on which their reputation stands. In addition to working with Big Mama Thornton, in the early 1950s they also wrote songs for Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon and Little Willie Littlefield. However, the collaboration that set the trajectory for their career throughout the remainder of the decade was with Los Angeles doo-wop group the Robins, whose Riot in Cell Block #9, with its repeating chorus of ‘There’s a riot goin’ on’, was a major R&B hit in 1954.

Following the success of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the Robins’ fifth record, Leiber and Stoller were offered a production contract with Atlantic Records in New York, but two of the Robins’ four vocalists refused a move to Atlantic. However, in 1957, the rest of the group did move to New York, where they recruited two new singers and renamed themselves the Coasters. Beginning with Searchin’/Young Blood, Leiber and Stoller wrote and produced a string of powerful songs for the Coasters that only came to an end in 1961. Changing audience tastes probably brought this end about.

It is these Coasters songs that give Leiber a fair claim to be known as the poet of rock ’n’ roll, the only other serious contender for this title being Chuck Berry; an analysis of their styles throws up some intriguing contrasts. For example, while Leiber and Stoller were Jewish and championed black music, Chuck Berry, who was black himself, articulated the anxieties and aspirations of white teenagers:
Sweet Little Sixteen,
She’s just got to have
About half a million
Framed autographs.
Her wallet’s filled with pictures,
She gets ’em one by one.
She gets so excited
Watch her, look at her run.
School has always been a major source of anxiety for many teenagers, and Leiber and Berry addressed this in different ways. The eponymous hero of Leiber’s Charlie Brown is clearly a rebel, smoking in the auditorium, playing craps in the boys’ gym and writing graffiti on the walls of the school. He is ‘cool’:
Who walks in the classroom cool and slow?
Who calls the English teacher Daddy-o?
Berry, on the other hand, saw school as something to be endured:
Back in the classroom, open your books,
Gee but the teacher, don’t know how mean she looks.
Berry often wrote about the music; examples include Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven. In School Day, from which the last extract is taken, he suggests that the ‘antidote’ to school is the local juke joint, where his listeners can ‘hear something that’s really hot’. The last verse neatly sums up his attitude:
Hail, hail, rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old.
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold.
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin’ is there, body and soul.
There is nothing like this in any lyric by Jerry Leiber. Perhaps the Leiber/Stoller song by the Coasters that best exemplifies his style and choice of subject matter is Yakety Yak, a series of admonitions and warnings by an exasperated mother to her delinquent son. The first verse does contain a passing reference to the music, but it is the final verse that encapsulates the ‘message’:
Take out the papers and the trash,
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash.
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor,
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more.
Yakety yak (don’t talk back).

Don’t you give me no dirty looks,
Your father’s hip, he knows what cooks.
Just tell your hoodlum friend outside,
You ain’t got time to take a ride.
Yakety yak (don’t talk back).
Although it is not explicitly indicated in the lyric, there can be little doubt that Leiber’s sympathies lie with the target of this tirade, because the phrase ‘Yakety yak’ is clearly uttered by the son. And teenagers listening to Yakety Yak would have known all about what it was like to constantly be told what to do and what not to do by annoying parents when all they really wanted to do was rock and roll (in the original as well as the contemporary meaning of the phrase).

The phrase in parentheses is sung by the group’s bass singer, giving this track the superficial appearance of a novelty song, but bass interjections like this were a Coasters trademark and were used in most of their songs, which are probably best described as a sophisticated hybrid of rhythm and blues and pop music, with a driving rhythm and a distinctive stuttering tenor saxophone solo by King Curtis.

Leiber and Stoller wrote songs for other black vocal groups, notably the Drifters, for whom they penned There Goes My Baby, Save the Last Dance for Me and On Broadway. However, no one could accuse the Drifters of singing rock ’n’ roll. These three tracks are pop songs, complete with soaring string accompaniment, although the string arrangement on There Goes My Baby does incorporate a riff from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, possibly to counter accusations of blandness.

However, my favourite Leiber/Stoller song is one that was apparently offered to the Coasters, who turned it down. This seems very odd, given that Love Potion #9 sounds like a classic Coasters song. When, in my wanderings around Manchester, I came across the original version, by the Clovers, it met the second of the criteria outlined above and was instantly snapped up.

Love Potion #9 is a ‘story’ song, in which the singer admits that he is ‘a flop with chicks’:
I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth.
You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth.
She’s got a pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine,
Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.
This is one of the few Leiber/Stoller songs to include a middle eight, and this is worth quoting because it is an excellent example of Leiber’s verbal dexterity:
She bent down and turned around and gave me a wink.
She said “I’m gonna mix it up right here in the sink”.
It smelled like turpentine, it looked like Indian ink.
I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink.
In classic Coasters style, ‘I took a drink’ is sung by a solo bass voice. However, the backing is far more gentle than it would have been had the Coasters performed the song, and the saxophone solo is insipid: it is unlikely to have been performed by King Curtis.

Although Leiber and Stoller remained active throughout the 1960s, the zeitgeist had changed. It became standard practice for bands to write and perform their own material, although the Hollies’ first two singles, (Ain’t That) Just Like Me and Searchin’, were old Coasters songs, and the Paramounts, later to morph into Procul Harum, released Poison Ivy. The new blueprint for black vocal groups was that offered by Tamla-Motown, which developed a more commercial, factory-like approach to producing hit records, which were written by in-house composers and backed by in-house musicians.

Ironically, a record that I would categorize as ‘not typical Motown’—Do You Love Me? by the Contours—is probably the only one from this stable that would not have appeared out of place in the Coasters’ repertoire. It was covered by both Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and the Dave Clark Five in 1963 as British bands scoured the American R&B market for potential material. Apart from Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes, You Really Got a Hold on Me by the Miracles and Money by Barrett Strong (another untypical Motown release), covered by the Beatles on their second album, the songs issuing from this studio were not considered suitable material by a generation of bands who in 1963/64 were taking their inspiration from the music of the 1950s, of which the songs of Leiber and Stoller were an integral part.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and comprehensive information about Blues. I always love Blues almost know nothing about bands and composers. Glad your mentioned about composers, because I always think composers should take more credit than performers. I will listen some of the bands you mentioned later on. Thanks!


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