If you’ve never been compelled to sing along to “every night when you’re sleepin’ poison ivy comes creepin’ arowowound...” or “yakety-yak – don’t talk back!...” or curled your lip, Elvis-style, to snarl, “you ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog...” well, maybe you never had a radio.
Hound Dog is the joint autobiography of two blues-crazed Jewish boys from the East Coast who moved out to Los Angeles to seek out their musical idols and follow their dreams. Barely out of high school, they became the authors of those indelible hits.
Soul (music) mates Jerry Leiber, from Baltimore, and Mike Stoller, raised on Long Island, N.Y., were born just weeks apart in 1933 and met by chance when both of their families relocated to L.A. after World War II. Both boys were mad for the kind of African-American blues and jazz then flourishing on L.A.’s rollicking Central Avenue. Within a year of arriving on the scene, and still in their teens, they’d written hit songs for local blues belters Jimmy Witherspoon and Charles Brown, and they were off to the races.
Their Midas touch continued throughout the 1950s, as they scored hit after hit with California’s novelty song-oriented Coasters (“Searchin,” “Charlie Brown”) and later with New York City’s Drifters (“On Broadway,” “Dance with Me”), often doubling as producers.
But it was in 1956 that an up-and-coming white artist covered one of their early blues compositions and they suddenly found themselves red-hot stars, with the No. 1 hit record in the world. The artist: Elvis Presley. The song: “Hound Dog.”
Elvis called Leiber and Stoller his “good luck charm” and commissioned 20 songs from the pair over the next several years, including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Treat Me Nice.” The duo’s winning streak carried over into the ’60s with the production of the Dixie Cups’ worldwide smash “Chapel of Love” on their own Redbird label.
But when the musical tsunami from Liverpool hit American shores in 1964, Leiber and Stoller suddenly found little room on the radio for their kind of music.
Then, after a half decade without a hit, they pitched an odd, Brechtian composition they’d penned to singer Peggy Lee, whose career was in similar straits at the time. Something in the song connected with the enigmatic performer and, against all odds, “Is That All There Is?” shoe-horned its way onto the charts.
Stoller remembers, “In 1969, the year of the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ ... the Rolling Stones’ ‘Honky Tonk Women,’ and Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People,’ ‘Is That All There Is?’ became a sensation – the biggest in Peggy’s long career and a permanent part of the Great American Songbook.”
Compared with their massive contribution to the history of both rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll music, this autobiography of the legendary composers/producers is a fairly lightweight tome that should have been written years ago. The kind of behind-the-scenes songwriting and hitmaking details we music critics crave play second fiddle to ribald (and often profane) tales of drinking, the pursuit of women, crazy characters, more drinking, and shady deal-making. Songs seem to miraculously write themselves.
Memories of specific details may have simply faded with time (their last hit record was 40 years ago). But there’s still enough in this entertaining volume to paint a vividly colorful portrait of two wild and cool cats whose dreams could not possibly have been as big as their lives and legacy turned out to be.
John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director. His inspired performance of “Hound Dog” at the Arlington Heights, Ill., North School Valentine’s Day party in 1957 won the affection of 8-year-old Merilee Benson for about a week.