It’s too painful being Jewish — Jerry Leiber

Mike Cohen
6 min readMay 28, 2024


Jewish Telegraph, June 2001

WHAT A PARTNERSHIP: Jerry Leiber, left, with
Mike Stoller — ‘the longest argument in the industry’
ROCK ON: Jerry Leiber, right, and Mike Stoller, talk Elvis Presley through Jailhouse Rock at the MGM Studios, Culver City, California in Spring 1957

BOB Dylan is famously quoted as saying that it was Hound Dog which first got him into rock music. So it’s quite appropriate that in the year Dylan celebrates his 60th birthday, the men who wrote the song are honoured.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller will be in London later this month for two special events. On June 27, the song-writing legends will be at the National Film Theatre, London, for the premiere of a new documentary — Words and Music by Leiber and Stoller. After the screening they will be interviewed on stage.
And two-nights later, an all-star concert is being staged at the Hammersmith Apollo featuring the music of Leiber and Stoller. Stars confirmed to appear at the concert in aid of the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy charity are Elkie Brooks, Dave Gilmour, Ben E King, Meatloaf, Gabrielle, Westlife and Elvis Costello.
‘‘We are flattered,’’ Jerry told me from his New York home. ‘‘The promoters called us up and told us about the concert. They gave us a list of names, but Mike took care of picking the artists.’’
The duo were both born in 1933 — Leiber in Baltimore, Stoller in New York. They met at high school in Los Angeles.
Leiber’s father, who had emigrated from Poland, died when Jerry was just five. His mother opened a small grocery store in a poor area of Baltimore.
She was one of a few shopkeepers who would give credit to black customers.
‘‘When my father died, my mother’s relatives looked for a business that would help her support her family,’’ Jerry recalled. ‘‘There was a strange pump in the middle of the shop floor — no-one knew what it was for.
‘‘Finally the landlord explained it was a kerosene pump for houses in the area that didn’t have electricity.’’
Jerry became a delivery boy for his mother, taking coal and kerosene to the homes of black customers. In these houses he first heard the music that would change his life.
It was during his childhood that he was turned off religion.
An uncle had tried to get him to go to the Habonim youth group, but Jerry described it as ‘‘a bunch of ugly girls and fat boys holding hands and dancing the hora’’.
Going to cheder also added to Jerry’s dislike of Judaism.
‘‘My Hebrew school was in a rough neighbourhood,’’ he recalled. ‘‘It was in a real no-man’s land. I had to fight my way there three times a week.
‘‘I never celebrated Jewish festivals unless I went to a relative’s house because all I remembered was being Jewish was painful!’’
Leiber revealed that his early love was acting. When the family moved to California, he joined a theatre company set up by Charlie Chaplin. But it was song-writing that soon took over his life.
‘‘My mother was not impressed when I first told her,’’ he said. ‘‘It was like a child telling her a story, like ‘I want to be a fireman when I grow up.’’
One day while working in a record shop, 16-year-old Jerry started talking to a customer, who turned out to be Lester Sills, head of sales for Modern Records.
‘‘He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said a song-writer,’’ Leiber recalled.
‘‘I sang him a bit of Real Ugly Woman and he told me to get my lyrics together and arrange them.
‘‘I didn’t know how to do that, so I called a guy I had been told about, Mike Stoller. He said he wasn’t interested at first because he thought I wrote cheesy pop songs, but I went over to see him, showed him the lyrics and he sat down at the piano and started playing music to the words.
‘‘We were in business! We were both crazy about boogie woogie and blues. I had bought Boogie Express by Derek Samson and wore down my copy.’’
Jerry’s sister was married to the son of ‘‘a relatively successful film score-writer Lou Parker. He showed me around the studios and told me how it all worked.
‘‘He didn’t give me a foot in the door, but he gave me the taste for it.’’
Leiber and Stoller started writing in 1950 and had hits immediately.
‘‘It wasn’t hard for us to get records out because we had deals with minor labels.
The first song they had recorded was That’s What The Good Book Says by The Robins.
They then graduated to writing for R&B singers like LaVern Baker, Jimmie Witherspoon and Amos Milburn.
In 1956, Atlantic Records took over The Robins’ label, Spark. This caused the group to split, with the lead singer and bass player heading to New York with Leiber and Stoller to form The Coasters on Atlantic.
According to Jerry, Atlantic gave him and Mike the first ever independent production deal.
Among the pair’s early songs was Kansas City, a black hit for Wilbert Harrison, but later made famous by The Beatles.
Leiber and Stoller’s profile was further raised when they worked with The Drifters, featuring Ben E King on vocals.
Despite Jerry Wexler, co-head of Atlantic, describing the first Leiber and Stoller song for the Drifters as sounding like ‘‘a radio caught between two stations’’, There Goes My Baby shot to the top of the American charts.
When King went solo, Leiber and Stoller — often called ‘the longest running argument in the music business’ — continued to work with him, jointly writing the classic Stand By Me. Leiber then joined up with rising Jewish producer Phil Spector to pen Spanish Harlem for King.
In 1964, Leiber and Stoller established their own recording company, Red Bird, which they later sold to George Goldner.
But it was in 1956 that Leiber and Stoller joined forces with the greatest performer in the world — Elvis Presley.
‘‘We worked with Elvis for years,’’ Jerry recalled. ‘‘We didn’t have our names on the record labels because someone else had the signature contract.
‘‘Elvis wouldn’t go into a recording studio unless we were present.’’
He added: ‘‘Elvis was larger than life. On one hand he was shy and on the other he was a show off. He was very quiet and courteous, but he had an edgy temper.
‘‘It was like there were two Elvises. We never saw him act badly. He called me Mr Leiber for years. Eventually I got him to call me Jerry.’’
In 1953, Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton recorded the Leiber-Stoller song Hound Dog. It was a major hit in the black charts.
Elvis was given the song in 1956 — and it finally gave him the breakthrough.
Leiber is quick to admit that he prefers the Willie Mae Thornton version.
Jerry feels that he would have struggled as a songwriter in today’s music industry.
‘‘The actual content of today’s pop songs lyrically has suffered,’’ he said.
‘‘I was brought up to copy what was going on in blues and with the great masters like Cole Porter. I was taught to write for the ear.
‘‘But now songs are written for the eye because of video. It takes a lot of muscle out of the ability to describe what’s going on through the words.
‘‘We did a good job at the time, but no-one matches the golden era of song-writing — the 1920s, 30s and 40s.’’
Leiber’s sons have followed him into the business.
One son plays keyboards for Hall and Oates, while his other son produces the Corrs.
lTickets for the tribute concert, priced £25, are available from 0870 606 3400



Mike Cohen

Jewish Telegraph deputy editor and arts editor. Email with your Jewish arts stories