To casual fans of pop music, the name JERRY LEIBER might not mean a lot. But even if you’ve no interest in the genre, you simply have to know some of his songs. “Kansas City,” “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Charlie Brown,” Yakety Yak,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Poison Ivy,” “Love Potion # 9,” and “On Broadway?” All written by Jerry Leiber.
One reason I like reading biographies of musical icons lies in the fact that often, I’ll run up on names of people I met or even knew well in my musical days. And reading Paul Simon’s biography, I encountered the name of Jerry Leiber, who I recalled I’d actually met in the mid-70’s.
At the time, I was writing songs with an established co-writer who had little difficulty getting us in publishers’ doors. As with Leiber 20 years before, Dorian (my partner) and I had our fingers on the pulse of the new disco/funk music which was selling at the time. With tunes like “Move It,” “Gettin’ There Fast,” “Walkin’ On a Highwire,” and “Troublemakers,” we had enough with which to interest publishers.
Exactly how I got an appointment with Jerry Leiber I can’t recall. It might have been through Dorian’s influence. Or maybe the fact that my own father had produced one of Jerry’s songs (“Ruby Baby”) which had gone to #2 on the pop charts over a decade before might have had something to do with it. But now that I think of it, a recommendation from a secretary I’d met networking who worked for Jerry might have turned the trick. Whatever it was…I got the appointment.
Jerry was actually a very unassuming guy. And while I was aware of his hits, I was not awestruck when I walked into his office at the legendary Brill Building to play him the ragged demos Dorian and I made on a $40 cassette recorder, the accompaniment consisting of me on guitar, Dorian on vocals, and Dorian stomping his foot to the beat. While certainly as raw and unrefined as they could be, the message came through loud and clear.
Mr. Leiber listened…sensed there might be something there…and offered that he owned a studio in Nashville. If I could get a band together and somehow transport them there, he would put us up and record the songs. While this might sound like a golden opportunity to some, I was not impressed. Dorian and I were writing, selling publishing rights, and getting our songs recorded with some regularity. Forming a band and taking the boys down to Nashville seemed like more of a distraction than anything else. Plus, this was about the end of Leiber and Stoller’s incredible run of success in the music business. I passed on his offer.
And so…my Jerry Leiber story begins and ends. But still, I met one on one with a rock and roll icon whose compositions comprise the background track of my youth. Do I regret turning his offer down in retrospect? Not at all. It was a shitty deal proffered by a songwriting superstar at the end of his influence and not really a significant opportunity given the circumstances.