Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber

Jerry Leiber died recently. Together with Mike Stoller, he crafted a slew of early rock-and-roll classics. ("Hound Dog", "Stand By Me", "Jailhouse Rock", and "Yakety Yak" to name a few.) Then, after Peggy Lee made a hit of their song "Is That All There Is?" in 1969, the duo decided to write exclusively for adults.

"The earlier market of swing and Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington was pretty much gone," Leiber told The New York Times in 1995. "We liked that kind of sound and wanted to imitate it." He added: "In a way, we had helped kill it with what we had done."

I'd really like to recommend their work in the more adult, "artsy" vernacular, specifically two albums: Peggy Lee's Mirrors (1975) and Other Songs by Leiber & Stoller (1978) sung by Joan Morris.

It is on these albums that you can bathe in Leiber's poetry. Take the opening track on Peggy Lee's album, "Ready to Begin Again". In this song an old woman is dressing in front of a mirror.

When my teeth are at rest in the glass by my bed
And my hair lies somewhere in a drawer
Then the world doesn't seem like a very nice place
Not a very nice place anymore

Wow! What striking images! The song continues with a gradual build.

But I take out my teeth from the glass by my bed
And my hair from a drawer in the hall
Still the world doesn't seem like a very nice place
Not a very nice place at all

Well, at least you're moving, right? Teeth and hair in hand! We continue.

But I put in my teeth and I put on my hair
And a strange thing occurs when I do
For my teeth start to feel like my very own teeth
And my hair like my very own too

That is strange. Yet, as fellow human beings, we can understand. Now we proceed to the song's bridge.

And I'm ready to begin again
Ready to begin again
I'm reaching for the soap
My heart is full of hope
Again, again

I'm ready to begin again
Feeling like I've just begun
Now I'm not afraid
To raise the window shade
And face the sun

The song is heading into high gear now as we return for the last verse.

I put on my bracelets and brooches,
My rings and my pearls and my pins
And as the new day approaches
As the new day begins

Then back to the bridge and the final killer line.

I'm ready to begin again
Looking fresh and bright I trust
Ready to begin again
As everybody must

Peggy Lee is just perfect for this material. Nearly a decade earlier she'd scored a hit with Leiber & Stoller's "I'm a Woman" and their sassy number "Some Cats Know" had been a part of her repertoire too.

This album is gorgeous. Leiber's lyrics are transcendent. Take the words that Lee recites at the start of "Tango".

Oh, the Tango is done with a thin black mustache
A wide scarlet sash, black boots, and whip
Oh, the Tango is done with Seafarin' trash
Reelin' from hash, fresh off true ship
Oh, the Tango is done it's a dangerous dance
A treacherous step and if one should trip
The frail body breaks with a snap and a twist
And a gold watch slips onto a thick tattooed wrist
And a gray merchant ship turns black in the sun
As it heaves to the east when the Tango is done

Whew! A long way from "Yakety Yak /don't come back", wouldn't you say?

Joan Morris, recording three years later, offers her own take on many of the songs, but adds some terrific new numbers. (My personal favorite is "Humphrey Bogart" which was also sung memorably later by Jackie and Roy on Bogie, a desert-island disc for this listener!).

I'm going to keep the soundtrack to Smokey Joe's Cafe on my shelf and instead turn to the comfort of listening to Lee and Morris. I am so glad that in his 40s Jerry Leiber turned to serious songwriting. It's durable music that will always stand the test of time!

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