“Fee fee fi fi fo fo fum…I smell smoke in the auditorium.”
For a teenage Jewish kid from the ‘burbs, that line from Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s song “Charlie Brown“, as recorded by the Coasters, was the embodiment of sticking it to the man. After hearing “Yakety Yak” in the movie “Stand By Me” (also both Lieber/Stoller songs), my friends and I would sing the lyrics, “Bring in the dog and put out the cat,” but substitute the names of other kids in our class for “dog” and “cat.” There’s no question that the music of Jerry Lieber, who died this last week at age 78, played a big role in my early teenage years. In a way, he was partly responsible for my becoming a professional musician.
It might sound like an exaggeration, something I’m only saying as a posthumous tribute, but hear me out. Growing up, my school had an annual arts festival each spring (yes, I know I’m dating myself, we actually had art in the schools back then.) As a reward for having us sit through demonstrations on Irish line dancing, hammer dulcimer playing, Navajo handcrafts and more, we were treated to a classic rock concert on the last day of the festival. The band played “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Jailhouse Rock”, and it was like my own personal Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show experience. I started picking out some Elvis-era oldies on the piano, even tried writing a few on my own, and then began performing them at the school talent shows. Music somehow made me more popular and acceptable to the teachers, whereas before I had been neither. OK, so I still had the Jewfro and my academic record wasn’t exactly sparkling, but I was into music in a way I hadn’t before, and Lieber and Stoller were partly responsible.
Even during my jazz snob period, I still felt the influence of Lieber and Stoller. After all, they co-wrote one of jazz guitarist George Benson’s signature songs, “On Broadway”, and another song, “Ruby Baby”, was covered by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen on his record “The Nightfly.”
For many people, the decision to take up music, either as a job or hobby, might have been inspired by artists such as the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen–but anyone who started playing after hearing “Jailhouse Rock” or any of the other seminal 50s songs that Lieber co-wrote owes him a debt of gratitude. I can’t give him sole credit in my case–that band that Paul McCartney was in before Wings might have had something to do with it too–but he certainly played a role. Even though he’s gone now, I imagine that the scene that helped begin my musical journey will continue to play itself out. Some kid will hear a Lieber and Stoller song, learn it, play it and suddenly realize that life is just a little bit more enjoyable.