From Baltimore to Broadway Music: Songwriter Jerry Leiber's roots are in this city, and his songs are at the root of rock and roll.

December 08, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

He is one of the grandest of the granddaddies of rock and roll, and his roots are in West Baltimore.

No perceptible Bawlamerese remains in Jerry Leiber's accent, but the influence of the music he heard in his hometown lingers on. It left its mark on the songs he's written with composer Mike Stoller -- songs like "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Stand by Me."

Now that influence has come full circle in the form of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," a Broadway revue of Leiber and Stoller songs that begins a two-week run at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.

In 1992, Life magazine dubbed Leiber and Stoller -- now both 63 -- "the wizards of wax." In 1995, Time called them "the prime concocters of sass, smarts and blue-eyed soul in rock's first decade."

And according to Rolling Stone (1990): "More than any other top writing and producing team in the Fifties, Leiber (words) and Stoller (music) initiated mainstream white America into the sensual and spiritual intimacies of urban black culture that fueled the birth of rock and roll."

Here's a picture of the neighborhood

Here's the corner, where we stood

Faded pictures in my scrapbook

Just thought I'd take one more look

And recall when we were all

In the neighborhood.

"Neighborhood"

There wasn't a tradition of music in Leiber's family, but music was all around as he was growing up. By age 9, he was delivering soft coal and kerosene for his widowed mother's grocery store on the corner of McKean and Riggs avenues. Although he says reporters have exaggerated the impact of the music he heard while making deliveries to black customers, this white Jewish boy soon developed a taste for boogie-woogie and the blues.

He briefly took piano lessons at the home of a well-to-do uncle in Druid Hill. Then one afternoon his uncle came home early and caught him playing boogie-woogie. "He said, 'Stop that. Cut that out. If you're going to play that, you have to get out of the house,' " recalls Leiber, adding, "I never spoke to him again."

Next he tried drums, taking lessons at Fred Walker's Music Store on Howard Street and becoming friends with a teen-ager twice his age who owned "a set of white pearl Gretsch drums that absolutely floored me. He let me play on his drums every afternoon for a half-hour on my way home from school."

He has forgotten the older boy's name, and the boyhood friends he has stayed in touch with have no memory of his interest in music. "I didn't know anything about it until he came back to Baltimore one summer and told me he was a songwriter," says his cousin, Eddy Baum, who primarily remembers Leiber's prowess on the tennis court.

Leiber's talent as a lyricist wasn't totally unexpected, however. Former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg, a friend of Leiber's since their days at Robert Fulton Elementary School, says, "He has a very fertile mind with crazy stuff. He's a very humorous guy. It didn't surprise me that he could come up with verses."

Leiber's interest in lyrics evolved after he and his mother moved to Los Angeles to be near his two married sisters in the mid-1940s. One sister had married the son of songwriter Lew Porter. "I became sort of the pet of Lew Porter, and Lew used to take me in his car to the different studios where he was working and I loved it," he says. "I went around with him and got the bug. I liked the environment. It was exciting."

In addition, Leiber got a summer job as a busboy in a Los Angeles restaurant where the short-order cook kept the radio tuned to blues stations. "I loved the records that I heard. I'd hear things like Jimmy Witherspoon singing 'Ain't Nobody's Business' and stuff by Amos Milburn and Memphis Slim, and I thought to myself at some point, 'I can do that,' " he says.

When an attempt to interest a high-school friend in writing songs petered out, the friend suggested he call a piano player named Mike Stoller, who had studied with stride pianist James P. Johnson.

Some cats know just where it's at

They're not like some others

I would rather one like that

If I had my druthers

"Some Cats Know"

Stoller, who was also 17, wasn't the least bit interested in songwriting. "I was sure that he meant some kind of songs that I would hate," Stoller recalls. But Leiber was persistent. "I hung up the phone and the doorbell rang, and I opened the door and there he was," Stoller continues. "The first thing I saw was one blue eye and one brown eye, which kind of stopped me cold, and I forgot to ask him to come in."

Despite Stoller's reluctance, the two started writing songs that very afternoon. Stoller was impressed that the lyrics Leiber had written in his school notebook were in the form of blues. And Leiber says, Stoller "played a couple of licks and, even though the stuff was fragmented, I had the feeling that we could glue some of these things together."

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