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Review: Songwriters Leiber and Stoller tell of the birth of rock 'n' roll in 'Hound Dog'

The history of 20th century popular music in America has often been a story of race. Genres grew and evolved, young practitioners borrowed from old masters, and the resulting gumbo owed its heart and soul to both black and white.

Hound Dog, by storied songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, with an assist from David Ritz, is a pull-up-a-chair sort of book, a dual first-person telling from a pair together so long they complete each other's thoughts.

Leiber, a Jewish kid from Baltimore, was enthralled by the music he heard working in black neighborhoods. Stoller, a New Yorker, had a similar story.

The two big-city boys set out to write the blues, penning songs for black artists such as Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton and Charles Brown.

And somehow, they ended up as founding fathers of a new music called rock 'n' roll.

Their conversation in Hound Dog lays out the path. They meet in 1950 as teens in Los Angeles, where their families have relocated, decide to write songs together for blues and R&B acts, and somehow make a go of it.

The results of their collaboration would include such enduring hits as Kansas City, Stand by Me, On Broadway, Ruby Baby and I'm a Woman.

One day in 1956, they learn that a hit song they had written several years before for Thornton has become a blockbuster for a young white boy from Mississippi named Elvis Presley.

Presley's version of Hound Dog changed everything, for them and for him. Leiber and Stoller became Elvis' "good luck charms." In one frantic four-hour session, they wrote four hit songs for Elvis, including Jailhouse Rock.

Their songs were covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee to the Drifters and the Coasters to the Beatles.

And they put together more hits than any other writing pair except for a couple of guys named Lennon and McCartney.

Hound Dog

By Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with David Ritz

Simon and Schuster, 322 pages, $25

Review: Songwriters Leiber and Stoller tell of the birth of rock 'n' roll in 'Hound Dog' 07/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 2:48pm]
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