Rhythm and Jews
Mike Stoller, of the powerhouse songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, talks about cultural appropriation, writing for Elvis, and the idea of the ‘soundtrack of our lives’
By David Samuels
A willingness to venture outside of one’s cultural backyard is not always the moral equivalent of the horrors that Cortés inflicted on the Aztecs. It can also be an act of love or the way that a great poem or a song is born. While it is true that such thoughts can sound retrograde or even dangerous in an age when terms like “appropriation” and “theft” are commonly used to describe the hybrid creations that made American popular culture so wildly appealing to hundreds of millions of other inhabitants of the planet, crossing lines of race, class, religion, gender, and national origin, don’t fear. Very few artists who are any good believe in simple-minded notions of “authenticity.”
The songwriting team of Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were responsible as much or more than anyone else on the planet for the “crossover” of the rhythm and blues music invented by African-Americans into the mainstream of American popular song. They wrote “Kansas City,” which was a hit for Wilbert Harrison and then again for James Brown;“Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” which helped make Elvis Presley famous; “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Poison Ivy” for the Coasters; “Searchin’,” which was a hit for the Coasters and then for the Hollies; “Young Blood,” which was a hit for the Coasters and then Bad Company. They co-wrote and/or produced great songs by the Drifters like “There Goes My Baby” and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” They wrote “Ruby Baby,” which was recorded by the Drifters, Dion, and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. They wrote “Spanish Harlem,” which was recorded by Ben E. King and Aretha Franklin. They wrote “I Keep Forgettin,’” which was repurposed by Michael McDonald and then became Warren G. and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate.”
Talking to Mike Stoller for two hours in a hotel lobby about songwriting, music, African-American musicians and Jewish songwriters was a thrill, as well as a welcome reminder of the wild hybrid spirit that helped make 20th century Americans a great people, and which characterize the uniqueness of their popular art, from music to painting to literature to dance to cartoons to stand-up comedy. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
I’ve been having some bad feelings about America going to shit lately, so I started listening to music on AM radio. What I concluded was that Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber wrote all of this incredible music that became part of America’s DNA. My next thought was that you were still alive and living somewhere in L.A., and maybe talking to you would make me feel better.
I’m alive, more or less. And I’m honored.
So, why didn’t you like Elvis Presley’s version of “Hound Dog,” which is a rhythm-and-blues song you wrote together with Jerry Leiber?
Well, a few reasons. First of all, it was a woman’s song, lyrically.
You wrote it for Big Mama Thornton.
Johnny Otis called me up. And we had been writing songs for Little Esther, who was with his band. And he said, “Are you familiar with Willie Mae Thornton?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, then you’d better get Jerry and come on over to my house,” which wasn’t that far away from where I lived.
Which at that time was where?
Well, it was just east of Crenshaw, just south of Pico. We originally lived much further east. When was 16, I moved to L.A. with my folks, and we lived east of Alvarado. At any rate, so I was living on South Norton Avenue, and I had a car by that time. I guess we were 18 by then—19 even, maybe. I picked Jerry up and we went to Johnny’s house, where he had a kind of a rehearsal space in an alley adjacent to his house. And that’s where we first heard her sing, and she knocked us out. I was actually inspired by her physical presence. And we drove back to my house and then turned around, wrote the song, and then turned around, and rode it back to Big Mama. But, of course, the whole feel of that insinuating rhythm and everything was from her, and then, of course, her delivery, which was very powerful.
Had you heard anything like that before you saw her?
Well, not quite, not quite. And on the way, you know, we rehearsed it that day. First, she didn’t want to look at it. But Johnny came running over and he said, “Mama, you want a hit, don’t you? These boys write hits.”
Well, we hadn’t really had any big hits; we had one chart record,“Hard Times,” with Charles Brown. So he was thinking kind of futuristically, I guess.
He couldn’t have been more right.
She didn’t want to listen to a couple of white guys, white teenagers, telling her what to do. Anyway on the way to the studio the following day, we said, “You know, she oughta growl it.” So then it was, “Well, who’s going to tell her?”
I can imagine how enthusiastic she was.
We mentioned it, and she said, “Don’t be telling me how to sing blues, white boy.” However, of course, it stuck in her head, and boom! It was a fabulous performance. She was really sensational.
Where, where did that feel for rhythm and blues come from? I mean, Doc Pomus was a blues singer himself, and he sang in the clubs and he led his own version of that life. But L.A. wasn’t Chicago, or even New York.
Well, first of all, Jerry’s from Baltimore. His father passed away when he was like 6 years old, and his mother owned a little shop on the cusp of a black neighborhood, with mostly people who had come up from the Deep South. For wartime jobs and so on, you know in factories. And she would extend credit. Jerry would go over with a soft tone and courtesy in his voice. So he was welcome, because he was polite, and he was bringing the fire. He heard their radios and probably a few singers with a good beat-up guitar or whatever.
When did you first hear the blues?
I went to summer camp as a kid, starting at 6 or 7 years old, and it was an interracial summer camp in New Jersey, near Hackettstown. It was totally interracial, the counselors as well as the kids. I heard a black teenager playing boogie-woogie piano in the barn, which was our recreation hall. It was during the day and he thought he was alone but I was there watching. And I was mesmerized. When he left, I tried to make my fingers move the way I saw his fingers moving. And by the time I was 8 or 9, I was a pretty good boogie-woogie piano player.
And then I would buy, you know, the 10-inch 78-rpm records at Woolworth’s of boogie-woogie piano players. And on the other side, there was always a vocal, which was probably the A-side of the record, but I thought it was the other way around.
I remember once being in a recording studio with members of the rap group the Wu-Tang Clan back in the 1990s and one of the artists in that group was riffing about the history of white people stealing black people’s music, and the example he gave was Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” which he said that Elvis stole from a black performer. And I looked at him I said, “True, but the song was written by two Jewish guys.” And he looked at me funny, like he was mad at me, but also like at the same time he was wondering if that could possibly be true.
Well, you’re influenced, always, of course. When Smokey Joe’s Cafe was just starting rehearsals in New York, and Jerry and I came in, and three of the guys who played the kind of Coasters role met us, and they were shocked. Because they always thought we were black. Funny names, but black. So we were flattered because as we started, of course, we wanted to be black. Because that was the coolest thing to be.
Jews are a variety of white person in America now, but they weren’t white back in the 1940s and ’50s.
Certainly not in Canada. I remember that they were not referred to as white.
I once sat on a piano bench with Stevie Wonder for an hour, and when I’d bring up a song he’d be like, “Oh, like this?” And he’d play the part on the piano. I asked him about the intro to a song I loved on Inner Visions and I asked him, “Where did that come from?” And he said, “It came from the radio. I was a little blind kid. And so I used to sit by the window and listen to the radio all day long, to the sounds of the voices speaking different languages, and all the different kinds of music.”
A lot of our stuff came from the radio. Not so much actual music, but we were influenced by the 15-minute radio programs, you know, to do things like “Riot in Cellblock No. 9.”
Yeah, the “found sound,” that’s what he was talking about, too.
And you know, the little comedy things like “Searchin’” are full of references to radio shows, like Bulldog Drummond and all of that.
Speaking of the radio, I heard a terrific interview once with Ben E. King on public radio in Boston, and obviously he talked about you and Jerry a lot, and with great love. He said something very interesting that I thought you’d probably be able to put a finer point on for me. He said Leiber and Stoller could just make this suit of clothes out of sound that fit me so perfectly, like you guys were his Jewish tailors. At one point he was talking about the Atlantic sound and he was saying, “Well, what they did was, they translated the treble sound from gospel and rhythm and blues into strings and into the popular music vernacular. And then when Motown came along, they took what Leiber and Stoller did and they brought it down to the bass.”
Jamerson’s bass playing for Motown, yes. Where the strings came from was I started making a kind of a Rimsky-Korsakov kind of phrase when we were rehearsing “There Goes My Baby,” and Jerry said, “that sounds like violins.” And I said, “Well, hey, why not? Let’s try it.” So that record had four fiddles and one cello, that’s all. I grabbed Stanley Applebaum, who is a wonderful orchestrator. And he added some stuff as well.
‘Don’t be telling me how to sing blues, white boy.’
When we played the record for Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegün, Wexler almost had a fit. He said, “You’re throwing our money down the toilet.” Ahmet, the diplomat, said, “Boys, you know we know you can make good records, we know the Coasters. But you know you can’t hit a home run every time you get to bat.” So they sat on the record and then they finally released it, probably as a B-side to a song called “Baltimore” or something, I don’t remember. And anyway, in those days, the DJs got records and they listened to them, and so it just took off, you know.
What was it about Ben E. King’s voice that made it such a necessary part of those lasting songs?
He was just such a mature stylist for a young guy, you know? I mean we were young. But most of the guys in these R&B groups, you know they didn’t have that kind of maturity. He was young, but—
He sounded like he knew everything that could go wrong in the world and what happens to you inside.
He was as worldly as Arthur Price, you know? And I just loved his voice.
Do you remember the session when you guys recorded “Stand By Me?”
Tell me about it.
It started in a rehearsal. We had taken an office on the fifth floor of a brownstone on West 57th Street. Ground floor was a corset shop, and on the fifth floor, we had a skylight and a roof. And then we bought some furniture at one of those places that’s all used school furniture and desks and chairs. And we had a piano. Just prior to that, we had worked out of his house, my house, the offices of Atlantic Records, or Hill and Wang Songs, or wherever we were. And if we were in the studio, we’d use it to start writing if we had a piano handy. Anyway, we were in our new office, which we had for about nine months or so. And Jerry and Benny were playing around with a song, working on the lyrics. And I came in, and Benny was singing. And I was sussing out the chords. And then I came up with that bass pattern—
“Stand By Me” must be one of the four or five most overplayed songs on the planet, but it still gives me chills every single time I hear it. I’m sure that bass line will be one of the last things I will remember before I die.
Jerry said, “Ah! Now we’ve got a hit.” Anyway, I called Stanley Applebaum, I played him the bass pattern and I said, I think this goes all the way. Because the chord progression’s the same, it never changes. And I said in the middle, I said, I want you to write some Borodin. And he did!
And the decision to open it that way, that stark, easy opening that builds, is—
Oh yeah, with the bass and guitar.
And then, because we loved Brazilian stuff, as much of it as we knew at the time, we had the triangle and the weird little tsk-tsk thing. And it just all worked. Then the fiddles picked up the bass pattern after a while. I mean it just kept building on that pattern and it was great, you know? We did four songs on that session, one of the other ones was “Spanish Harlem.”
And then, of course, again we went an hour overtime. And Atlantic was furious. Now we’re overtime, with strings. Again, we were throwing their money away. But they had two very big hits out of that session.
On the subject of people who believed you were throwing people’s money away, your dealings with Colonel Parker.
Well, that was not about money.
That was about control.
Absolute control. Because we had written, it’s funny, it was in this hotel that Jerry and I wrote “Jailhouse Rock” and three of the songs that went into the movie, in about five hours. We had a two-bedroom suite, and we’d come in from California to be near Atlantic and to be near Hill and Wang, and to go to the theater and to hang out and to go to nightclubs. Anyway, we were locked in the room upstairs—but you’ve probably heard some of these stories before.
I love hearing them.
Anyway, he had come in and said, “Where’s my songs?” and Jerry said, “Oh, you’ll have them.” He said, “I know,” he said, “because I’m not leaving until I have them.” And because we hadn’t started even looking at the script so we were locked in, he pushed his chair, over in front of the door for the way out, and he said,“I’m going to take a nap.” And about four or five hours later, we got our freedom and we had finished those songs.
Colonel Parker didn’t like the idea that Elvis was becoming dependent on you for material?
No, it wasn’t that—it was almost the opposite. I’ll tell you what happened. We became Elvis’s good-luck charms, and he told us that. When they were doing the filming, they told Jerry to come and be the piano player in the movie. He said, “I don’t play the piano.” [Elvis] said, “It doesn’t matter, you look like a piano player.”
The day he was to report for costume fitting—which was a Hawaiian shirt, I think—Jerry had an impacted wisdom tooth. He said, “You go. They won’t know the difference.” The only thing was, when I got there, they told me I’d have to shave my beard off.
Because it was a scene-stealer. So I was on the set with Elvis during the filming, and one day we were sitting around near the end of the day, he said, “Mike, write me a real pretty ballad will you?” I said, “Sure.” So I called Jerry and we wrote the song “Don’t.”
On a Saturday. And on Sunday, we took Young Jesse, who sat in on “Searchin’” and “Young Blood” because one of the first Coasters was in prison at the time, and got him to sing it. We made a demo, and I handed it to Elvis. That was what caused a furor.
Ah. You didn’t go through management.
Through Freddy Bienstock, yes. That caused all kinds of repercussions. Because they were afraid if Elvis heard something he liked, he would do it. And they didn’t want to give him anything until they had the publishing rights.
On another occasion, the Colonel wanted to have Jerry and me come out to record. And Jerry said, “I just got out of the hospital, you know, I’m not supposed to fly.” And he said, “Awwww, come on Jerry. Those doctors are full of shit. You come on out. Elvis is going to record, he wants you guys in the studio!” So Jerry says, “Well, let me talk to Mike.” And he called me and he said, “What should we do? I mean it’s writing for Elvis, it’s like we can sell anything.” Which wasn’t 100 percent true, but. … And I said, “Tell him to go fuck himself.” Which he did. He told him, “Mike said, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ ”
And for some reason, he didn’t take that too kindly.
Yeah. But the main thing for us was there was an opportunity that came my way. It came through this guy, Charles Feldman, who was a producer and an agent. And he had just bought the rights to “A Walk on the Wild Side” by Nelson Algren.
And he wanted Jerry and me to write the songs. Make a musical out of it. And he had Budd Schulberg to write the script and Elia Kazan to direct it. Actually, it was very sad, because Elvis had always aspired to be like Brando.
Yeah, he would have given his left nut to do that. And we presented this to the publishers. And the publisher said, “Let me speak to the Colonel. Would you mind waiting outside?” And we were sitting there figuring out how we were going to be rewarded for bringing in this dream project, for him and also for us.
Finally, 20 minutes later, we were called in and Gene with a Viennese accent, he says, “Boys, ze Colonel said if you ever try to interfere in the career of Elvis Presley, you will never work again anywhere.” And at that point, we just stopped. We were so disappointed.
It’s a sad thing—
It was very sad.
Because he never had that acting career and then he recorded so much junk.
Well, not all of it.
Well, some of it.
He continued to do some of our songs that other people had already done that may not have been big hits. Like “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Bossa Nova, Baby.”
And some of the stuff he did on his [TV] special, “Saved,” and so on and so forth. He liked our songs. And I must admit, even though we were disappointed at first with Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog” because it was so vastly different and it lacked what Big Mama’s record had, as I’ve said before, after it sold 7 million singles, we began to see the good in Elvis’s version.
Some virtue, yeah. Now in Graceland, there’s a case with Elvis’ chai necklace in it. Did he ever display any particular interest in Jews, or in the fact that you were Jewish?
Not particularly, no. But I knew that he had been a shabbos goy for somebody in the neighborhood, in the housing project where he lived in Memphis. And, of course, he got all his clothes at a Jewish tailor’s place.
Now in the 1950s, the two of you would you be in the same room at a Manhattan cocktail party with Leonard Bernstein, or were you guys seen as from some other world? “Ah, that’s popular music”?
It wasn’t even considered popular music. It was considered R&B. It wasn’t pop, it wasn’t Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, even though we probably had a record by each of them through the music publishers. It wasn’t Patti Page. We had a little record label—
The Doc Pomus song, “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Yeah. We introduced it.
It’s one of the most heartbreaking songs.
Yes, of course, knowing Doc.
Tell me, I’ve heard a bunch of different stories about that song and how it was written. What do you remember about it?
They brought it in. I don’t know if we made any minor changes. But we laid out the arrangement, you know, we always did that.
One story I heard was that he wrote it two years later on his wedding invitation. It was a song about watching his wife dance with another man at their wedding because he couldn’t dance, because he was a cripple.
That’s what I had heard. I knew his wife. She was kind of an attractive blonde. When I first met Doc he was on crutches and he had the metal braces on his legs. I knew who he was because I had heard him as I was growing up in New York. On Symphony Sid he would announce this commercial for Alley’s Pants Shop. He said, “and that was Doc Pomus singing.” So the first thing I’d heard was this jingle he was singing, “Alley, Alley, Alley, you’re so good to me.” But then I met him at Atlantic’s offices. And you know, we just got very friendly.
What was he like?
He was a sweetheart.
Was he funny? Was he shy? Was he outgoing? Was he sad?
I think he was outgoing. He was never seen sad. I don’t ever remember him sad. And as the song goes, you know, there was nothing sad about the song. It was, “Don’t forget, you’re going home with me.”
It was lovely. I mean, and it’s heartbreaking.
When he went into his gambling phase—
Yeah, I never played in any of those games, which is weird because I’m an avid poker player. Not necessarily a good one, but I’m an avid one. I knew he had a game at his house and it was a way to make money.
He was good enough to make his living as a card shark?
I don’t know that he was a shark, people had to pay to play and he got that money. I never saw him playing. I was never at one of those games but I knew that he was running a game.
Did Ahmet Ertegun ever play cards?
Not that I know of. No, he drank. Oh boy—he drank his dinner and his lunch. I played with Jule Styne once. I don’t know if he was a good poker player. He was a hell of a good songwriter.
In addition to rhythm and blues, did you listen to Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter, or were you like, “That’s just a different kind of music.”
No, no. When I grew up, in my house, WQXR was on all the time. My mother kept that on all day long. You know that’s what I grew up with—that and boogie-woogie, which I found on my own.
Where was she from that classical music meant something to her?
Actually, she and her brothers and sisters were all born in Pittsburgh. But I don’t think she ever knew her mother, who passed away right after she was born. And her father took all the children—she was the youngest of five—to Vienna, which is where he was from. And then he hired a governess and more or less abandoned them. And then he moved back to Pittsburgh and lived by himself.
That’s a horrible story.
Yeah, it is. And then they were all shipped back at the outbreak of WWI; Travelers Aid found the father and made him take them in. Then, a few years after that, they moved to New York, the five of them, by themselves. And they lived right near the Gershwins and they were friendly. My mom went out with George a few times and she was also in one of his shows.
Wow, that’s funny.
Yeah. She was in Funny Face, she was in the main chorus. And so and she knew Ira also and she went to school with Frankie, who was the sister, Frances Gershwin.
That’s a thing I never knew about you, that there was a direct connection to the Gershwins. It makes sense.
Oh yeah. That’s why, Jerry used to say, there was a picture of George, a framed photo, in our office. George had drawn a staff and some music and “that certain feeling” and he signed it to my mom. And as Jerry says, “It always hung very heavily over my piano.”
It better be that good, or else.
I think that was what my aunt used to say: “Well, if he turns into a George Gershwin, OK, but otherwise … .”
It’s all a waste. Now, just to pick up that Doc Pomus thread, at some point the young Lou Reed, who was just out of electroshock treatment and Syracuse University, was trailing around behind Doc Pomus and learning how to write songs. Did you ever see him?
No. I heard of Lou Reed after he became famous.
But I was never involved with Lou Reed or any of the Warhol people. I didn’t work with them.
Phil Spector hung around you at the beginning, though.
Yeah. Well, our mentor when we were 17, who had been a record salesperson for Modern Records, was Lester Sill, and we started a record company with him and a publishing company. And then we moved to New York and it was like 6 million miles away so we kind of separated our interests. But Lester called, and he said, “He’s really talented and he wants to hang with you guys.” So we sent him a ticket. And then he lived in our offices for a while—
And what was that like, having Phil Spector living in your office?
Jerry let him stay in his apartment.
Was he a respectful kid?
No. He was kind of snide and nasty right from the get-go. And he wanted to write a song with Jerry.
Begging, begging. And so finally, we were all going to meet, the three of us, and write a song together. And my wife at the time, my first wife said, “You’ve got kids here, you haven’t had dinner with your children in weeks.” So I said, “I’ll come later,” you know. But when I called they had finished the song. So I said, “I’m not a writer on ‘Spanish Harlem.’”
However, when they played it for Jerry Wexler in the waiting room, I created the essential part of the arrangement, which was the marimba part.
Now that’s a weird thing, someone wanting to write with your partner. How did you guys handle that?
Yeah, I figured I should have a piece of the song because I created an element of the song that I’ve never heard it done without, even Aretha’s version. It was a bone of contention for years.
Isn’t it a little bit like, “Can I take your girl out on a date?”
Oh, no, no, no. I wrote some songs with other people and he wrote other songs with other people. Jerry wrote songs with Billy Edd Wheeler and I wrote some songs with Burt Burns. It wasn’t stressful. No, I just felt that I had contributed an essential element to that particular song.
Now, the Gerry Goffin and Carole King partnership. Did you spend much time with them?
They used to come to the Brill Building. Because even though they were known as the Brill, they were at 1650 Broadway, along with Barry [Mann] and Cynthia [Weil] and the rest of those people.
Were you, I mean the feel that I get when I read that stuff is that you guys were already established, you were a little—
Kind of, as producers. And they [Gerry Goffin and his then-wife, Carole King] would come to play songs for us that they hoped we would do and we often did, with the Drifters. Yeah. So they would make the pilgrimage across the street.
I saw Carole recently. At the BMI dinner, she came and threw her arms around me, you know, because we were very friendly. And she would sit at the piano and play, and if we liked the song then I would start playing the string line on top. And Jerry sometimes, Jerry Leiber sometimes helped Gerry Goffin out with a bridge or something.
That’s sweet. And did you think of them as kids? How much younger were they? They weren’t that much younger.
Sure. We were in our, well let’s see. Figure in 1962 we were 29, I think Carole was 19, 18 or 19.
Right, because they all started so young.
She did, especially. The other kids were, you know, kind of like five years younger. Some were younger than that and some were closer to our age. Doc was older than we were. I think Mort Shuman was younger.
And would you all do stuff together? Would you all get a meal or a drink, or it was all business?
It was mostly business, but yeah, I went out with Carole and Gerry. One day I was in front of the Brill Building, and they came by. And they said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I don’t know, I don’t have any plans at the moment.” And they said, “Why don’t you come to dinner with us? We’re going to a Japanese restaurant.” I said, “I’m not really familiar with that, but it sounds OK.” I had my first taste of sushi and I loved it.
Did you see Carole once she and Gerry Goffin split and she moved out to L.A.?
Not, really no. I sat next to her at—I think it was the daughter of Barry [Mann] and Cynthia [Weil] getting married at the Beverly Hills Hotel—I was sitting next to her, and I said, “You know, I probably would have wanted to record you if you were black.”
And she said, “Gee, thanks?”
No, no, I mean it wasn’t quite like that—
I know, haha.
But it was like, I don’t know, because I always loved her playing. You know? What she did was great.
You must spend your life walking through airports and hotel lobbies and restaurants and hearing songs you wrote. Do you—
I feel good when I hear them, yeah, sure. You know when Smokey Joe’s opened on Broadway, Jerry and I had never met our audience. Because we’re not performers. Benny King, the Coasters, they’d perform, and people would say aaaah! We were the boys in the back room who wrote the song or created the record or produced it.
The humor of the blues, as Jerry used to say, was akin to Yiddish humor. Like, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
So the first time we really engaged with our own audience was when Smokey Joe’s was opening on Broadway. And our pictures were in the souvenir program. We were surprised, even then, after 40-something years, some of these songs, people remembered them. Because when we wrote them and when we made the record, we figured well, we’ll be lucky if they remember them six weeks or six months later. And people kept telling us, “We grew up on your music and this was the soundtrack of our lives.” And, of course, it’s gratifying.
The DNA of this country, the modern version of it, is a thing that you helped to shape, or at least to filigree. What can you tell me about it?
From the beginning, all of the stuff that we did was inspired by our familiarity and knowledge and love of black popular music. The blues, boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues. And people say, “You guys were responsible for that music crossing over.” That made us very proud. Since then, many more have. But if that is something that we did, then that made us very proud. Because, of course, there’s all kinds of influences in American music, but I think the strongest influence is from black people.
What spoke to you in that music?
It was the rhythm, it was the rhythm. And it had a humor in it, even in the blues songs. You know, the humor, as Jerry used to say, was akin to Yiddish humor. Like, “If it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
You can imagine an old Jewish guy saying that, too.
Did you feel that being Jewish gave you the ability to connect with the humor or the sadness or whatever it was that you felt in that music?
I didn’t really think of it that way, you know. I was always proud to be Jewish, but I knew very little about my heritage in that regard. I never went to Hebrew school, I wasn’t bar mitzvahed, my father wasn’t bar mitzvahed. Jerry, of course, his first language was Yiddish.
When you looked at the lives of the young black performers in groups like the Drifters, did you see their lives as similar to the life that you had when you were a kid? How close or distant did you feel from their experience?
With the Coasters, and the Drifters to a great extent, yeah, they all came from families that were, we would say, deprived. Because they were black. And living under different conditions—conditions that affected white people too, certainly. Billy Guy became a junkie. Rudy Louis died of an overdose. It happened to a lot of white kids too from different neighborhoods. But you know we shared a lot of things. And you know I was very close to Carl Gardner. We were in touch for a long time, you know, and with Carl’s wife, who became his widow. And I was very close to Ben. We’d see each other, and we’d call each other a lot.
I saw Jimmy Page last week eating breakfast in L.A. I sat 8 feet away from him for an hour, which is probably as close as I will ever get. What did you think of those British guys who became gods by playing blues riffs on their electric guitars?
It was never my cup of tea. I guess I’m not really a rock fan. I loved the Beatles, though.
Did you ever spend time with Paul McCartney?
Because I would imagine the two of you—
We were friendly and when [Jerry and I] had a lawyer here in New York, it was Eastman. And when we were given the Ivor Novello Award in London, it was presented to us by Paul and George Martin. We were friendly. I wouldn’t say we were intimate pals, but we were friendly.
It’s easy for me to imagine you hearing and appreciating what he did, and Paul listening very closely to your work with Jerry and modeling a lot of what he wrote on that approach, both musically and lyrically.
Yeah, I think their demo for whatever their record company was, has like four of our songs on it.
There’s a great version of the Dion hit that you had—
Yeah, “Ruby Baby.” Donald Fagen did that cover.
I loved it.
You loved it?
Yeah, I loved it. I thought that was an incredible version of that song.
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David Samuels, Tablet Magazine's literary editor, is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and a longtime contributor to The Atlantic and The New Yorker.