the museum of americana

a literary review

Don’t Talk Back: The Hidden Social Criticism of the Coasters and Songwriters Leiber and Stoller–Essay by David J. Lawson

When Bob Dylan was honored as the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year, he used the occasion to give a 30-minute speech lauding the merits of many who supported him throughout his career – as well as dismissing many who had not. In particular, he took a jab at the songwriters / producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Leiber and Stoller didn’t think much of my songs. They didn’t like ’em, but Doc Pomus did. That was all right that they didn’t like ’em, because I never liked their songs either. ‘Yakety yak, don’t talk back.’ ‘Charlie Brown is a clown,’ ‘Baby I’m a hog for you.’ Novelty songs, not serious. Doc’s songs, they were better. ‘This Magic Moment.’ ‘Lonely Avenue.’ ‘Save the Last Dance for Me.’ Those songs broke my heart. I figured I’d rather have his blessings any day than theirs. 

 

Of the dozens of artists for whom Leiber and Stoller wrote throughout their career – including the Drifters (“On Broadway”), Ben E. King (“Stand By Me”), the Clovers (“Love Potion #9”), Peggy Lee (“I’m a Woman” and “Is That All There Is”), and Elvis Presley (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and others) – it is no coincidence that all three of the examples Dylan cited to prove his point were by the Coasters, the African American vocal quartet which were viewed, even at their commercial peak, as a novelty act. Dylan’s recent comment shows how this opinion of the group endures. Yet to cast off the Coasters’ songs, let alone Leiber and Stoller’s work as a whole, as “novelty songs, not serious” is to ignore the social commentary hidden in much of the group’s material.  As a comedy group, the Coasters were accepted by white audiences still familiar with images of minstrelsy, yet embedded in the absurd narratives of the lyrics were subtle criticisms on the injustice of a white-dominated society. While many of their own fans were unaware of it, the Coasters paved the way for racial commentary in popular music within the United States during a time of conservatism and censorship.

Though the Coasters charted during an era when the young baby boomers made novelty songs more popular than any time since the introduction of the genre in the 1920s or since, their material does not fit neatly into the category. In defining a novelty song, rock critic Simon Frith notes that “the assumption is that the song is popular because of its novelty, because it sounds different from everything else being played on the radio or jukebox. It follows that novelty hits are unique; the second time around, the sound is no longer novel.” This definition makes it self-evident why so many novelty artists are also one-hit wonders. In contrast, the Coasters charted twenty-four times, a popular longevity that belies their novelty classification. As jazz critic Chip Deffaa noted:

Show business hasn’t ever seen a vocal group quite like the Coasters… There isn’t another group that ranks in the top ten of Cash Box’s annual survey of disc jockeys to determine the “Most Programmed Vocal Group” whose basic appeal rests on humor. Nothing in the world is more difficult to achieve than a long-term career in the record field by being funny. 

In 1958, when the Coasters became a national phenomenon and their hit “Yakety Yak” became a teenage anthem, the music business was undergoing a dramatic change as rock ‘n’ roll, and the independent labels releasing it, became a growing force in the industry. African American artists had begun to penetrate the pop charts only a few years before. It was a time of conservatism, Cold War paranoia and increasing affluence for certain parts of the US population. The pop charts were a dizzyingly varied field, including “Volare,” an Italian-language tune by Domenico Modungo, “Tom Dooley,” a Civil War period folk song by the Kingston Trio, a jazz instrumental from veteran swing era drummer Cozy Cole, Phil Spector’s first hit with the teenage ballad “To Know Him Is to Love him,” the cha cha hit of Perez Prado’s “Patricia,” four novelties – “The Purple People Eater,” “The Chipmunk Song,” “Witch Doctor,” and “Short Shorts” – plus records by Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como, alongside Elvis Presley, the Platters, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, the Coasters, and Chuck Berry.

Despite the variety of genres co-mingling on the charts, the hits of the late ‘50s were consistent in ignoring the social protests over segregation that had already begun in the South and would reach a breaking point in the early ‘60s. An analysis of popular lyrics in 1957 cited by sociologist Paul Hirsch found that 87% of popular song lyrics pertained to “the drama of courtship,” and, in Hirsch’s view, “supported the sociological consensus that mass entertaining and mass media programming serve to reinforce conventional morality.” In the era of Cold War paranoia, songs with overt social messages were banned from the airwaves and artists with outspoken political views, such as Pete Seeger, were blacklisted from the industry. The accepted narrative, stated by Hirsch, is that social commentary was absent from the pop charts until the folk boom in the early ‘60s emerged from white college campuses and coffee shops in Greenwich Village. This makes it all the more exceptional that throughout the ‘50s, the Coasters dominated the air waves with comedic songs featuring social commentary, coded for their hip audience and too subtle to be recognized by the mass media gatekeepers.

 

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The birth of rock’n’roll represented a time when white teenagers began to see black performers in a new light. Musically, early rock ’n’ roll was not dramatically different than rhythm and blues. What the term came to represent was the appeal of black music to the white teenage market, which had been largely unaware of rhythm and blues before. The rock’n’roll “revolution” was not musical, but cultural. Out of this first wave of rock’n’roll stars came the “the clown princes of 1950s rock’n’roll,” the Coasters, originally named the Robins. 

The Robins had already been together four years, led by baritone singer Bobby Nunn, when they first teamed up in 1951 with a pair of 17-year-old Jewish songwriters allied with the black community: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Though the Robins were a talented and professional ensemble, their early records were often imitations of then-stars the Ravens and did not resemble the comedic, performative vocal troupe they would become. The young songwriters offered the vocal quintet a comic send-up of Bible stories entitled “That’s What the Good Book Says.” While it wasn’t a hit, it would be Leiber and Stoller’s first commercial release and the seed of what would later blossom into a long partnership. 

Described as “vaudevillians, tummlers, comedians to boot,” the Robins would become the group that Leiber and Stoller considered their alter egos, the perfect performers to express their irreverence for the status quo. Author Ken Emerson describes the group’s material:

The comedy might be affectionate parody of popular culture in the contemporaneous spirit of Mad Magazine (launched in 1952). Or it might have a sharper, more subversive point, skewering racial discrimination. Half a century later the Robins/Coasters remain the most consistently and uproariously funny group that R&B and rock ‘n’roll have ever known, recalling Mezz Mezzrow’s characterization of jazz in the 1920’s as “a collectively improvised nose-thumbing at all pillars of all communities, one big syncopated Bronx cheer for the righteous squares everywhere.”

The songwriting duo wouldn’t team up with the Robins again for another two years, while several members enlisted in the army, and during this absence Leiber and Stoller’s fledgling careers as songwriters took flight. The two wrote hits for many of the big names in LA’s rhythm and blues scene, including several songs that would eventually become classics of the genre, such as “Kansas City” (later covered by Little Richard and the Beatles) and “Hound Dog,” which became a sensation for Big Mama Thornton, selling half a million copies and spending 14 weeks at the top of the R&B charts. (The success of the Big Mama record would appear more modest four years later when Elvis Presley covered the song and sold 10 million copies, reaching #1 on the pop, country and R&B charts simultaneously.)

In 1954, when Leiber and Stoller founded their own record label, Spark Records, the Robins were the first group they signed. “The Robins were the perfect vehicle for Leiber and Stoller musical productions,” said Leiber. “Five voices, five characters, five actors, a veritable repertory company.” Added Stoller, “They were open to our craziness and we were open to theirs.” The group’s first release on Spark, “Riot on Cell Block #9,” was their first #1 R&B hit and introduced the “playlet” style which would set the group apart. Music writer Robert Palmer noted:

There were precedents for the pop playlets Leiber and Stoller developed with the Coasters – radio drama, Leiber’s experience in the theatre, and a few r&b novelty songs which featured dialogue. But, says Leiber, the main influence was “just attitudes, the way you see something on the street.” As discrete works of art – as records – the playlets were as original as anything that flowered in the fifties.

The playlets were a unique blend of performance techniques from both white and black show business traditions, adding to Tin Pan Alley tunesmithing to the rhythm and blues formula. Leiber and Stoller would rehearse the songs with the group for weeks before entering the studio to painstakingly choreograph the illusion of high-spirited spontaneity. “It took a lot of preparation,” said Stoller. “Harmony was not their forte.” With this new song form, Leiber and Stoller composed three-minute musical theatre from an African American voice and perspective. 

The story of a prison riot told by a convicted inmate, “Riot on Cell Block #9” is influenced by the radio dramas Jerry Leiber grew up on, including siren and machine gun sound effects as a nod to the intro of Gang Busters. Unlike those radio dramas, however, the lead characters are all black, adding a racial overtone to the tale. While the lyrics are at times cartoonish, with the warden waving a tommy gun and a prisoner named Scarface Jones, the tone of the narrator is serious and consistent with the realism of blues lyrics. The production is tough, and the spoken verses by guest Richard Berry (better remembered as the original writer/performer of “Louie Louie” and “Have Love Will Travel”) are snarling and threatening, delivered between hard hitting blues riffs, broken up with wild group choruses of “There’s a riot goin’ on.” Though the riot is suppressed at the end of the song, the narrator implies that there will be more, “in a line some rock critics have taken to be a prophecy of the urban violence of the 1960s,” wrote critic Robert Palmer. Indeed, years later, in the wake of the race riots of the ‘60s, Sly and the Family Stone would title their overtly political 1971 album after the song’s chorus. (Incidentally, one of the earliest Sly and Family Stone recordings is a live cover of the Coasters’ song “Searchin.’”)

As Ken Emerson noted, “Neither [Leiber] nor Stoller … was a political naïf. If racial injustice was the furthest thing from their minds, they probably would not have hired Richard Berry to provide such a lowering lead vocal, and they certainly would not have followed up ‘Riot in Cell Block #9’ with ‘Framed,’ in which a white judge (in 1954, was there any other kind?) throws the book at a hapless black defendant.”

The success of the Robins’ records on Spark Records caused enough noise locally to attract the attention of Atlantic Records, who offered Leiber and Stoller the first freelance music production deal in the industry. No doubt these 22-year-olds had fearless confidence in their instincts at this point, and the freelance deal with Atlantic provided them independence to continue working for other labels, which gave them leverage over the label’s oversight.  (Trivia Fact: The term “producers” became popularized in music through this deal, since Leiber and Stoller were the first to demand credit on the label of the records they made for Atlantic, though they later lamented choosing the term, saying “directors” would have been more accurate.)

When Leiber and Stoller moved from LA to New York to work for Atlantic Records, they brought tenor Carl Gardner and baritone Bobby Nunn of the Robins with them, adding Billy Guy and Leon Hughes to form a new group called the Coasters. The other three stayed back and continued as the Robins, although the old group quickly faded. (To make a clear connection between the new Coasters lineup and the Robins, the first Coasters’ LP released on Atlantic was a collection of the Robins’ sides for Spark Records.)

 

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The Robins/Coasters lyrics were written in the black vernacular, a voice few Jewish men in the early ‘50s could write with the credibility of Leiber and Stoller. Both grew up integrated within the African American community, unusual for post-war America. Mike Stoller’s liberal parents sent him from his home in Long Island to an interracial summer camp at a young age, where he fell in love with jazz and boogie woogie piano playing, later taking lessons from black stride pianist legend James P. Johnson. Jerry Leiber grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in the slums of Baltimore, learning English as a second language and identifying more with his African American neighbors than the white ones. The first day after moving to the neighborhood, Leiber was spit on by Polish and Irish-Catholic kids, who declared, “Jew ain’t nothing but a nigga turned inside out.” In contrast, Leiber’s African American neighbors welcomed him into their homes as the delivery boy for his mother’s grocery store, the only one in the neighborhood that extended credit to the African American community. 

Leiber and Stoller, whose families both moved to LA in their teens, grew up in love with African-African culture, soaking up all they could about their shared obsession with rhythm and blues. Not only did they live among the culture, they also studied it. Ken Emerson notes that their “use of the songwriting pseudonym Elmo Glick suggests they had read [jazz musician and impresario Mezz Mezzrow’s 1946 autobiography] Really the Blues, which features a poolroom proprietor and good friend of Mezzrow’s named Emil Glick.” It’s also telling that they named their pseudonym after a character from the autobiography of Mezzrow, a Jewish musician who identified as black.

Their fascination with African American culture is comparable to the Beat poets, yet Leiber and Stoller’s experience is notably less voyeuristic. Unlike the Beats, they weren’t just looking for what Kerouac called “old-fashioned spade kicks.” Their experience of African American culture was collaborative and less patronizing, and it continued a time-honored musical tradition of adulation and emulation. 

Leiber and Stoller first connected through a love of the blues. At their first meeting, Stoller, a young jazz hipster interested in bebop, had no interest in writing popular songs and was openly skeptical when the unknown teen Leiber showed up at his door asking if Stoller would put music to his lyrics. It was only when he saw Leiber’s lyrics were written to a 12 bar blues pattern – a musical form unknown to other white kids in his world – that his interest was piqued. 

When writing songs, Stoller worked out the music on the piano while Leiber, who Stoller called “the idea machine,” sang and danced one thought after another, feeding off Stoller’s reactions as the two found their voice. “We wanted people to hear that we were part of a tradition, rather than imitating something that wasn’t ours,” said Mike Stoller. “As would-be songwriters, our interest was in black music and black music only…which meant exclusively black performers, writing in the black vernacular.” Stoller added, “When Jerry sang, he sounded black, so that gave us an advantage.”

Leiber agreed, “We found ourselves writing for black artists, because those were the voices and rhythms we loved.” But for Leiber, the feeling was more than love; it was the voice of the community that had accepted a Yiddish-speaking delivery boy into their homes. “I felt black. I was, as far as I was concerned.” 

Of course, they were not, and as much as they strove to be part of the blues tradition, their authenticity inevitably comes into question. However, there is a kinship between the struggles of Jewish and African American people which has tied the two together repeatedly throughout American history. In his essay, “Bagels, Bongos and Yiddishe Mambos,” Josh Kun calls blacks and Jews “partners in disenfranchisement who can bond over histories of oppression.” The interplay between Jews and African Americans has been so critical to the development of many facets of American culture that it has become central to the very concept of hipness in America. Finding themselves outside both black and white societies, many Jewish entertainers in the 1920s found it liberating to perform in blackface rather than face anti-Semitism as themselves. Kun explains the ubiquity of Jewish blackface as “one woe speaking through the voice of another,” and author Eric Goldstein suggested Jews “frequently embraced black culture as a temporary escape from the pressures of conformity in white America.” The Coasters, black performers singing songs written by Jews appropriating a black voice to mock the establishment, can be seen as a continuation of this complicated American relationship. 

While Jews often identified with the plight of African Americans, the comparison went both ways. The roots of the blues themselves have ties back to the plight of the Israelites. In his book, One Hundred Years of Black Protect Music, author Edna Edet noted that songs sung on plantations often could only refer to slavery obliquely, and that slaves, “fearing repercussions, were restricted to singing about the plight of the Israelites in Egypt.” Moses, who led the Jews out of slavery, is a figure that looms large as the hero of many spirituals, such as the enduring, “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go).”

The groups who worked with Leiber and Stoller were often surprised with the songwriters’ fluency in black vernacular. “Wow, these guys really did know a lot about our culture,” remarked Coasters member Carl Gardner, adding, “They wrote songs as if they were black. I heard Jerry dated black girls.” Charlie Thomas, a member of the Drifters, said Leiber and Stoller “were just like brothers to us. There was real prejudice back then, but these guys didn’t believe in it… they did the best that any producers ever could do for a black group back in those days.”

Despite their desire to be seen as authentically black, the songwriters were occasionally put in their place. When recording “Hound Dog” with Big Mama Thornton, Jerry Leiber suggested she phrase a line in a different say. She glared at him, and said, “White boy, don’t you be telling me how to sing the blues.” Leiber remembered, “[That’s] when I found out I was white.”

There was also tension in the studio when recording “Riot on Cell Block #9.” The guest vocal by Richard Berry, which fits the song so perfectly, was chosen out of necessity, not merit. According to Robins member Terrell Leonard, baritone singer Bobby Nunn refused to record the song, citing issues with the lyrics. Looking back with hindsight, Leonard remarked, “We didn’t understand our heritage. These two white songwriters knew our culture better than we did.” While Leiber and Stoller could never truly know black culture better than those within the community, as people integrated into both black and white culture, they had a unique vantage point that allowed them to intellectualize the black Americans’ plight with a perspective that those entrenched in the struggle could not have. 

 

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Leiber and Stoller discovered their style early on through their shared sense of humor, a unique blend of their Jewish heritage and African American influences. Both communities were often targets of open prejudice and derision from white society, and both coped with this adversity using humor. Commenting on his own songwriting, Leiber stated: 

The combination of Yiddish and Negro strains of humor is the wildest synthesis I ever came across… A lot of what I’ve written is informed by Yiddish timing, rhythm, and sensibility; and by black timing, rhythm and humor. Both worlds are not the same by any stretch. But there are similarities in the irony, futility, and sense of the lower depths. A cheerful attitude about bad luck. The Jewish guy who shrugs with his hands open to the sun after a car accident. 

Being able to laugh at the tragedy of being swindled by an unjust system would appear again and again in the Coasters lyrics. In 1954’s “Framed,” the ill-fated narrator is repeatedly wrongly convicted. Both 1957’s “What Is the Secret of Your Success” and 1959’s “What About Us” are songs envying the easy riches of another while wondering why the same fortunes continue to pass the narrator by, commenting on the disparities between white and black society and perhaps more specifically between Elvis Presley and the Coasters, who Leiber-Stoller were producing simultaneously. In 1960’s “Shoppin’ for Clothes” the narrator spends the song choosing expensive clothing, only to be finally denied the purchase when he fails a credit check. The Coasters lyrics balance between the ribald and the deadly serious, chuckling about “the joke that the poor tell on themselves,” as Leiber once put it. But while many songs shed light on social injustice, none hinted that changing the dynamic was possible. 

One exception is “Red Run Red,” released in 1960, which does suggest that those who perpetuate injustice will get their comeuppance. The song tells an absurd story of a man who trains a monkey to play poker but then does not play fair, cheating to ensure the monkey is perpetually the loser. As critic Robert Palmer notes, “The role reversal of ‘Run, Red, Run,’ in which a sailor’s trained monkey catches him cheating at cards and promises, ‘Red, you made a man out of me, now I’m gonna make a monkey out of you,’ would not be out of place in a folklorist’s collection of black jokes and toasts.”

By using cartoonish characters that seem right out of a fable, the song was accessible enough to reach the Top 40 without mainstream audiences picking up on the serious implications of the chorus lyrics, “Run, Red, run, because he’s got your gun and he’s aiming it at your head.” 

“Even though we were white, we didn’t play off a white sensibility,” said Leiber. “We identified with youth and rebellion and making mischief. We thumbed our nose at the adult world. We crawled inside the skins of our characters, we related to the guys in the singing groups, and the result was a cross-cultural phenomenon: a white kid’s take on a black kid’s take of white society.” 

This dialectical relationship with white society and “the adult world,” a euphemism for the hegemonic structure of the status quo, would be one of the hallmarks of the Coasters’ sensibility, and their reputation as jesters allowed them to slip many subtle criticisms of popular culture into the lyrics unnoticed. Songs like “Lady Like” highlighted patriarchal gender expectations, with the group harping on a woman’s behavior, with lines like, “Take off your black motorcycle jacket, ‘cause that’s not lady like… instead of goofin’ on the corner with your brother, you oughta be home helping your mother.” At the song’s conclusion, the male admonishments are swatted away by a female voice saying, “Now what do you mean, I am a lady!” In another song originally titled “The Slime,” the group mocked the dance craze songs dominating the airwaves by inventing an absurd dance where two people stand on a single dime and barely move as they press their bodies together. The bawdy title was renamed and released as the slightly-less-suggestive “The Climb.” The pair loved hiding their forbidden topics in plain sight, like the hit “Poison Ivy,” a song about the sexually transmitted diseases that you’ll get “the minute you start to mess around.”

Another example is the Western spoof “Along Came Jones.” In the lyrics, the narrator keeps changing channels but can only find the same tired Western films on television (“the same old shoot-‘em-up and the same old rodeo”), a subtle acknowledgement of the lack of black content in popular entertainment. As author Ken Emerson notes: 

What was original in the humor of “Along Came Jones” was not its parody of shoot-‘em-ups; the 1945 Gary Cooper film from which the song took its title was itself a spoof. What was new were black voices mocking an iconic Caucasian genre fifteen years before Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Leiber’s original lyrics sharpened the racial angle by calling attention to the hero’s white hat, white boots, and faithful white horse. Those lines did not pass muster with Jerry Wexler, the executive producer at Atlantic to whom Leiber and Stoller generally reported. Although Wexler’s veto may have been artistically correct – why belabor the obvious, subtlety is all, and so forth – commercially it was unquestionably on the money: Don’t ask for trouble.

Though Leiber has been reluctant to claim that he intended the Coasters’ lyrics as protest material, dismissing the songs as merely “cartoons,” he has admitted, “We used humor to take the edge off.” The use of humor to mask the pain of the black experience has a long history in the blues, even the lyric often-cited to exemplify this, “laughing to keep from crying,” dates back to Virginia Liston’s 1923 “You Don’t Know My Mind Blues.” 

Though Leiber may not have seen the songs as social protest per sé, examples like the original lyrics of “Along Came Jones” and Leiber’s own admission that “the material was potent and the metaphors sometimes hidden,” show that the social criticism was intentional. The intention of the lyrics was not lost on the members of the group. Leiber remembered that “after reading the lyrics, Billy Guy [of the Coasters] would predict, ‘Man they’re gonna hang us in Mississippi from the highest tree.’” For Lieber and Stoller to put racial commentary in records marketed to a popular audience required bravery and tenacity, but it’s worth noting that they never had to worry about being lynched a result. For them, hiding criticism of white society in song was mischief they could approach with fearless glee, not a life-or-death risk. 

Despite the songwriters’ self-identification with black society, the clownish delivery of the Coasters’ humor has been criticized by some as “shuck-and-jive” that furthered the negative stereotypes of black culture established in minstrelsy. But minstrelsy had a history of poking fun not only at blacks, but at a variety of both marginal and aristocratic types in antebellum America. The Coasters flipped the traditional minstrel relationship on its head, allowing African Americans to mock white society and reveal the absurdity and imbalance of the status quo. The act of black performers poking fun at white society on popular radio, however subtle, was in itself a controversial coup during the mid-50s and a major paradigm shift. 

 

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The subtle in-jokes Leiber and Stoller planted for themselves and the African American community which they felt was their core audience had always guided the pair’s songwriting sensibilities. “If we were amused,” said Leiber, “if we really liked what we did, we had a pretty good darn shot at having a hit, because we were our own audience and we were, on some level or another, typical of the people who bought our records.” But as the popularity of the Coasters among white teens grew, the pair began to be confused by their own success. “The more we wrote, the less we understood why the public bought what they bought.” said Leiber. “It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter. We were having fun.” While the throngs of white teenagers who bought the records may have identified with the irreverence of the Coasters’ lyrics, one can only wonder how many of them picked up on the subtext in the songs. 

What was clear to anyone who listened was that the group was having fun, and Coasters recording sessions become legendary events within the industry. Many of the other songwriters in the building would come to watch Leiber and Stoller with the group in the studio. “Every session was like a live performance,” remarked Stoller’s wife Meryl Cohen. “[Each take] was never the same. And then you had these two careening idiots in the recording studio, dancing around and waving their arms and screaming. They were an act in themselves. They never knew it, but they were.” Stoller would play piano with the musicians and Coasters on the studio floor, while Leiber would direct the singers from behind the glass. “Leiber would actually transform himself into this character,” remarked Kenny Vance of group Jay and the Americans. “He would slink and dance around the office, singing the part that he wanted Billy Guy or Carl Gardner to become. I had never really seen anybody transform himself into a black guy…it was wild to watch his abandon, to watch him do his work and not be self-conscious about it.”

“We didn’t idolize many people, but we idolized them,” said songwriter Barry Mann. Burt Bacharach agreed, “I never saw anybody so terrific producing records as them. [It] was an incredible learning experience.” Carole King and Gerry Goffin were said to have “talked about them like gods.” George Barnes, a jazz session guitarist hired to play on “Along Came Jones” who was notorious for despising rock’n’roll sessions, had tears of laughter rolling down his eyes as he tracked the song and told Atlantic engineer Tom Dowd, “I don’t want to ever miss one of their dates,” calling him monthly afterwards to ask if another session was scheduled.

With the Coasters, more than any of the other artists the team worked with, Leiber and Stoller had a complete vision for their songs and worked tirelessly with the group to achieve it. Leiber would sing the exact timing and intonations he wanted, sometimes even singing with the group on the sessions. Stoller’s distinctive piano playing became part of the group’s sound, along with King Curtis’ saxophone. “The Coasters, skilled performers, were just the singers,” writes author Joel Selvin. “Leiber and Stoller were the artists. They didn’t write songs – they wrote records.”

Leiber has said that around 1957 they “started drifting away from exclusively black-oriented rhythm-and-blues subject matter, and… began to shift toward a more universal rock & roll style.” As Leiber noted, there is an evolution in the Coasters lyrics “from in-group humor to a more universal and teen oriented sense of fun,” exemplified by the pop hits of “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown,” but while these songs appear in retrospect to not have the same edge as their earlier racially-charged material, the mass popularity of the songs at the time made them considered some of the Coasters’ most controversial material.

“Yakety Yak” made the Coasters a household name for white and black teenagers alike, topping the pop charts in the summer of 1958. It came at a time when rock’n’roll was widely viewed as synonymous with juvenile delinquency. A poll at the time indicated that juvenile delinquency ranked behind only national defense and world peace as Americans’ greatest concern. According to author Ken Emerson:

“Yakety Yak” made such an impact that it even figured in a United States Senate hearing. Testifying before a panel considering an ultimately unsuccessful bill that sought to clip BMI’s wings to the benefit of ASCAP, a witness singled out “Yakety Yak” for scorn. “My daughter bought it,” noted Senator John O. Pastore… “What are you going to do about it?”

The reaction to this relatively innocent material about teens and parents arguing about doing chores as a threat to the American way of life makes it clear why more serious social issues needed to be so carefully cloaked in metaphor. In his autobiography, their boss at Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, compared the “salty teenage defiance” that fuels both “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” to the “bad boy archetype who, thirty-five years later, continues to be a staple of hip-hop.”

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Though Leiber and Stoller identified with African American culture and even had competitions between themselves over who was “blacker,” there is no doubt that their white complexion allowed them privilege which aided their success as business owners and producers in the music business. During a time when most of the independent labels releasing rhythm and blues were owned by Jews (Chess Records, Modern Records, Aladdin Records, Big Top Records, End Records) and few by African Americans (Vee Jay Records, Duke Records), their Jewish heritage was an advantage as they built relationships with industry executives, first as aspiring songwriters and later as owners of their own record label (first of Spark Records, which released “Riot in Cell Block #9,” and later in the ‘60s with Red Bird Records).

While Leiber and Stoller identified as members of the black culture and often made clever mockery of white society in their lyrics, their legacy is as a bridge between the races. Emerson notes, “Despite their dedication to black music and their dismissal of teenage pap, Leiber and Stoller’s greatest contribution to Atlantic Records was to make black music more alluring to white kids, and to help the company make the transition from R&B specialty label to a rock’n’roll powerhouse.” Using their status as songwriters and producers, which was no doubt elevated by their white privilege, the duo was able to play a pivotal role in making an essentially black genre crossover to the “popular” (white) culture. In the words of Rolling Stone’s David Fricke:

More than any other top writing and production 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 & roll. Their songwriting captured the essence and nuances of black music and language with a melodic invention, narrative ingenuity and cool hilarity that were true to the source while transcending it – heavy-duty R&B with a pop sensibility and lyric universality.

The subversive tone of the Coasters’ humor influenced writers both in and out of the music business. Jerry Leiber and Terry Southern were friends and drinking buddies, and one can certainly draw a line between the black humor of the Coasters lyrics with the entirely white “black humor” of writers like Terry Southern and Joseph Heller, which made a mockery of political, racial and sexual hypocrisy. 

As times changed and the racial tension in America became palpable, so did the lyrics Leiber wrote for the Coasters. However, humor was not enough to take the edge off of these songs. As Emerson notes, “it had become next to impossible for Leiber and Stoller to express their sophisticated sense of racial humor without offending or embarrassing black as well as white Americans.” Titles with blatantly racial themes such as “Colored Folks” and “Whitey!” were far cries from the comic subtlety of “Run Red Run.”  While the songs were left unrecorded, Leiber has recited the lyrics to first verse of “Whitey!”

Who dropped the bomb and started the war? / An’ when you’re over there fightin’, who you fightin’ for? / When you come back and can’t get a job / And the only way to make it is to hustle and rob – / Hey, who you gonna hustle? / And who you gonna rob?/ Whitey! 

In 1963, when Bob Dylan was making a name for himself with protest anthems such as “Blowing in the Wind,” which never overtly stated their subject matter, lyrics like “Whitey!” were years ahead of their time, far too direct and caustic than anything on the radio. Stoller admits, “The things that now seemed exciting for us were songs that were deemed by the record companies – and by the Coasters themselves to some degree – to be too inflammatory.” 

As the Coasters’ star fell, Leiber and Stoller tried offering socially conscious material to their new stars the Drifters, such as “Only in America,” a song ironically sung from the WASP perspective, about the “land of opportunity” where even “a kid without a cent” can “maybe grow up to be President.” While Leiber considered it “a hip track…an ironic, bitter statement,” Atlantic exec Jerry Wexler vetoed it, saying that in order for people to understand the intent of the lyrics he would need to “have a professor of semiotics at Harvard go around with each record and deconstruct it for the edification of the people whose sensibilities were too blunt to appreciate the irony.”  

The songwriting duo had always believed and proven that comedy could be more subversive than self-righteousness, yet as times changed and their humor became too acerbic for the pop charts, their influence as songwriters took a backseat to the innovative productions they created with other songwriters. While they would shape the sound of the early 60s, introducing Latin rhythms and strings to rhythm and blues and producing many of the biggest hits of the era (including “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which Dylan ironically cites in his speech as examples of songs that he prefers over the work of Leiber-Stoller), their days as prolific hit songwriters for the Coasters and other artists were behind them. 

Given the many examples of social commentary in the Coasters’ music, it is ironic that the dawn of the singer-songwriter era – which was ushered in by people like Dylan and would mark the end of Leiber and Stoller’s streak as songwriters – would be considered by many to be the birth of social consciousness in popular music. There is an also an irony that what Dylan helped define as “protest music” was essentially a white perspective on racial injustice – preachy, self-righteous and arguably patronizing. Though also written by Jews, the self-deprecating humor and veiled barbs at authority within the Coasters lyrics were written and performed from a black perspective. 

Even decades later, the group’s subtle-yet-sharp commentary on injustice and conservative culture is still relegated as merely “novelty” music by the white audiences who bought the records in droves. While the white teenagers who bought the majority of the Coasters records were never the intended audience for Leiber and Stoller’s in-jokes, and though many may have missed the references, the Coasters were likely the first group to offer white America a black perspective on societal injustice. Ironically, without the privilege and status afforded by Leiber and Stoller’s whiteness, their ally perspective on the African American experience would never have been exposed to a white audience at all. Like Shakespearean fools, the Coasters spoke comedy-cloaked truth over the airwaves when few others dared.

 

Playlists for Further Listening

Songs referenced in this article: Spotify Playlist

Leiber and Stoller’s most notable productions in chronological order: Spotify Playlist

Exhaustive list of Leiber and Stoller compositions in chronological order: Spotify Playlist

 

Recommended Reading

Emerson, Ken. (2006). Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era. Penguin. (Amazon)

Fricke, D. (1990, April). Leiber and Stoller: Rolling Stone’s 1990 Interview with the Songwriting Legends, Rolling Stone (576) (Link)

Friedman, J. A. (2008). Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock’n’Roll. Hal Leonard Corporation. (Amazon)

Gardner, C. (2007). Yakety Yak I Fought Back: My Life with the Coasters. AuthorHouse. (Amazon)

Kun, J. (2005). “Bagels, Bongos and Yiddishe Mambos, or The Other History of Jews in America.” In Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. 23.4 (2005): 50-68. (Related: NPR feature)

Leiber, J., Stoller, M., & Ritz, D. (2009). Hound dog: The Leiber and Stoller autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster. (Amazon)

Neville, M. (Writer, Director). (2001) “Words and Music by Leiber and Stoller” [The Songmakers Collection: The True Stories of Legendary Pop Performers] In P. Jones (Producer). New York City, New York: A&E Television Network. (Amazon)

Palmer, R. (1978). Baby, that was rock & roll: the legendary Leiber & Stoller. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. (Amazon)

Wexler, J. (2012). Rhythm and the blues: A life in American music. Knopf. (Amazon)

Zak, A. (2010). I Don’t Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America. University of Michigan Press. (Amazon)

 

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David J. Lawson is a musician, producer and record collector living in Detroit. He most recent musical releases are the Scrappers’ self-titled debut full length and the Pop Project’s fourth album, Do Go On. During non-pandemic times, he regularly DJs at events, weddings and bars from his extensive vinyl collection of LPs, 45s, and 78s. Dave has served as recording engineer and producer for numerous local projects out of his home studio, including the most recent release by the Codgers, Have a Little Fun. Dave also works as a marketing and communications consultant for organizations and non-profits in various industries.