The death of Jerry Leiber on Monday led to a wave of mourning for a man described by Rolling Stone as “one of the most important songwriters in the history of rock & roll.” Leiber’s fame stems not just from the songs he wrote with Mike Stoller in the 1950s and early 1960s, but from the fact that his songs have been continually recorded by artists over the past half century. Even Leiber’s most famous song, "Hound Dog," was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton, not by Elvis Presley. While the Globe’s editorial today highlights "Hound Dog" as one of the great, ongoing disputes over Leiber's work, other songs and their covers have provoked similarly passionate arguments.
Leiber wrote the lyrics to another famous Elvis song, Jailhouse Rock, which was notably covered by, among others, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Jeff Beck Group. While the Killer’s cover of the King was relatively faithful, the Jeff Beck Group’s cover takes the song in an entirely different direction, driven by Ronnie Wood’s funky bass line.
This was not the only Leiber song to be totally transformed in a notable cover. His composition “Young Blood” for the Coasters, a light R&B song about the awkwardness of teenage courting, became transformed by Leon Russell in a medley at the Concert for Bangladesh into a far more hard-driving blues song.
Perhaps the most peculiar cover that a song penned by Leiber received was when 2 Live Crew tried to make Yakety Yak, also originally recorded by the Coasters, its own for the soundtrack of the 1988 movie Twins starring Arnold Schwarznegger and Danny DeVito.
Their version reminds listeners why Luther Campbell was wise not to permanently add singing to his multi-faceted career as a rapper, University of Miami booster, and First Amendment martyr. Leiber even received a credit for a baseball pitch when former Phillies closer Tug McGraw named one of his fastballs, “Peggy Lee,” as a tribute to her popular version of “Is That All There Is.”
But Leiber’s songs also received far less innovative covers. The Beatles did a relatively faithful cover of Wilbert Harrison’s "Kansas City" (which was itself not the original version but a cover which caught fire on the charts in 1959). And "Stand By Me," made famous by Ben E. King has received relatively straightforward covers from performers as varied as John Lennon and the Muppets.
Leiber was a lyricist, not a performer. This means there has never been any truly definitive version of any of his songs — save perhaps when he and Mike Stoller were sketching out an initial composition in a windowless studio in the Brill Building 40 years ago. We don't know precisely how he would have recorded his work and nor will we ever know. That is perhaps the magic of his compositions — and of any composition where the performer is not the writer. What a song may lose as a distillation of personal experience, it gains in adaptability. Every time one of Leiber's songs is re-recorded, it reignites a new musical argument and leads further into an enjoyable, if never ending, musical dispute.
Globe file photo: Elvis Presley and Jerry Leiber.