Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were not only two of the most creative songwriters of the 20th century, but also vital figures — along with fellow American Jews such as Benny Goodman, Jerry Wexler, and the Chess brothers — in the integration of American music and popular culture. Today, they are figures of nostalgia, perhaps known best as the songwriters whose music makes up the musical “Smokey Joe’s Café.” Back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, however, their writing not only catapulted Elvis Presley to worldwide fame, but also helped performers such as Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, The Coasters, and The Drifters make their mark with colorful and entertaining songs that crossed color lines, sometimes in rather daring fashion. “Kansas City,” “Stand by Me,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock” are some of the most recognizable American songs ever.
This dual autobiography essentially has Leiber and Stoller trading verses, alternating as they share the stories of their lives. This is an effective technique when they are telling the same story — as in their anecdotes about Presley and his over-the-top manager Colonel Parker — but a bit confusing when they are discussing different topics. Moreover, once they get past their heyday, the narrative goes a bit flat, becoming more on the order of standard celebrity fare. The book’s certainly not a bad one, but it will not have the place in my life that their best songs do. Appendices, index.