Polar Opposites Find Common Ground In Music

Originally published on December 29, 2010 2:12 pm

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written some tunes you might have heard, including "Hound Dog," "Love Potion No. 9" and "Yakety Yak." Though they've worked together for years, their relationship hasn't always been easy.

"I can't remember if it's Mike or Jerry who describes their relationship as a 50-year-old argument," says David Ritz, who ghostwrote Leiber and  Stoller's joint memoir. Ten years ago, the pair described that partnership on NPR as "long, long years of stepping on each other's words and toes and sentences."

There's much that's similar about Leiber and Stoller: They were both Jewish kids who loved the blues and helped bring its rhythms into rock 'n' roll. But Leiber was the son of a single mother who ran a store in a poor black Baltimore neighborhood. As a kid, he delivered kerosene and coal, never learning how to read music. Stoller's family was more genteel: His aunt was a concert pianist. One brought street; one brought schooling.

"Mike was able to take Jerry's wildness and not exactly tame it or cage it, but put some kind of frame around it," Ritz says, adding that a shared sensibility and strong opposing personalities was key to their success.

"When chaos meets order, when anarchy meets discipline, it's always the yin and yang," he says. "I think tension is the key."

When Anarchy Meets Discipline

That was absolutely the case with another pair of songwriters. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox co-wrote some of the most shimmering hits of the 1980s as members of the band Eurythmics. They were also romantically involved -- and in the midst of a terrible fight when they wrote their most famous song, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."

"It was a song that was written at a point where, personally, I almost felt I might have to head back to Scotland and just give up the ghost, as we say," Lennox says. "Dave very bravely carried on trying to write something on the drum machine. I think he programmed in the basic rhythm, and I was just about to leave the building, I think."

Lennox's background was working class: Her father worked at a shipyard and her mother was a cook. But unlike the solidly middle-class Stewart, she had piano lessons and eventually won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Stewart's approach was instinctive. That same dynamic comes into play in dozens of the greatest songwriting teams.

Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman are another example of this dynamic. As co-creator of the hits "Teenager in Love," "Hushabye" and "Viva Las Vegas," Pomus was a wild man whose leg braces -- a legacy from childhood polio -- did not stop him from singing at Harlem blues clubs as a white Jewish teenager. Shuman was conservatory-trained and orderly. He organized his partner's passions.

Moving from Manhattan to the Motor City, Norman Whitfield spent his youth hustling in pool halls -- and at Motown. There, he became known as a temperamental experimentalist, obsessive and fearless. Barrett Strong was the stable force about whom less is written. Whitfield and Strong's string of hits enabled Motown to expand. Besides "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the two wrote "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "Ball of Confusion" and "War."

Today's songwriting teams seem less volatile, Ritz says, perhaps because they're not trying to harness the volatility of a new form. The best songwriting teams in early R&B and rock 'n' roll, he says, required an Apollo and a Dionysus.

"What better example, ultimately, than Mick and Keith? Jagger brought formal training, discipline and business acumen. Richards brought intense focus ... and a total lack of inhibition," Ritz says.

Richards is the Dionysian force, while Jagger seems more Apollonian by nature.

"If Dionysus and Apollo can live together in a three-minute song," Ritz says, "you got a hell of a hit."

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We've heard today about the partisan divide in Washington, and we've heard about disputes over who did and didn't clean up the snow. Well, we're also running a series about partnerships, stories of people working together in the arts.

Today, NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us how some people with very different personalities have collaborated on some very good songs.

NEDA ULABY: Let's start with a pair who've written some tunes you may have heard.

(Soundbite of song, "Hound Dog")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog crying all the time.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Potion No. 9")

Unidentified Group (Band): (Singing) Love potion number nine.

(Soundbite of song, "Yakety Yak")

THE COASTERS (Band): (Singing) Take out the papers and the trash.

Mr. JERRY LIEBER (Songwriter): I said take out the papers and the trash, and Stoller, before I could get the next line out...

Mr. MIKE STOLLER (Songwriter): Said...

Mr. LIEBER: Yeah.

Mr. MIKE STOLLER: ...or you don't get no spending cash.

(Soundbite of song, "Yakety Yak")

THE COASTERS (Band): (Singing) Yakety yak. Don't talk back.

Mr. DAVID RITZ (Author): I can't remember whether if it was Mike or Jerry who describes their creative relationship as a 50-year argument.

ULABY: That's David Ritz. He ghostwrote Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller's joint memoir. Lieber and Stoller described that partnership on NPR 10 years ago.

Mr. LIEBER: Long, long years of stepping on each other's...

Mr. MIKE STOLLER: Toes.

Mr. LIEBER: ...toes and words and sentences.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Kansas City")

ULABY: There's much that's similar about Lieber and Stoller. They were both Jewish kids who loved the blues and helped bring its rhythms into rock 'n' roll.

(Soundbite of song, "Kansas City")

Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing) I'm going to Kansas City. Kansas City, here I come.

ULABY: But Lieber was the son of a single mom who ran a store in a poor black Baltimore neighborhood. As a kid, he delivered kerosene and coal, never learned how to read music.

Stoller's family was more genteel. His aunt was a concert pianist. One brought street; one brought schooling.

Mr. RITZ: Mike was able to take Jerry's wildness and not exactly tame it, but put some kind of frame around it.

ULABY: A shared sensibility and strong opposing personalities was key to their success, says David Ritz.

Mr. RITZ: When chaos meets order, when anarchy meets discipline - I think tension is the key.

ULABY: That was absolutely the case with another pair of songwriters. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox co-wrote some of the most shimmering hits of the 1980s. They were also romantically involved and having a terrible fight when, Lennox says, they wrote their most famous song.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)")

Ms. ANNIE LENNOX (Singer): It was written at a point where I personally thought that I might even have to head back to Scotland and just give up the ghost as we say.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)")

Ms. LENNOX: (Singing) Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?

Ms. LENNOX: Dave very bravely carried on trying to write something on a drum machine. I think he programmed in the basic rhythm, and I was just about to leave the building, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Lennox's background was working class: Her dad worked at a shipyard. Her mother was a cook. But unlike the solidly middle-class Dave Stewart, she had piano lessons and eventually won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Stewart's approach was instinctive. That same dynamic comes into play in dozens of the greatest songwriting teams.

(Soundbite of archival tape)

Mr. MORT SHUMAN (Songwriter): Wait a minute. Sun will be shining in my heart?

Mr. DOC POMUS (Songwriter): Will be shining in my heart.

Mr. SHUMAN: (Singing) It may be raining, but the sun will be shining in my heart.

ULABY: In this archival tape from the Brill Building in the 1950s, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman craft a hit.

Mr. SHUMAN: (Singing) Pam-pam-pam-pa-ra-pam...

ULABY: And they argued.

Mr. POMUS: (Unintelligible).

Mr. SHUMAN: (Unintelligible) somebody else then. Oh, wait. Wait a minute.

ULABY: The song evolved into "Teenager in Love." Their hits also included "Hushabye" and "Viva Las Vegas."

Doc Pomus was a wild man. His leg braces, a legacy from childhood polio, did not stop him from singing at Harlem blues clubs as a white Jewish teenager. Shuman was conservatory-trained, orderly. He organized his partner's passions.

David Ritz now takes us from Manhattan to the Motor City.

(Soundbite of song, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine")

Mr. RITZ: Norman Whitfield was certainly Mr. Chaos and Mr. Volatility, and Barrett Strong was certainly Mr. How-are-we-gonna-put-a-lid-on-this?

ULABY: Whitfield's youth was spent hustling in pool halls and at Motown. There, he became known as a temperamental experimentalist, obsessive and fearless. Barrett Strong was the stable force about whom less is written.

(Soundbite of song, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine")

Mr. MARVIN GAYE (Singer): (Singing) Ooh, I bet you're wondering how I knew about your plans to make me blue.

ULABY: Whitfield and Strong's string of hits enabled Motown to expand. Besides "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," they wrote "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "Ball of Confusion," "War."

Today's songwriting teams seem less volatile, says David Ritz, maybe because they're not trying to harness the volatility of a new form. The best songwriting teams in early R&B and rock 'n' roll, he says, required an Apollo and a Dionysus.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: What better example ultimately than Mick and Keith? Jagger brought formal training, discipline and business acumen. Richards brought intense focus and a total lack of inhibition.

Mr. RITZ: Richards is sort of the Dionysiac force and Jagger seems to be the more Apollonian force.

(Soundbite of "Jumpin' Jack Flash")

Mr. MICK JAGGER (Singer): (Singing) I was born in a cross-fire hurricane...

ULABY: Moral of the story that's true even today...

Mr. RITZ: If Dionysus and Apollo can live together in a two and a half or a three-minute song, you got a hell of a hit.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.