Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography
(Simon & Schuster)
US: Jun 2009
The history of 20th-century popular music in America has often been a story of race. Genres grew and evolved, young practitioners borrowed from old masters, and the resulting gumbo owed its heart and soul to both black and white.
Both Hound Dog and the provocatively titled How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll emerge as histories that couldn’t be more different. But both follow the same muddy stream.
Hound Dog, by storied songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, with an assist from David Ritz, is a pull-up-a-chair sort of book, a dual first-person telling from a pair together so long they complete each other’s thoughts.
Leiber, a Jewish kid from Baltimore, was enthralled by the music he heard working in black neighborhoods. Stoller, a New Yorker, had a similar story. The two big-city boys set out to write the blues, penning songs for artists such as Willa Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and Charles Brown.
And somehow, they ended up as founding fathers of a new music called rock ‘n’ roll. Their conversation in Hound Dog lays out the path.
They meet as teens in Los Angeles, where their families have relocated, decide to write songs together for blues and R&B acts, and somehow make a go of it. One day, they learn a hit song they wrote for Big Mama has become a blockbuster for a young white boy from Mississippi named Elvis Presley.
“Hound Dog” changed everything. Leiber and Stoller became Elvis’ “good luck charms”.
In one frantic four-hour session, they wrote four hit songs for Elvis, including “Jailhouse Rock”. Their songs were covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee to the Drifters and the Coasters to the Beatles. And they put together more hits than any other writing pair except for a couple of guys named Lennon and McCartney.
How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music
(Oxford University Press)
US: Jun 2009
While Hound Dog stands as a compelling piece of oral history, Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll is a full-bore academic treatise, “an alternate history of American popular music,” as the subtitle says. He certainly takes a different approach.
To put the music in context with its era, he looks both at the ways music reached its audience (from the piano in the parlor to concerts in the park to vinyl, CDs and iPod downloads) and the most popular performers of the day. In the early jazz era of the ‘20s, for example, that means occasional references to the quintessential music of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, but a much more detailed focus on Paul Whiteman, the “King of Jazz.”
Whiteman took “hot jazz” and de-emphasized “African rhythm” to accentuate “European melody”, Wald writes. By doing that, he broadened his audience significantly. The Beatles did much the same, he said.
Wald says he grew up a fan of the Beatles, at least the matching-suited, Beatle-booted version. But he painstakingly presents his case for how they, as his title says, destroyed rock ‘n’ roll.
It began, he says, when the Beatles abandoned live performances.
Rather than releasing a new album every couple of months, each packed with chart-topping singles, the band headed into the studio for months to realize their artistic ambitions. The brilliance of those releases (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band among them) changed the way artists worked. The album, rather than singles, became the focus, spawning the rise of FM radio and its broadcasting niches.
Did the Beatles destroy rock ‘n’ roll? Wald makes a strong argument that they did. But even if that isn’t exactly true, his book provides a powerfully provocative look at popular music and its impact on America.