The brilliant rock ’n’ roll lyricist Jerry Leiber, whose father sang at synagogues in the family’s native Poland, once described the traits Jewish music shares with rhythm and blues. “Listen to any cantor, any good hazan, sing and you can hear a little bit of Ray Charles going on,” he told The Baltimore Sun.
With his partner Mike Stoller, Leiber, who died this week at 78, had an astonishingly prolific career defined by what the poet David Lehman calls “the mysterious ‘bluesness’ and ‘crazy’ jazz that links Jewish songwriters tonally and rhythmically with black singers and instrumentalists.” The results were some of the most evocative and at times heartbreaking pop songs ever written: “Hound Dog.” “Stand by Me.” “Spanish Harlem.” “On Broadway.” “There Goes My Baby.” “Is That All There Is?”
It is a cliche to write of songwriters that they provided a “soundtrack for their generation,” but in the case of Leiber and Stoller, they most certainly did. And not just one generation: Even those too young to have heard their songs on the first go-round caught them on oldies radio or movie soundtracks. That’s another thing that links Jerry Leiber to Jewish tradition: His best songs have a way of making you feel deeply nostalgic for a moment you never experienced in the first place. You may have grown up in a suburb, but hear “Spanish Harlem” and you are transported to a hot summer night in the barrio. You may be happy in life and love, but “On Broadway” drops you in the middle of a harsh neon city, broke, lonely, but defiant.
The neurologist Oliver Sacks writes of “brainworms,” those insistent melodies you can’t shake no matter how hard you try. For some, that means an infectious pop song, or even just a guitar lick. For Sacks, “they were usually Jewish songs and litanies associated with a sense of heritage and history, a feeling of family warmth and togetherness.” The great Jewish songwriters like Leiber and Stoller combined the two in a way that — baruch Hashem — we’ll never be able to get out of our heads.