Tuesday 23 August 2011

Jerry Leiber

Weep. Weep. Weep. For Jerry Leiber is dead. The man who wrote the lyrics to Jailhouse Rock, Hound Dog, Yaketty Yak, Stand by Me, Kansas City, Don't, Young Blood etc etc is dead.

I'm much too mournful to have much to say, except to comment upon Leiber's clever extension of metaphors.

The band was jumping and the joint began to swing.
You should have heard those knocked out jailbirds sing.

The phrase jailbird seems to have originally been coined in reference to a caged bird singing. The first known use is in a poem by John Davies about Penelope Rich* who in the course of her unhappy marriage:

...didst express what Art could never show,
The Soul's true grief for loss of her Love's soul;
Thine Action speaking-passion made, but O!
It made thee subject to a jail's control.
But, such a jail-bird heavenly Nightingale,
For such a cause, sings best in greatest bale.

But in the 350 years since that poem was written the idea of an actual bird had been lost. Leiber saw it and revived it. The same sort of idea was at work when, not content with calling a chap a hound dog, Leiber then extended the metaphor to other aspects of a canine life:

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Hanging round my door.
Well you can wag your tail,
But I ain't going to feed you no more.

That was in the original Big Mama Thornton version, and when Mr Presley covered the song, it was changed to catching rabbits.

And I shall leave you with a lesser known example of Mr Leiber's genius.

I've tried this. It's delicious. But you must follow the recipe to the letter.

*Who was also Stella, as in Astrophel and Stella.


  1. King Lear Act V Scene III

    "No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison;
    We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage."

  2. I love the title of Maya Angelou's story - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.