Undercover: Baby, That Was Rock & Roll (03/22/79)

Working with a host of L.A. R&B sing­ers, the Coasters, the Drifters, Elvis, and apprenticing Phil Spector, two young whites helped invent modern popular music. Baby, That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber & Stoller (Harvest, 131 pp., $6.95 paperback) is their self-tribute: a scrapbook of photos and memorabilia of the artists that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote for and produced, plus a good discography, an appreciation by drama critic John Lahr (who weighs in with the disconcerting assertion that “Poison Ivy” was about sex!), a solid, 12,000-word text by Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Robert Palmer, and lyrics to a mere thirty-four songs.piafWhich is disappointing. There’s no need for three variations on “Hound Dog” when “Idol With the Golden Head” is missing altogether; pictures are big and clear, but too many are familiar and clumsily laid out. (One shocker is the sheet music for “L’Homme a la Moto”—the French version of “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”—as sung by, of all people, Edith Piaf.) Palmer’s essay is full of detail and valuable stories, but you can sense his frustration with the book’s limits: his desire to push farther into this tale of crossing cultures, the mix of aesthetic and commercial impulses, the questions of Leiber and Stoller’s founding role and subsequent eclipse. They (and L.A. R&B) deserve a real book, not a jumble. Such a study exists: Bill Millar’s The Coasters, which came out five years ago, and then only in England. The publisher is Star/W.H. Allen; happy hunting.coastersOne need hunt no longer for Peter Guralnick’s classic Feel like Going Home: Portraits in Blues & Rock ‘n’ Roll. Long unavailable, if not formally out-of-print, it has recently been republished in the U.K. in an edition far superior to the U.S. version, which had a slovenly design and was poorly illustrated; the British version looks as if it’s been put together by a fan of Walker Evans. With definitive, scholarly, colorful chapters on Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Rich, Johnny Shines and their compatriots, this remains the most loving book I have ever read about American popular music, and one of the more savvy. Write Omnibus Press, 78 Newman Street, London, W1P 3LA, U.K.; the price is five dollars, postpaid.


Rolling Stone, March 22, 1979


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