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MODERN 20-807, MARCH 1951



I know why you’re here… at least if you’re someone who is not a daily visitor to the site and came through a search engine it’s not hard to guess how you wound up on the review for this particular record.

It’s the songwriters, isn’t it?

Two names that loom so large in rock history that first names aren’t even needed before most intelligent music lovers know exactly who you’re talking about and probably can rattle off a dozen or more songs they wrote off the top of their heads before taking a deep breath.

As for the group making this record… well, here in the Twenty-First Century they’re mostly known in more of a roundabout way thanks to their long-lasting connection to the guys who wrote this song.

Yet at the time this single was released it was the group who’d been stars for over a year and the teenaged songwriters were the complete unknowns.


Every Night Was Crazy Ball
Though their story is as well known – or at least widely available TO be known – as you’d expect for such a legendary pair, we might as well at least detail the beginning of their partnership which lasted more than a half century and helped to define multiple generations of rock ‘n’ roll, just so that everyone here is on the same page going forward.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were East Coast white boys born a few weeks apart in 1933 – Mike in New York, Jerry in Baltimore – and both had their lives transformed by discovering black music growing up. Stoller fell in love with boogie woogie and took lessons from James P. Johnson, one of the best stride pianists of all time and the man who’d instructed Fats Waller. Meanwhile down the coast Leiber absorbed the sounds emanating from the houses in the black neighborhood where he delivered coal and kerosene from his mother’s grocery store. When he was twelve years old he and his mother moved to Los Angeles. Stoller’s family moved West four years later.

The two eventually met through remarkable good fortune when Leiber, now determined to be a songwriter after his teenage dreams of acting went nowhere, was working in a record store when Lester Sill walked in to push records for the Modern label, one of who knows how many stops he made that week. Yet in spite of the dull routine of the job when he found out the kid working there had written songs he told him to sing one. Sill was reasonably impressed with what he heard and said he wanted to see more and asked for copies of them. Inexperienced as he was Leiber asked what that meant and was told he needed lead sheets – the lyrics along with the music that went with them. When he said he didn’t write music he was told by Sill, “Find someone who does”.

Few partnerships of this magnitude ever were launched on so few words.

Leiber was given the name of Mike Stoller from a musician friend and cold-called him to ask if he wanted to write together. Naturally Stoller, already a jazz hipster of the highest order, turned him down but Leiber was insistent and Mike told him to drop by. Minutes later he was at his door and Stoller was unimpressed with the hyperactive kid with one blue eye and one brown, until he looked through Jerry’s notebook and saw all of his lyrics were in twelve bar blues form.

They bonded immediately over the music they both loved and decided on the spot to become songwriting partners. It was the spring of 1950, they were seventeen years old and would work together for the next sixty one years.


Sittin’ On A Nest Of Gold
Fast forward a couple of months after a summer of writing together… Lester Sill had set up a meeting for the young duo with the Bihari brothers to pitch their material and typically the Bihari’s left them sitting in the waiting room in some perverse show of power. Fed up they left and went across the street to Aladdin where, even without an appointment or anyone to vouch for their abilities, they were invited by Maxwell Davis to play for him what they had and Davis was suitably impressed as were Aladdin’s owners who signed them to a contract.

Sill knew something good was going to slip away because of his idiot bosses so he made sure the Biharis met with Leiber and Stoller to make amends and it was their good fortune that the two didn’t hold grudges and gave them a quasi-gospel send up called That’s What The Good Book Says which The Robins, who were there at the meeting, loved as it employed the kind of irreverent humor they specialized in.

Though it’s not as impeccably structured as their later work you can still see the genesis of their approach pretty clearly here, as the song has an attitude that sets it apart from most comedic or novelty records, even those within rock at the time. The character that Leiber writes is a self-assured hipster, a smart ass, yes, but also smarter (full stop) than the people he’s directing this towards.

On one hand the song was subtly putting down those who were likely to be offended by their religious mockery, something highlighted by the snidely confident way Bobby Nunn delivers the lines, but for those who DID grasp the humor the intuitive genius was in letting those listeners in on the joke from the standpoint of the one telling it.

In other words it wasn’t speaking down to the listeners, as if they were merely a passive audience waiting for a punchline, but rather it was speaking TO them, trusting that they were just as cool, just just as knowledgeable and just as “with it” as the people coming up with and delivering those lines.

That inclusionism was such an important facet of Leiber’s lyrical style, building upon the shared sense of community that we saw in rock from the very beginning, yet coming as it did from two cultural outsiders made it all the more remarkable.

Of course no one buying this record in 1951 had any idea of who it came from, as you’re focused on the more familiar elements, The Robins themselves, as Nunn comes across as the mastermind behind these outlandish claims regarding the dual nature of sin and salvation that are found through the world’s most popular and enduring book of fiction.

The lines are good in their combination of high art and lowbrow images, but they’re rather scatter-shot, jumping from one scenario to another, they don’t quite form a coherent story or for that matter provide a deeper look into this cynicism. Instead the main selling point is its shock value. It’s not crass really, but rather just a shaking up of what’s acceptable in a song as determined by an uptight society that was told never to question the accepted standards of moral authority.

I’m Gonna Put The Plague On All Of Your Juice
Though The Robins are the right actors for these roles, the play itself is shorn of much of its scenery as Leiber and Stoller were not yet producing or arranging the songs.

Instead we get a sort of an odd combination of sounds to set off That’s What The Good Book Says including a surreal instrumental lead-in on vibes before it settles into more of a piano-based rolling rhythm behind the vocals.

Yet the vibes never disappear completely and to everyone’s surprise they get handed the instrumental break, which is spacey, weird and is so hard to believe it was chosen that you assume there MUST be some musical joke being contained within that simply flies over your head.

Unfortunately there isn’t. Instead Modern was merely appropriating Johnny Otis’s signature sound to reinforce the connection between The Robins and their old benefactor. Yet Johnny rarely used his vibes as more than a sweetener on fast paced songs like this and while this unquestionably makes the track stand out, it does so for the wrong reasons because it’s not complimenting the song as much as it is highlighting the disconnect between what’s being sung and the production ideas.

A saxophone here would’ve been able to be sly, suggestive, crude and disruptive in equal measure depending on what aspects they wanted to focus on and the lack of something with more heft to it during the break means the vocals have to start from ground zero again when they return. By the time you re-orient yourself the record is nearly over.


Take The Chains Off And Set Them Loose
All in all while this is a rather inauspicious first meeting with two guys who will thoroughly transform rock songwriting over the next dozen years or so, there’s still just enough of their wit and social daring to make you take notice.

Even so That’s What The Good Book Says is still more likely to be the answer to a trivia question than a serious candidate for an overlooked classic.

It does however further solidify The Robins as a group who doesn’t take things nearly as serious as their vocal group competitors and though the pairing of Leiber and Stoller and Bobby Nunn’s outfit didn’t quite pay off this time around, it did lay the groundwork for their future work together that would result in some legendary records and ultimately the creation of a whole new – and far more successful – group.

When we meet them again the next time they all get together the tables will have turned and it’ll be the writers (and by that point the producers as well) who will be the stars while The Robins will be looking to make sure they’re not unknown.

Yet far from being merely an historical curiosity, this release does give some idea of what to expect when the songwriters got some experience under their belts and began to re-write a different type of book regarding just how you could make music.


(Visit the Artist page of The Robins for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)