Here’s a quiz question you’re unlikely to know the answers to; what do Paranoid (Black Sabbath), Born This Way (Lady Gaga), Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac), Mr Writer (Stereophonics), Merry Xmas Everybody (Slade) and Yakkety Yak (The Coasters) all have in common? Answer, they all took no more than 10 minutes to write.
“If a song takes more than 20 minutes to write, it probably wasn’t worth writing,” R.E.M.’s Peter Buck once said. I wonder if he still thought that after Losing My Religion became a worldwide hit, which, was penned in just 10 minutes. Well there are many songs having that claim and this week we focus on Yakkety Yak.
This was written by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had already written a stack of US and half a dozen UK hits including the international number one Jailhouse Rock. The pair, who had met in Los Angeles in 1950, had much in common, as they were both Jewish, both dated black girls and loved the blues. “We used to go to Mike’s house where the upright piano was and we went there every day and wrote, we often worked 12 hours a day,” noted Jerry. Mike added, “We would write five songs per session. Then Jerry would go home and we’d call each other up and I’d say I’d written three or four more songs and he would say very much the same!”
In 1953 when the pair were 20, they headed their own Spark record label and wrote for and signed black singers. “I felt black,” Jerry once told Rolling Stone magazine, “I was black as far as I was concerned and I wanted to be black for many reasons,” he explained. “They were better musicians and they were better athletes and knew how to enjoy life more than most people!”
Jerry remembered the day they wrote Yakkety Yak, “I had this beautiful apartment on Washington Square, and one day Mike came over and we sat at the piano. Mike added, “Jerry got up to boil some water to make some tea and I was playing a rhythm that struck me as funny. Jerry yelled from the kitchen ‘Take out the papers and the trash’, to which I yelled back, ‘Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash’, right then we knew we had something.”
“It was like automatic writing,” Jerry continued, “The song was done in about ten minutes flat. There is nothing more perfect than those that come out that way. In the song, a youngster is being told off by his parents for not doing his chores. It didn’t come without its criticisms at the time because it was written by two Jewish men and sung by a black vocal group. In his book The History of Rock by Bill Millar, he noted: The Coasters were clearly irreverent and opposed institutions that white adults held in high esteem. Authority, parents, fidelity, hard work, piety and the suppression of risky pleasures were questioned with a blood and subversive wit. Jews (Leiber and Stoller) and Southern blacks (the Coasters) were expected to show gratitude towards the system. Instead they stood up and criticised it, a theme that can be recognised in almost all their songs.”
“We wrote the song specifically for the Coasters,” Jerry said, “Because of their personalities. The bass singers were always very laid back and their voices always carried a kind of authority, they were the heavies in our comic melodramas. Carl Gardner, the lead singer, had such an absurd pompous way of expressing himself that he was like a character out of a comic strip.” Mike Stoller played piano on the track and the infectious saxophone solo was provided by King Curtis.
In 1963, saxophonist Boots Randolph used this song as the basis for his instrumental Yakkety Sax, which he’s previously recorded in 1958, which became the theme to the Benny Hill television show.
Jerry Leiber died in August 2011, but his son, Oliver, has kept the family flag flying as producer and writer of Paula Abdul’s hits Forever Your Girl and Opposites Attract.
On the tragic side, all the others have had their fair share. In 1956, Mike Stoller and his wife Meryl were passengers on the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria when it collided with a Swedish liner of the coast of Nantucket but managed to board a lifeboat to safety before the ship sank. Sadly 51 other passengers lost their lives. As for the Coasters, King Curtis was stabbed to death by a drug dealer outside his New York apartment in 1971. Bass singer Nathaniel Wilson disappeared from Las Vegas in 1980 and his dismembered body was later discovered dumped in the Hoover Dam in California. Six years later another member, Bobby Nunn, died of a heart attack. In 1990 the tenor vocalist Cornell Gunter was shot to death in his car in Las Vegas. Billy Guy and Carl Gardner both died of natural causes in 2002 and 2011 respectively.
There is still a version of the Coasters touring today, but like the Drifters, there are no original members. The current line up comprises J. W. Lance (lead vocals), Primotivo Candelara (baritone vocals), Eddie Whitfield (bass vocals) & Dennis Anderson (tenor vocals) all of which had joined in the 21st century.