Burt Bacharach, Jerry Leiber & Norman Gimbel join host Merv Griffin on this 1958 TV game show
In 1958, three legendary songwriters appeared on the game show “Play Your Hunch” as themselves, before their legends had been established.
It was hosted by Merv Griffin, who also was just starting a long TV career. Even on this episode, he shows off his musical skills. But first he brought out the three songwriters, who are shown in close-ups, individually, each looking a little suspect, as in a police line-up. They are identified as “three fine looking gentlemen,” and are labeled Mr. X (Jerry Leiber), Mr. Y (Burt Bacharach) and Mr. Z (Norman Gimbel.).
“Take a good look at these gentlemen,” he says. “They are all songwriters… they are the brightest, youngest and most successful songwriters in the music business. And they’re all holding copies of their hit tunes.” One of them wrote lyrics for a song which has become “one of the great American classics.”
As a clue he plays a recording of “this young man singing his own composition.”
We then hear a very young Jerry Leiber singing “Hound Dog,” which he wrote with Mike Stoller, as a slow blues to solo piano, bending the blues notes. This elicits much laughter, as it sounds so different from Elvis’ famous version, which is, of course, rock & roll.
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While the song is playing and the laughter ensues, the camera slowly pans over the faces of the three songwriters, starting with Jerry. He appears serious at first, then looks upward with a smile. Then we see Bacharach, who is starting to laugh, and then Gimbel laughing along with the audience. Back to Bacharach, who is laughing but seems to catch himself.
Then the camera swings back to Jerry Leiber, who seems pained, and looks directly into the camera like Lenny Bruce, which seemed to say, “Really? I came this far for this?”
It’s one of TV’s first intentional derisions of a songwriter for comic effect, but not the last. Even Steve Allen, the original host of NBC’s “Tonight Show,” an accomplished songwriter himself, would ridicule lyrics from current rock songs he found especially insipid.
Jerry could handle it. He was singing it as a slow blues because that’s how he and Mike Stoller wrote it. Rock and roll was not their music then. They were all about the blues, and wrote it for the blues diva Big Mama Thornton, who recorded it several years before Elvis, as explained here.
On the recording which is played, Leiber sings his original lyric. Instead of “crying all the time” he sings “quit snooping round my door.”
The songwriters’ reactions were scrutinized by the contestants trying to determine which one wrote and sang the song. Jerry gave himself away. While one of the women found him “too composed for his own good,” her husband rightly understood. “I think he feels maybe it’s not something to laugh at,” he said.
Leiber’s redemption came when he went to the piano with Merv, who started playing the blues. Then the former Mr. X sang it in the groove, smiling.
Merv then brings out Gimbel and Bacharach, sings their current hits, and then went back to Leiber by saying, “Jerry is responsible for so many of the songs which Elvis Presley has written.”
Well, not exactly. Leiber & Stoller wrote many songs Elvis recorded. They wrote famously wrote four songs in one day for an Elvis movie originally called Ghost of a Chance, and retitled Jailhouse Rock after the song. The title was Jerry’s invention.
Elvis did have songwriting credit on many songs, though he did not write them. It was a deal that his manager Colonel devised. But Leiber & Stoller never shared credit with him. It was a deal they did refuse.
Leiber & Stoller wrote countless classics. In addition to their Elvis hits, they also wrote “Kansas City,” “Searching’,” “Love Potion #9,” “Poison Ivy,” and “Ruby Baby.” They wrote “Stand By Me” with Ben E. King, and “On Broadway” with Mann & Weil. Phil Spector wrote “Spanish Harlem” with Leiber. The songs they wrote which credit others were true collaborations.
Jerry Leiber died in 2011 at the age of 78. Mike Stoller is alive and well and living in California, still writing music.
Norman Gimbel wrote lyrics for many famous songs with music by Charles Fox, including “I’ve Got A Name” and “Killing Me Softly.” He also wrote English language versions of many famous songs, including “The Girl from Ipanema,” with music by Antonio Carlos Jobim and original Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes. He died in 2018.
Burt Bacharach, who like JFK, was especially TV-friendly, as can be seen in this clip. One of the contestants even comments on his tan. He went on to write countless classics with lyrics by Hal David, from “Alfie” to “Raindrops Keep Falling On Your Head.” He also wrote great songs with Elvis Costello and others. He’s 93 and still writing new songs.
Thanks to our friend, author, director, music educator David Leaf, for tipping us off to this clip.