Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Baltimore Rock and Roll Hall of Famers

A blog post by historian Deb Weiner.

In my last blog post I asked if anyone could name two Baltimore Jews in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Only one person responded and he was only half right. The rest of you either don’t know, or don’t care, who our famous rockers are. I’ll assume the former and use this opportunity to enlighten you.


Ellen Naomi Cohen

Mama Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore in 1941. Her family moved around the Baltimore and D.C. area during her childhood, as her father pursued a series of failed business ventures. Eventually he hit upon a successful scheme: selling food from a mobile stand (an old bus he had acquired) to construction workers building the Mondawmin Mall. Ellen worked the food stand every morning before heading off to Forest Park High School (the quintessential Baltimore Jewish high school of the 1950s, featured in classmate Barry Levinson’s film Liberty Heights). Musically gifted, free-spirited, and overweight, she didn’t fit into the rigid conformity of fifties middle class high school life. She dropped out in her senior year and joined the small bohemian scene in downtown Baltimore while working reception (and writing obituaries!) at the Baltimore Jewish Times. But soon she was off to New York to find fame and fortune on Broadway, having changed her name to Cass Elliot for reasons that remain obscure.

Early in her career

The Mamas & the Papas

Rock & Roll royalty

Cass traveled musically from Broadway to jazz to folk—and geographically from New York to Washington to Chicago and back to New York—before joining the burgeoning folk-rock scene in Los Angeles. She formed the Mamas & the Papas with Denny Doherty and John and Michelle Phillips in 1965. Instant fame arrived with the release of their debut album, featuring three pop classics: “California Dreamin,” “Monday, Monday,” and “Go Where You Wanna Go.” Cass’s powerful, distinctive voice was a major factor in the group’s success. She went on to a successful solo career before dying of a heart attack in 1974 (and not, as urban legend has it, of choking). She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

If you want to learn more, Eddi Fiegel wrote a great biography of Elliot in 2006 (after doing research here at the JMM)—that’s the source of my info. We sell it in the museum shop!

Jerry Leiber

Lyricist Jerry Leiber wrote seminal hits of the early rock era with his partner, composer Mike Stoller. Born in Baltimore in 1933 to Polish immigrant parents, Leiber grew up on the edge of the black neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, where his mother opened a grocery store after his father’s death. He became entranced by the music he heard while making deliveries for the store. "I was passing open windows where there might be a radio playing something funky," he later recalled. "The early influences, in many ways, were in Baltimore.” Leiber’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was twelve. Determined to succeed in the music business, he partnered with Stoller while still a teenager.


Together Leiber and Stoller wrote such classics as “Hound Dog,” “Stand by Me,” “Kansas City,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion #9,” “On Broadway,” and “There Goes My Baby.” They were key figures in the Brill Building and Atlantic Records, iconic centers of early rock. Their work with Elvis Presley, the Coasters, Ben E. King, the Drifters, and Phil Spector influenced music history. According to their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame biography, “As pop auteurs who wrote, arranged and produced countless recordings . . . Leiber and Stoller advanced rock and roll to new heights of wit and musical sophistication.” They were inducted in 1987.

Stoller-Elvis-Leiber

Leiber and Stoller today

Last year Leiber and Stoller were interviewed on the Tavis Smiley show—you can hear it at pbs.org. I also found info about Leiber on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website and in a December 4, 1997 Baltimore Sun article.

1 comment:

Lillian said...

I was definitely in the former category...I care but did not know. Thank you for enlightening me. (I always knew The King had a Jewish heart ha =>)