A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs header image 1
July 18, 2020  

PLEDGE WEEK: “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” by the Cheers

July 18, 2020

Welcome to the sixth in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .

This one is about "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by the Cheers, one of the first Teen Tragedy records, and Leiber and Stoller's biggest hit. Content warning -- contains mentions of deaths in accidents, and of false rape accusations. Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:

 

Welcome to the latest ten-minute Patreon bonus episode of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs. In this one we're going to talk about "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by The Cheers. This episode has some discussion of deaths in accidents, and of false rape accusations, so if that's going to be traumatic for anyone, please turn off now, or read the transcript to check if it'll be OK for you.

The Cheers are not a group who usually turn up in histories of rock and roll. If they're mentioned at all by anyone, it's usually because one of the trio, Bert Convy, later went on to be a host of several syndicated game shows in the eighties and early nineties.

But "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" was one of the biggest-selling singles of 1955, and the ur-example of a genre that would become hugely popular over the next decade:

[Excerpt: "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots"]

We've talked about Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller before in the main series, and they are going to come up a lot more, but at the time we're talking about they weren't the massive stars of rock and roll songwriting they later became. They were, rather, just one of a lot of songwriting teams who were working in blues and R&B in the mid-fifties. Normally, they worked only with black artists, but for once they were working with a white group.

The Cheers were signed to Capitol Records, one of the major labels. They were a trio consisting of Bert Convy, Gill Garfield, and Sue Allan, and they were tragically uncool in the way that only white vocal groups of the early fifties could be.

When they were signed to Capitol, they were assigned Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller as their producers. I've not been able to find anything out about how this came to happen -- Leiber and Stoller weren't staffers at Capitol, and they never really talked about their work with the Cheers in interviews. But their first record with the group, "Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin')" was a hit:

[Excerpt: The Cheers, "Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin')"]

The Cheers' sound really, really doesn't fit with the style of Leiber and Stoller's songwriting, but the power of white blandness meant that this was the first Leiber and Stoller song to hit the pop charts.

Around this time, Jerry Leiber was involved in something that would traumatise him for the rest of his life. The story as Leiber told it -- and to be clear, this is *his* telling of the story, not necessarily the truth -- was that he'd got drunk, and then two attractive women had offered to have a threesome with him. He'd been keen, but then backed out as he'd pulled a muscle earlier that day. The two women, however, insisted that he should pay them two hundred dollars or they would accuse him of raping them. He didn't have two hundred dollars on him, so, very drunk and in pain, he drove them to go and meet a friend who would give him the money.

They never made it to their destination. Leiber had no memory of the crash, but he and one of the women were injured, and the other woman died.

Now, I don't know for sure that this experience fed into Leiber's writing process -- I've not been able to find out the dates for the car crash, or any interviews about his writing of the song -- but the second, and final, hit for the Cheers, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" certainly seems likely to have been inspired by it, dealing as it does with an automotive crash and a loss of life:

[Excerpt: The Cheers, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots"]

The main hook for the song, a teen tragedy about a young man who dies in a crash after his girlfriend tells him not to ride his motorbike, was simply that it was about a motorcycle -- there had been no hit records about motorbikes before, and this one latched on to the newfound popularity of bikes and bikers.

But the song was given an unexpected, and tragic, boost in popularity when the week after it came out, James Dean, a young actor who specialised in moody, rebellious, tormented characters and appealed to almost exactly the same teenage demographic who were buying rock and roll records, died in a car crash. People started buying "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" as a form of tribute to Dean.

Meanwhile, the royalty cheques for "Bazoom" were starting to come in. Mike Stoller was astonished to get a cheque for a whole five thousand dollars -- more money than he'd ever seen in his life -- and he and his wife went on a trip to Europe for three months. While they were there, they went to see Edith Piaf in concert, and heard her perform this:

[Excerpt: Edith Piaf, "L'Homme a la Moto"]

It was Piaf's own version of "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots", which had become her biggest hit. "Black Denim Trousers" had become a sensation, the first in what would become a whole new genre of records about tragic rebellious figures dying in car crashes, and you can hear its echoes in everything from "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las to "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" by Richard Thompson. It also inspired this parody record a few years later:

[Excerpt: Dodie Stevens, "Pink Shoe Laces"]

But Stoller, too, would be affected by tragedy. He and his wife were persuaded that on the way back they should go by sea, on a new fancy ocean liner, the Andrea Doria. While he was on the boat, Stoller was reading A Night To Remember, the bestselling book about the Titanic, as were many of the other passengers.

The night before it was due to arrive in New York, the Andrea Doria collided with another liner, the Stockholm. Both ships sank, and fifty-one people died. Stoller and his wife, though, survived, and made it to New York. When they got to New York Harbor, Jerry Leiber ran up to them. He was excited that they'd survived, of course, but he was also excited about something else.

"Mike, you're OK! We have a smash hit!"

"You're kidding?"

"Hound Dog"

"Big Mama Thornton?"

“No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.”

For Leiber and Stoller, nothing would ever be the same again.