Lawrence Downes: An American Songbook
Lawrence Downes is a member of the editorial board of the New York Times.
The death of Jerry Leiber, the lyricist who brought us “Stand by Me,” “Yakety Yak” and other early rock ’n’ roll classics, gives us a moment to pause and give thanks for sugar cane. Sugar cane led to a great wave of Chinese immigration to Cuba, which, through a roundabout process of musical pollination, put an idea into the heads of Mr. Leiber and his collaborator, Mike Stoller, when they were still teenagers breaking into the business in Los Angeles.
The story goes like this. In the 1940s, a musician in Havana, Kiko Mendive, records “Chinito, Chinito,” about brassy Cuban girls heckling a Chinese laundryman walking down the street. The record becomes a hit, makes its way to Mexico City, then to the barrios of Los Angeles. There, a young Mexican-American bandleader, Don Tosti, records his own version — a little faster, more rocking — in 1949.
Let the guitarist Ry Cooder, who got this tale from Mr. Stoller, pick it up from here: “Now, here’s Mike Stoller, and one day he’s sitting around with Jerry Leiber. And he hears this song on the radio. ‘Wow!’ they go — because they understood Spanish — ‘that’s a wicked little song. It’s street life. Listen to how they’re doing this scene from the street. We can do that.’ The rest is history....
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