Framed (Robins/Leiber & Stoller/racism)

Thanks to cell phone videos and Black Lives Matter, it has become a lot harder for white Americans to ignore how badly black Americans are routinely treated by the US legal system… though that doesn’t mean everybody now gets it, or wants to get it. One way people don’t get it is to treat the recent spate of killings of young black men by police as something new — what is new is the videos, not what they show — or to treat those killings as isolated events rather than the normal, day-to-day experience of young black men in the United States.

Obviously, rappers have been talking about this subject for years, and this song is a reminder of just how many years. It was recorded in 1954 by the Robins, a group of young black men in Los Angeles, several of whom shortly moved to New York and became the Coasters (as in West Coast).

The songwriters were a pair of young white (to be specific, Jewish) men who had fallen in love with blues and R&B: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They recognized the comic storytelling possibilities of the Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon “Hoochie Coochie Man” arrangement, reworked and expanded it, and as Stoller told Dave Ritz in their dual memoir: “We can’t and won’t claim credit as the inventors of rap, but if you listen to our early output, you’ll hear lots of black men talking poem-stories over a heavy backbeat.”

Their first hit along these lines was “Riot in Cell Bock #9,” and they shortly followed with this prequel. As Leiber told Ritz, “We called it ‘Framed’ and gave it a subtext that, despite the humor, refers to the legal brutality that impacted the black community.”

When I started singing “Framed,” I didn’t give a lot of thought to that subtext. I was in my early twenties, a product of the sixties counterculture, and  just thought of the lyric as a comic exaggeration of the way the court system railroaded people — not specifically black people.

These days it’s impossible for me not to think of this as a protest song, and the joke seems a lot more bitter than it did when I was singing this onstage in the early 1980s. Which said, it remains a great piece of writing, and I’m a strong believer in the power of comedy the worse things get, the more we need to be able to laugh at the situation, because unlike despair, laughter is energizing.

Anyone who hasn’t heard this before should check out the original by the Robins, and of course “Riot in Cell Block #9,” featuring the wonderful Richard Berry — as well as the earlier and jokier “Ten Days in Jail.” A few years later Leiber and Stoller wrote “Jailhouse Rock” for Elvis Presley, but  that was lightweight fluff compared to what they did in their early R&B days, when they were working with singers whose daily experiences mirrored the dark humor of the lyrics.

(For a later variant, check out the Coasters’ “Shopping for Clothes,” from 1960, a down-beat rap about the difficulties of getting store credit.)