BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
When great songwriting teams of the past 60 years are mentioned, the partnership of Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber (who passed away in 2011) has to be ranked among the very best. Inducted into both, The Rock and Roll and the Songwriters Halls Of Fame, their massive body of songs has been recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley ("Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Don't", along with almost 20 others), The Beatles ("Kansas City"), The Coasters ("Yakety-Yak," "Searchin’" and "Poison Ivy," all also produced by L&S), and Peggy Lee ("Is That All There Is?"). They also served as part of the songwriting teams responsible for The Drifters’ "On Broadway" and "There Goes My Baby," and Jay and The Americans’ "Only In America," as well as producing those recordings.
In all, more than 1000 artists including Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, and John Lennon, have covered songs either written solely by Leiber and Stoller or composed by one of them, in collaboration with other writers.
When the Beatles-led "British Invasion" in early 1964 knocked most of the American artists off our charts, Leiber and Stoller's Red Bird record label produced the first homegrown chart topper, The Dixie Cups’ "Chapel of Love."
On Monday evening, Manhattan's 92 St Y will be hosting an 80th birthday tribute to Stoller, who will be there, along with special guests, long-time David Letterman band leader, Paul Shaffer, singers Ben E. King, Chuck Jackson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Melissa Manchester and actress Sally Kellerman.
Noted record producer, the late Nesuhi Ertegun, once told them, "You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you'll always be remembered as the guys who wrote "Hound Dog." "
Not such a bad thing, ... as Stoller explained to me a few days ago.
Examiner: How and when did you first meet Jerry Leiber?
Stoller: It was back in 1950 when we were both 17. He was attending Fairfax High, and I had just started Los Angeles City College. There was this piano player I knew. His drummer gave my phone number to Jerry who was looking for someone to write songs with. At first I was reluctant to meet him, because I thought he would only be interested in writing the type of pop songs you'd hear on the radio. Jerry was very persistent about meeting me. So, when I finally invited him over, he came with a composition book filled with lyrics. When he opened it, I could see right away that they were 12 bar blues. I told him I shared his love for this type of music. We shook hands right there and became partners for 61 years.
Examiner: Most people assume Elvis Presley was the first to record "Hound Dog," but blues shouter Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thorton was actually the first to record it.
Stoller: That's right. Johnny Otis (bandleader best known for "Willie and the Hand Jive" - ed.) called and invited me to a session he was going to do with her. I got into my '37 Plymouth, picked up Jerry, and drove over to Johnny's house where he'd use his garage as a kind of rehearsal space. It was there where we first met "Big Mama."
Examiner: What did you and Jerry think when you first heard her sing?
Stoller: Oh, she just knocked us out. We drove right back to my house, and about fifteen minutes later, we had a song called "Hound Dog."
Examiner: Thorton must have been quite an imposing character, both sizewise and personality wise.
Stoller: Oh, every which a way. (Laughs) She had a very brusque and rough exterior, but underneath, she was very sweet. When I came down to recording the song, I sat at the piano, and me and Jerry gently suggested to her, "It would be nice if you'd kind of growled the song." Of course, we got the standard response, "White boy .... don't you be tellin' me how to sing the blues!" However, as soon as she started getting into the song, she growled it, and it became a great record.
Examiner: What was your initial reaction to hearing Elvis' version, with almost totally rewritten lyrics?
Stoller: Well, frankly, I was very disappointed. (The original lyrics: ... "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, snoopin' ''round my door. You can wag your tail, but I won't feed you no more." Elvis’ … "You ain't never caught a rabbit, and you ain't no friend of mine," copied from his seeing a Vegas lounge act called Freddy Bell and Bellboys. – ed.) I had just returned from my first trip to Europe, having come into New York on the ship Andrea Doria which had sunk before I was picked up by a freighter and brought in by lifeboat. Jerry was at the dock waiting for me. He runs up and says, "Mike, we got ourselves a smash hit!" I said, "You're kidding. Big Mama Thorton's record?" He said, "No. Some white kid named Elvis Presley cut our song."
Examiner: Of the two versions, which do you prefer?
Stoller: Oh, Big Mama's version. No question. Elvis’ version didn't measure up at all. It didn't have the insinuating rhythm that hers had. I mean, I'm happy that Elvis did it. As I've said in numerous interviews, after it sold over seven million singles, I began to see some merit in it. (Laughs) Of course, because of that record's success, we got to write many songs for Elvis, who I thought was a really phenomenal singer. He could do rock and roll, and could also really sing a ballad. However, if you're talking about just rock and roll, to me Little Richard is the true king.
Examiner: From all of the great songs of yours and Jerry's that Elvis recorded, which are your very favorites?
Stoller: "Love Me" is definitely one. That was a fantastic recording. "Jailhouse Rock" and "Don't” are also among my favorites. When I was on the set of (the film) Jailhouse Rock, Elvis called me aside one day and said, "Mike write me a real pretty ballad." I called Jerry on Friday. We wrote "Don't" on Saturday, made a demo of it on Sunday, and handed it to Elvis on Monday. "The Colonel" (Elvis' legendary manager "Colonel" Tom Parker) was furious because he tried to isolate Elvis so that nobody could slip him a song that they didn't own the publishing rights to.
Examiner: You and Jerry actually produced the entire Jailhouse Rock soundtrack, although not formally credited. What was Elvis like to work with in the studio?
Stoller: He was totally comfortable. First of all, in addition to having his regular rhythm section, Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and Bill Black plus The Jordanaires, he had all of his paid companions. So, "The Colonel" kept him in his little self-contained environment where he felt totally at home. Elvis loved to sing, and he loved to work. When we were recording (the song) "Jailhouse Rock," we had to finally stop him after like 29 or 30 takes. He kept feeling he could do it better. We thought he nailed it on take nine. Then after relistening to it with us, he said, "Yeah. Yeah. I guess you're right."
Examiner: Now after the great success Elvis had with your songs, following his army discharge in 1960, he only recorded one more Leiber and Stoller original, "She's Not You." (Co-written with Doc Pomus - ed.)
Stoller: Elvis still wanted new songs from us, but couldn't get them because we had a major falling out with "The Colonel." He wanted to manage us, but Jerry told him, "We're unmanageable." He had sent us a piece of paper with a blank signature line, and said, "Just sign it. I'll fill in the blanks." Of course, we didn't.
Examiner: But you both felt you'd still be writing for Elvis.
Stoller: Yes, but you see, Jerry and I were living in New York. "The Colonel" wanted us to fly out to California to be present at a recording session because he said, "Elvis says Leiber and Stoller are his good luck charm". Jerry had just gotten out of the hospital, and needed some time to recoup. "The Colonel's" response was, "That's bull ... Doctors don't know what they're talking about. Elvis wants to record. You'd better come over now." Jerry said, "What do you think we should do? It's important for our career to keep this relationship going." Finally, we decided to tell "The Colonel" to go (expletive) himself. So, that ended our relationship, but we weren't going to be pushed around by someone we didn't like anyway. Elvis did continue to record some of our songs, but only ones that had already been recorded previously by other people.
Examiner: What are you fondest memories of Jerry, both personally and professionally?
Stoller: When I think now about Jerry, I remember mostly a kid who rang my doorbell in 1950 and had such great enthusiasm. He developed into an absolutely brilliant lyricist ... one of the 20th century's greatest. I was very lucky to have worked with him.
Examiner:...and vice versa.
Stoller: That might have been the case. He could be very funny, but also deadly serious when he needed to be, and expressed himself in a very special way.
Examiner: You may be too modest to acknowledge this, but you and Jerry certainly had a lot to do with integrating the races in the 50's through your music.
Stoller: Well, I'd certainly love to take credit for that. I don't know exactly how that works, but I'd be very honored if that was part of our legacy. My wife and I were recently extremely honored in Montgomery, Alabama, where a theater was named The Mike and Corky Hale Stoller Civil Rights Memorial Theater. As much as I'm proud of the recognition I've received for my work in the music field, this outstrips any Grammys, or any other honors.