For more that a solid ten years the songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller virtually ruled the R&B and Pop music charts, churning out more than 70 hits for artists to sing. Their music not only influenced careers of these artists, it also rocked the whole recording industry.
Dedicated to the blues and Southern R&B, the pair wrote prolifically throughout the early ’50s, trying to remain as authentic to the music of that culture as possible, Jerry Leiber writing the words and Mike Stoller writing the music.
Since so much material has already been written about Leiber and Stoller, I will just try to just weave together a time line of some salient points in their journey, such as how they met, some of their major hits, and side projects.
Although they started out with an R&B focus, their compositions often had lyrics more appropriate for pop music, and their combination of rhythm and blues with pop lyrics revolutionized pop, rock and roll, and even punk rock.
Jerry Leiber penned some outrageously entertaining lyrics. From the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Down Home Girl” to the poetic beauty of “Spanish Harlem,” his words set out to capture the essence of the black experience in America and in many ways he accomplished that goal, creating a lyrical body of work rivaled by very few.
The Coasters / Down Home Girl
When they were writing in a traditional blues vein, it was Mike Stoller who supplied some very catchy music. His piano licks and hook melodies made the songs so recognizable beyond the standard 12-bar format.
His individualistic style of piano playing and melodic approach to the blues defined the sound of early 1960’s rock and roll.
Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller.
1952 / Leiber and Stoller’s Hound Dog / Big Mama Thornton
1957 / The Coasters / Searchin’ / The Steve Allen Show
1957 / Elvis Presley / Baby I Don’t Care / Mike Stoller playing piano in this one (looks like Scotty Moore on guitar too )
1960 / Ben E. King / Spanish Harlem / Written by Leiber and Stoller, produced by Phil Spector
1933 – Early Life
Born Jerome Leiber April 25, 1933 in Baltimore, Maryland, Jerry’s father died when he was just five years old and his widowed mother opened a grocery store in a black neighborhood. While making deliveries, Jerry became infatuated with the R&B music he heard emanating from people’s homes. He became fascinated with black culture, absorbing himself in the black community’s race music, dress, and attitude.
In 1945, Jerry’s family moved by bus to Los Angeles, California where the bebop jazz movement was in full swing.
Jerry brought his enthusiasm for R&B with him. While attending Fairfax High School, he went to work at Norty’s, a record store on Fairfax Avenue and at age 16 he began writing blues lyrics.
Leiber’s passion for, and knowledge about R&B caught the attention of Lester Sill, a salesman for Modern Records, one of the half-dozen or so companies specializing in race records (R&B), the popular music made by and for black people in the United States after World War II. Sill found the effusively energetic Leiber an engaging kid, enthusiastic, quick, and knowledgeable about the records of Modern as well as other R&B labels.
“What do you want to be when you grow up” Sill asked Leiber. Without hesitation, Leiber replied, “a songwriter.” Leiber sang a few lines of a blues lyric he had written, and Sill was encouraging.
Jerry was not only a superb songwriter but also an extremely funny, droll wit of the highest order. But if he wanted to create more than witty blues poems, he would have to find someone to put them to music.
Michael Stoller was born March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Long Island. His mother had been an actress and a member of the chorus in George Gershwin’s Broadway show “Funny Face”. She nudged her son towards classical piano lessons, but Michael instead rebelled and began playing Boogie Woogie and bebop jazz in his teens and frequenting black R&B clubs of Harlem.
When Michael was 16 the family moved to Los Angeles and soon after, the naturally shy Stoller met an outgoing hipster named Jerry Leiber.
1950 – How they met
Though they were both born in 1933 on the United States East Coast, it would not be until 1950 on the other side of the country in Los Angeles, California that their paths would cross, when they were 17. Stoller was a freshman at Los Angeles City College while Leiber was a senior at Fairfax High. After school, Stoller played piano, performing in local clubs, and Leiber worked at the record store on Fairfax Avenue.
As Leiber began looking for a piano player, a high school friend who played drums in a band gave him the phone number of Mike Stoller, a pianist who was already performing locally. “Jerry called me, very businesslike, and started bugging me to write songs,” Stoller said. “I told him I didn’t write songs. I was sure with a name Jerome Leiber he wasn’t writing the kinds of songs I would like.”
But Leiber was persistent, so Stoller invited him to his house. When Jerry knocked at Mike’s door in Los Angeles one afternoon in 1950, Mike noticed two things about him. The first was his eyes – one was blue, one was brown. Stoller stared in amazement at those eyes until his mother finally asked, “Aren’t you going to invite him in?”
The other thing Stoller noticed about his future partner was a notebook Leiber was carrying. “He had lyrics written in it,” says Stoller, a classically schooled pianist and serious blues and jazz buff who had been less than keen when Leiber first talked about writing pop songs together.
Stoller looked at the notebook, and I said, “These aren’t songs,” meaning they were not conventional pop songs. “These are blues, right?” because he saw a line of lyric and ditto marks, then a rhyming line. These were twelve-bar blues progressions and Stoller said, ” I like the blues, let me take a crack at them.”
Even though they came from different kinds of Jewish backgrounds (for instance, Stoller’s family was more assimilated than Leiber’s, and he grew up never speaking Yiddish, which was actually Leiber’s first language), they found common ground in the sounds of popular music.
“Jerry was an idea machine,” Stoller says in their 2009 memoir Hound Dog. “For every situation, Jerry had 20 ideas. As would-be songwriters, our interest was in black music and black music only. We wanted to write songs for black voices. When Jerry sang, he sounded black, so that gave us an advantage . . . His verbal vocabulary was all over the place – black, Jewish, theatrical, comical. He would paint pictures with words.”
In the early days, they pulled 12-hour days writing on an upright piano in Stoller’s house.”We’re a unit,” Leiber told Rolling Stone in 1990. “The instincts are very closely aligned. I could write, ‘Take out the papers and the trash,’ and he’ll come up with ‘Or you don’t get no spending cash.'”
Some Early Compositions
Through their mentor Lester Sill, they were introduced to Gene Norman, a Los Angeles R&B disc jockey. In 1950 the great R&B singer Jimmy Witherspoon was the first to record a Leiber-Stoller composition 1950 / Jimmy Witherspoon / Real Ugly Woman /
In 1952 their first big hit (#7 R&B) was “Hard Times“, recorded by Charles Brown
Also in 1952 they wrote a song “K. C. Loving“, the title given to it by Federal Records A&R man Ralph Bass. It was recorded by rhythm & blues singer Little Willie Littlefield
1952 / Little Willie Littlefield / K C Loving/
The song “K.C. Loving” presents an idealized picture of Kansas City as a kind of Shangri-la of soulfulness. It was a wonderful work of imagination, since neither Leiber nor Stoller had ever been to Kansas City, and never did visit there until the mid-1980s, when the city declared “Leiber and Stoller Day” and gave the writers the keys to the city.
Renamed as “Kansas City,” this piece would be recorded by more than 100 artists. In 1959 six versions of the song competed for sales and airplay, and four made Billboard’s Hot 100.
The most famous version would be by Wilbert Harrison, a No. 1 pop hit in 1959
In 1953 Leiber and Stoller formed Spark Records with their mentor, Lester Sill.
Here is some of Wayne Robins’ writing in a Google Book: “A Brief History of Rock – Off The Record”…
Young Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller began hanging out in black L.A.’s bustling Central Avenue jazz and R&B clubs, soaking up music, atmosphere, and attitude. They acted cool. “It was an easy kind of coming and going,” evidently, most people in this otherwise all-black environment found the two precocious teenagers amusing. “We were affected; we acted, but it became us,”
Leiber recalled. “Like the Blues Brothers.” But it was the songs of Leiber & Stoller that were making the big impression. Word got around to Johnny Otis, a band leader, songwriter, performer, disc jockey, TV host, entrepreneur, and producer who was one of the major figures of the postwar L.A. R&B scene.
Otis invited Leiber and Stoller to a “garage rehearsal” where he would showcase and try out new songs and talent. There was the gifted Little Esther Phillips; an oversized gospel trio called Three Tons of Joy; and another woman of no small stature named Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.
“She was very big and intimidating,” Leiber said. “I think when we walked in, she was singing ‘Ball and Chain,’ which was later done by Janis Joplin. She was one of the saltiest chicks I’d ever seen, and I loved the sound of her voice, so I said to Mike, ‘let’s write a song for here.”
They raced back to Stoller’s house, composing a draft in the car while they drove. They finished, Leiber said, in twelve minutes, and drove back to Otis’s rehearsal.
Otis asked them to play the song for Big Mama Thornton. Stoller, looking everything like the “pasty faced white boy”, Thornton thought he was, reluctantly sat down at the piano, and Thornton began to sing from the lyric sheet.
“It was terrible,” Leiber recalls. “It was like Ethel Waters’s ‘Cabin in the Sky’ thinking that’s what the song required,” referring to a popular 1940s all-black Broadway, and movie musical. “I said, wait a minute, wait a minute. It don’t go like that.”
Thornton appeared to be coming to a boil. “Don’t you go tellin’ me, boy, how to sing the blues.” Otis diplomatically stepped in the middle. “Now Willie Mae, they wrote the song. They’re not telling you how to sing it, but they know how it’s supposed to go.”
After a few more placating words from Otis, Big Mama looked scornfully at Leiber and said, “OK, white boy, get up there and show me how it go.”
“In those days,” Leiber continued, “I could sing the blues. I had a voice that was really window rattling. The band cracked up right away. I sang about eight bars, and Big Mama says to me, I got it!”
Thornton’s attitude changed. She started comically pulling at Leiber’s hair, looking for the tight, kinky, African-American curls. “That’s store-bought hair,” she said, tugging at his wavy coif, putting him on, letting him know he was accepted. The song was called “Hound Dog,” a strong woman’s scathing put-down of a good-for-nothing man.
Otis was to produce the recording session. But Leiber and Stoller were already developing the ability not just to write the songs, but to envision how they should sound: the arrangements, the relationship of the voice to the musicians, intuitively figuring out how the performance would best sound on a record, on a jukebox, on the radio.
After the first take, Leiber and Stoller heard a problem. Big Mama’s drummer didn’t have the same syncopated feel for the song that Johnny Otis did when he played drums at the rehearsal. Fearlessly confident and ambitious, Leiber insisted that Otis should play the drums. Who would produce the session? Leiber and Stoller, of course.
With Johnny Otis on drums, Big Mama at the mic, and Leiber & Stoller, still not twenty-one, in control at the recording console, Leiber says, “They got it in two takes. It was one of the only records we made that we thought was perfect.”
Listeners who heard the Thornton recording thought so too. Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” was #1 on the R&B charts for seven weeks in early 1953.
Big Mama Thornton – “Hound Dog”
It would turn out that the original lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were judged a little too raunchy for a white audience.
Leiber and Stoller started working with a white vocal group called The Cheers
1954 / The Cheers / Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin’ / #15 U.S.Pop /
Leiber and Stoller produced a recording with The Cheers, that went to #6 on the U.S. Pop charts but did not chart in R&B
The Cheers -“Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”
Soon after, the “Black Denim…” song was also recorded by Édith Piaf in a French translation titled, “L’Homme à la Moto”. Remember Piaf’s name; it comes up in a significant way later in their journey.
In October 1955 Leiber and Stoller scored a West Coast hit with Los Angeles-based vocal group The Robins, who released “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” on the duo’s own Spark Records label.
1955 / The Robins / Smokey Joe’s Cafe
1955 / The Robins / Riot in Cell Block #9
Seeking a national outlet, they leased the Smokey Joe’s Cafe master to the Atco label and in November Atlantic Records purchased Spark and its catalog; Leiber and Stoller signed a landmark deal with Atlantic that made them America’s first independent record producers.
They wrote a few songs for Ruth Brown…
1955 / Ruth Brown / I Want To Do More / #3 R&B /
1956 – Their Big Break
Early in 1955, a group called Freddie Bell and The Bell Boysmade their first recordings, resulting in two singles. The first of these was a rewrite of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”. The original lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were judged a little too raunchy for a white audience.
Now, it was April 1956 when Elvis Presley was in Las Vegas and saw a musical comedy group called Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys perform their own humorous rendition of “Hound Dog”. Presley was very impressed and asked Bell if he would mind if he (Elvis) recorded the song himself. Bell told him to go ahead and the rest is history, as they say.
The Cheers 1954 recording of “Bazoom” funded a 1956 trip to Europe for Stoller and his first wife, Meryl, on which they met Piaf. Their return to New York was aboard the ill-fated SS Andrea Doria, which was rammed and sunk by the Swedish liner MS Stockholm. The Stollers had to finish the journey to New York aboard another ship, the Cape Ann.
After their rescue, Leiber greeted Stoller at the dock with the news that “Hound Dog” had become a hit for Elvis Presley. Stoller’s reply was, “Elvis who?”
They would go on to write more hits for Presley, including the title songs for three of his movies—Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole —as well as the rock and roll Christmas song, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”, for Presley’s first Christmas album.
1956 / Elvis Presley / Hound Dog /
Presley’s showstopping mock-burlesque version of “Hound Dog”, playfully bumping and grinding on the Milton Berle Show, created such public excitement that on The Steve Allen Show they slowed down his act, with an amused Presley in a tuxedo and blue suede shoes singing his hit to a basset hound. Allen pronounced Presley “a good sport”, and the Leiber-Stoller song would be forever linked to Presley.
Interview with Leiber & Stoller:
In 1956 they wrote for The Drifters
1956 / The Drifters / Ruby Baby / #10 R&B
Big Joe Turner was another artist they worked with.
1956 /Big Joe Turner / The Chicken and The Hawk / #7 R&B /
In October 1955 two members of The Robins, Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn, formed The Coasters as a spin-off group. The original Coasters were Carl Gardner, Billy Guy, Bobby Nunn, and Leon Hughes. This arrangement finally provided Atlantic with the crossover success it had been striving for. Their first (March 1956) Atco release (recorded in Hollywood) was “Down in Mexico”, a Top 10 R&B hit.
1956 / The Coasters / Down In Mexico / #8 R&B
The Coasters’ association with Leiber and Stoller was an immediate success. Together they created a string of good-humored “storytelling” hits (“One Kiss Led To Another”, “Searchin'”, “young Blood”, etc.) that are some of the most entertaining from the original era of rock and roll.
According to Leiber and Stoller, getting the humor to come through on the records often required more recording “takes” than for a typical musical number. Down In Mexico was their first single.
1956 / The Coasters / One Kiss Led To Another / #11 R&B /
The following year, the Coasters would cross over to the Pop chart in a big way with the double-sided hits “Young Blood” and “Searchin'”.
As a side project in 1956, Jerry Leiber teamed up with another pianist, Ernie Freeman. to produce an album of R&B and other original music of the day.
Now Freeman (11 years older than Leiber) had already been playing on numerous early rock and R&B sessions in Los Angeles, California, in the 1950s, particularly on the Specialty, Modern, and Aladdin labels, as well as for white artists such as Duane Eddy and Bobby Vee.
Freeman played piano on the Platters’ “The Great Pretender” in 1955, and began releasing a number of instrumental records of his own, at first on Cash Records. These included “Jivin’ Around” (#5 on the R&B chart in 1956).
The Leiber and Freeman album was called called “Jerry Leiber presents the Scooby Doo All-Stars” / Zepher ZP 12002-G /
Last Call, Ernie’s Journey, Love Of My Life, Mama’s Boy, Moonglow, Golden Rock, Deacon’s Hop, Then Comes Monday, Tombstone Blues, Shove Off, The Runaway, Don’t Ever Forget Me
Sax man Plas Johnson on tenor sax (remember The Pink Panther?) really rocks out on several of the tracks of this album!
Scooby Doo All-Stars /Full Album /
The Zephyr label was formed in Hollywood California and the recordings were mainly jazz but they did release one record that had a rock and roll connection; the record was 12002 produced by Jerry Leiber. This album had very fine jazz musicians playing rock and roll.
1957 / Ruth Brown / Lucky Lips / #6 R&B
1957 / The Drifters / Fools Fall In Love / #10 R&B
For the Coasters alone, Leiber and Stoller wrote twenty-four songs that appeared in the US charts.
“Searchin'” was the group’s first U.S. Top 10 hit, and topped the R&B chart for 13 weeks, becoming the biggest R&B single of 1957 (all were recorded in Los Angeles).
1957 / The Coasters / Searchin’ / #3 U.S. Pop / #1 R&B /
1957 / The Coasters / Young Blood / #8 U.S. Pop / #1 R&B /
Again, with Elvis they struck gold.
1957 / Elvis Presley / Jailhouse Rock / #1 U.S. Pop / #1 R&B /
1957 / Elvis Presley / Treat Me Nice / #18 U.S. Pop / #7 R&B / You can hear Mike Stoller playing piano in this one /
1958 / Elvis Presley / Don’t / #1 U.S. Pop / #4 R&B /
“Yakety Yak” (recorded in New York), featuring King Curtis on tenor saxophone, included the famous lineup of Gardner, Guy, Jones, and Gunter, became the act’s only national #1 single, and also topped the R&B chart.
1958 / The Coasters – Yackety Yak / sax by King Curtis
1959 / The Coasters – Charlie Brown
1959 / The Coasters / Along Came Jones / #9 U.S. Pop / #14 R&B /
1959 / The Coasters / Poison Ivy / #7 U.S. Pop / #1 R&B /
1959 / The Drifters / There Goes My Baby / #2 U.S. Pop / #1 R&B /
1959 / Scooby Doo Reissued / Kapp KL-1127 /
Here’s one of my favourite tracks from this LP; a Rock n Roll version of Moonglow
In the beginning of the 1960s, they started Daisy Records and recorded Bob Moore and the Temps (with Roy Buchanan on guitar).
Bob Moore and The Temps with Roy Buchanan / Trophy Run / Daisy DA-502 /
In the early 1960s, Phil Spector served an apprenticeship of sorts with Leiber and Stoller in New York City, developing his record producer’s craft while observing and playing guitar on their sessions.
Spector wrote a song with Jerry Leiber called “Spanish Harlem”. Jerry Leiber recalls that Stoller, while uncredited, had written the key instrumental introduction to the song.
Mike Stoller himself remarks that he had created this “fill” while doing a piano accompaniment when the song was being presented to Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, with Spector playing guitar and Leiber doing the vocal. “Since then, I’ve never heard the song played without that musical figure. I presumed my contribution was seminal to the composition, but I also knew that Phil didn’t want to share credit with anyone but Jerry, so I kept quiet.”
One of the artists Spector worked with as he started developing his “wall of sound” was Ben E. King.
Ben E. King
1960 / Ben E. King / Spanish Harlem / Atco Records /
For comparison of the arrangement, here is another version of this song by The Drifters / Spanish Harlem /
Ben E. King was writing a song and Leiber and Stoller helped him with the writing. Here is Mike Stoller’s recollection of this.
Ben E. had the beginnings of a song—both words and music. He worked on the lyrics together with Jerry, and I added elements to the music, particularly the bass line. To some degree, it’s based on a gospel song called “Lord Stand By Me“. I have a feeling that Jerry and Ben E. were inspired by it. Ben, of course, had a strong background in church music. He’s a 50% writer on the song, and Jerry and I are 25% each…. When I walked in, Jerry and Ben E. were working on the lyrics to a song. They were at an old oak desk we had in the office. Jerry was sitting behind it, and Benny was sitting on the top. They looked up and said they were writing a song. I said, “Let me hear it.”… Ben began to sing the song a cappella. I went over to the upright piano and found the chord changes behind the melody he was singing. It was in the key of A. Then I created a bass line. Jerry said, “Man that’s it!” We used my bass pattern for a starting point and, later, we used it as the basis for the string arrangement created by Stanley Applebaum.
1961 / Ben E. King – Stand By Me (written with Ben E. King) / #4 U.S.Pop / #1 R&B /
1962 / Richie Barrett – Some Other Guy
1963 / The Drifters / On Broadway / #9 U.S.Pop / #7 R&B / guitar solo by Phil Spector
United Artists Label
After Leiber and Stoller left Atlantic Records (where they had produced, and written, many classic recordings by The Drifters with Ben E. King), they produced a series of records for United Artists Records, including these hits:
Jay and the Americans / She Cried /
The Exciters / Tell Him /
The Clovers / Love Potion #9 /
After closing Spark Records (in 1955) and working for Atlantic (1955–1961) then United Artists (1961–1963), Leiber and Stoller founded Red Bird Records.
They brought in George Goldner, a veteran record promoter and former owner of Gee Records, Gone Records and Rama Records. They used the skillful Brill Building husband-and-wife songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who had been writing most of Phil Spector’s first hits.
Female-led groups accounted for more than 90% of the label’s charting hits, including major artists such as the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups.
The Shangri-Las / Leader of the Pack /
The Dixie Cups / Chapel of Love /
In 1966, Leiber and Stoller sold the Red Bird label as they preferred to write and produce rather than manage the business of running a label, and after they had a falling-out with Goldner whose gambling debts caused Red Bird to be taken over by the Mafia. Leiber and Stoller sold Red Bird to Goldner for one dollar. Goldner then sold the Red Bird catalogue to raise money
After selling Red Bird, they continued working as independent producers and songwriters. Their best known song from this period is “Is That All There Is?” recorded by Peggy Lee in 1969; it earned her a Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy.
Peggy Lee / Is That All There Is? /
Earlier in the decade, they had had a hit with Peggy Lee with “I’m a Woman” (1962).
Their last major hit production was “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, taken from the band’s 1972 eponymous debut album, which the duo produced.
Stealers Wheel / Stuck In The Middle With You /
In 1975, they recorded Mirrors, an album of art songs with Peggy Lee. A remixed and expanded version of the album was released in 2005 as “Peggy Lee Sings Leiber and Stoller”.
They were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a musical revue showcasing 39 pop standards, including rock and roll and rhythm and blues songs written by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The Original Broadway cast recording, Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs Of Leiber And Stoller, won a Grammy award in 1996.
After a Los Angeles tryout, the revue opened on Broadway in 1995, running for 2,036 performances, making it the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. It also had a London run in 1996.
With collaborator Artie Butler, Mike Stoller wrote the music to the musical “The People in the Picture”, with book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart. Stoller and Butler’s music received a 2011 Drama Desk Award nomination.
On August 22, 2011, Leiber died in Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, aged 78, from cardio-pulmonary failure. He was survived by his sons Jed, Oliver, and Jake.
There has, the two admit, been some flak amid the yak in their forty years together, although nothing worth splitting up over. “We started fighting the moment we met,” Stoller says, laughing. “We fought about words, we fought about music. We fought about everything.”
“One thing we never fought about was chicks,” Leiber adds with a mischievous grin. “Because I got the good-lookin’ ones.”
At the 1987 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner, you said in your acceptance speech, “We were just making R&B records.” Were you ever aware of also making rock & roll history?
Stoller: That may be the case, but that certainly wasn’t the intent. What we wanted to do was try and be as good as we could at writing blues, for blues singers. Which meant exclusively black performers, writing in the black vernacular.
Leiber: Our songs did not transcend being R&B hits. They were R&B hits that white kids were attracted to. And if people bought it, it became rock & roll. That’s marketing. Why couldn’t it still be R&B? The bass pattern didn’t change. The song didn’t change. It was still “Yakety Yak” and “Searchin’.” It was just an R&B record that white people bought and loved.
These days, that’s called crossing over.
Leiber: When you talk crossover, you talk about marketing. It’s like jingle writing. You’re trying to psyche out the public and sell ’em something, rather than something out of your own bones, your own heart, your own soul and insight.
Stoller: Honestly, when Jerry and I started to write, we were writing to amuse ourselves. It was done out of the love of doing it. And we got very lucky in the sense that at some point what we wrote also amused a lot of other people.
What were your earliest songwriting sessions like?
Leiber: We used to go to Mike’s house, where the upright piano was. We went there every day and wrote. We worked ten, eleven, twelve hours a day.
Stoller: When we started working, we’d write five songs at a session. Then we’d go home, and we’d call each other up. “I’ve written six more songs!” “I’ve written four more.” Our critical faculties, obviously, were not as developed [laughs], and we just kept on writing and writing.
Leiber: “Hound Dog” took like twelve minutes. That’s not a complicated piece of work. But the rhyme scheme was difficult. Also the metric structure of the music was not easy. “Kansas City” was maybe eight minutes, if that. Writing the early blues was spontaneous. You can hear the energy in the work.
Stoller: In the early days we’d go back and forth note for note, syllable for syllable, word for word in the process of creating.
Leiber: We’re a unit. The instincts are very closely aligned. I could write, “Take out the papers and the trash” [“Yakety Yak,” by the Coasters], and he’ll come up with “Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash.”
Stoller: That is literally what happened. I think Jerry shouted out that first line, and I started playing that funny shuffle, oom-paka-oom-paka, on the piano. He shouted out the first line, and suddenly I shouted out the second line. And we knew we had something.
From the beginning, you were getting your songs cut by top R&B stars like Charles Brown [“Hard Times”] and Jimmy Witherspoon [“Real Ugly Woman”]. Didn’t you ever know the pain of rejection, of getting songs thrown back at you?
Leiber: Almost never. Not so much because they were good or bad. They were almost always right. The language was right, the form was right. We knew what we were doing. Then there were mediocre songs that just happened to hit a certain groove and wham! It happened.
Leiber: “Kansas City” surprised me. I had a big fight with Mike about “Kansas City.” I originally sang a traditional blues turn on it, like Howlin’ Wolf might have sung it. Mike said, “I don’t want to write just another blues. There are a thousand numbers out there like it. I got a tune for it.” I told him it sounded phony. I gave him all sorts of garbage. And he won out.
When we did it with Little Willie Littlefield, I thought it was all right. It didn’t kill me. Then when Wilbert Harrison came out with it, then it sounded right. But it took all that time to convince me that he was right about that melody.
Was “Hound Dog” written specifically for Big Mama Thornton?
Leiber: Absolutely, the afternoon we saw her. Johnny Otis told us to come down to his garage in the back of his house, where he used to rehearse. He wanted us to listen to his people and see if we could write some tunes for them.
We saw Big Mama and she knocked me cold. She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see. And she was mean, a “lady bear,” as they used to call ’em. She must have been 350 pounds, and she had all these scars all over her face. I had to write a song for her that basically said, “Go fuck yourself.” But how to do it without actually saying it? And how to do it telling a story? I couldn’t just have a song full of expletives.
Hence the hound dog.
Leiber: Right. “You ain’t nothin’ but a motherfucker.”
Stoller: She was a wonderful blues singer, with a great moaning style. But it was as much her appearance as her blues style that influenced the writing of “Hound Dog” and the idea that we wanted her to growl it. Which she rejected at first. Her thing was “Don’t you tell me how to sing no song!”
Didn’t you feel intimidated by the black stars you worked with? These people lived the blues, and here come these two white teenagers telling Big Mama how to growl.
Stoller: I can remember saying to Jerry, “Tell her this,” or “Tell so-and-so.” Or Jerry asking me to say something to one of the acts, because he felt funny asking them himself. Because we felt such respect and awe for these people, these blues legends that we were working with and actually coaching. But after a while, the results spoke for themselves. In most instances, I felt very comfortable in a black community and a black situation.
Leiber: I felt black. I was, as far as I was concerned. And I wanted to be black for lots of reasons. They were better musicians, they were better athletes, they were not uptight about sex, and they knew how to enjoy life better than most people.
We lived a black lifestyle as young guys. We had black girlfriends for years. In the general sense, it was extreme. But not in the environment that we moved in. They were amused by us, two white kids doing the blues. They thought it was goofy, a lot of fun.
How much money did you originally earn on the early hits?
Stoller: Some record companies made up their own numbers. I don’t think they had to be sophisticated to the degree of keeping two sets of books. When it came to paying royalties, they merely made ’em up.
It first really hit home with “Hound Dog,” which was an acknowledged smash. At one point, the late Don Robey [of Duke/Peacock Records, Thornton’s label] came to L.A. Our parents got nervous, we got a lawyer and so on. See, we were still minors, so the contracts had to be re-signed with our parents as guardians. So when Robey left L.A., he left a check for $1200, which was an unbelievable sum, even though it was a mere portion of what the record was earning. Then he went back to Texas with the contract and stopped payment on the check.
Was forming Spark Records in 1953 your way of getting artistic and financial control?
Stoller: Spark was our way of preventing our songs from being misinterpreted. There were things we were incapable of putting on paper. It was a matter of telling somebody it has to be done “like that, like this.” We could do the whole thing from beginning to end.
Spark releases like the Robins’ “Framed” and “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” marked the start of the narrative writing style you later perfected with the Coasters at Atlantic. The songs were also striking in their depiction of urban black life. How did that develop?
Leiber: I think there is a mistake in the view of some of that material now. “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” wasn’t a ghetto song. It was inspired by the Gangbusters radio drama. Those voices just happened to be black. But they could have been white actors on radio, saying, “Pass the dynamite, because the fuse is lit.” People have said, “These are protest songs, early prophecies of the burning of Watts.” Bullshit. These are cartoons. We used to write cartoons.
At about the same time, you were also supplying material for Elvis Presley, creating songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole” for movies. As R&B boys at heart, was it hard working with Elvis at a time when Colonel Parker was grooming him for Hollywood?
Leiber: Elvis was incredibly cooperative. He would try anything. He wasn’t a diva, no prima donna. When it came to work, he was a workhorse.
Stoller: If he didn’t like something – his own performance, primarily – he would say, “Let’s do another one.” And this would go on and on, take 38, take 39, until he felt he had it. We thought we already had it! We’d got it twice!
Leiber: In writing the songs for those scripts, it did get rather stultifying. In fact, we quit. That was a great avenue, to be working with the automatic hitmaker of all time. But we were repeating ourselves. And the films were getting too dumb for words.
But we did make an attempt at one point to do something that we thought would be much more interesting. We cooked up this idea for A Walk on the Wild Side; it would be an incredible property for Elia Kazan to direct and for Presley to play the lead as Dove. We got this notion to Parker, and the word we got back was “If you two jerks don’t mind your own business and stay away from the business of Elvis Presley, I’m going to put you both out of business.”
Did Elvis ever ask you to come up with some bluesy tunes?
Stoller: He came to me one day, and this was the only time he ever expressed anything specific about something. “Mike, I’d like you guys to write me a real pretty ballad.” Not for a movie. He just wanted one. It was the only time he ever asked for something. The rest of the time he was just doing material that had been submitted, selected and approved in advance.
Did you write him one?
Stoller: Yeah. “Don’t” [in 1958]. The next weekend, Jerry and I went into the studio and cut a demo with Young Jessie [a Spark act]. I brought Elvis the demo, and he loved it. He recorded it. But it caused a lot of friction, because it didn’t go through channels. He asked us for a song, and we gave it to him.
At Atlantic Records, did you have the freedom to pick the acts you wanted to produce or write for, like the Drifters, or were they assigned to you by Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler?
Leiber: It wasn’t that formal. “You want to cut Ruth Brown? Go ahead. Joe Turner? Fine. You want the Drifters? They’re cold now, we don’t know what to do with them.” They’d been dead for two years; that’s why they gave ’em to us [laughs].
Once we took them over and had a string of hits, we were running the Drifters. Mostly production. We would give songwriting assignments to everybody – Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman– because we couldn’t fill that demand.
The Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” [from 1959] is considered to be the first rock & roll record with strings. How was it made?
Stoller: The rhythm was baion, a Brazilian rhythm which we really loved. Then we started to orchestrate what was really done on a tom-tom in Brazilian bands with all kinds of percussion sounds. We learned later that people would call a music-instrumental-rental place and ask for the “Leiber-Stoller kit.”
Was it an expensive session?
Stoller: No. It was five violins and a cello.
It sounds a lot richer.
Leiber: That’s because it’s a noisy studio.
Stoller: And the out-of-tune percussion was because the baion was played on a timpani that happened to be in the studio. We asked the drummer to play it. He was a good drummer, but he didn’t know anything about tuning timpani, so he played just one note.
Leiber: It made for this weird charismatic sound. So we played it for Jerry Wexler. We call this the tuna-fish story. Jerry’s got his tuna-fish sandwich on his desk. He put this tape on, the song started, and the timpani came on. He had a mouthful of tuna fish, and all of a sudden he goes, “What the fuck is this?” Tuna fish goes all over the wall. “What is this shit? You’re burning my money up! What the fuck are you playing me?” Jerry’s screaming all these obscenities, says it’s never coming out, how much money did it cost, it’s out of tune.
Stoller: Ahmet was nice. Ahmet said [affects Turkish accent], “Fellas, you boys cut beautiful records. You’ve made many hits. But you can’t hit a home run every time.” We finally convinced them that there were some problems with the studio we used. So they gave us two hours of studio time to play with it.
Leiber: But it didn’t need fixing. Later, we tried to get the same sound with the timpani in tune on “She Cried,” with Jay and the Americans.
Stoller: Except that time, the only thing out of tune was the singer [laughs].
Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” went Top Ten in 1986, fifteen years after it first became a hit. How do you account for its continuing appeal?
Leiber: The bass pattern.
Can you elaborate?
Leiber: I don’t have to. It’s the bass pattern. There are lots of great songs. But that is an insidious piece of work. It can put a hole through your head.
It’s not a great song. It’s a nice song. But it’s a great record. And there’s always one special element. In “There Goes My Baby,” it’s the out-of-tune timpani. “Stand by Me,” it’s the bass pattern. Of course, all the elements come together to make a great record. But there’s always one standout.
NAMM Interview with Leiber and Stoller Mike Stoller shares moments of his life story and career. Interview date December 4, 2007, NAMM – National Association of Music Merchants, Oral History Library
Leiber And Stoller : The Masters Behind the Masters
Stoller interview about Elvis and Jailhouse Rock http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/interview_with_mike_stoller.shtml