Leiber and Stoller: Rolling Stone's 1990 Interview With the Songwriting Legends

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How much money did you originally earn on the early hits?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
No. It was five violins and a cello.

It sounds a lot richer.
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?
The bass pattern.

Can you elaborate?
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.

In 1964, you started Red Bird Records, ushering in the girl-group era with the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups. Meanwhile, the Beatles were transforming the record business by doing their own songs and calling their own shots in the studio. How did those changes affect you?
It influenced us to some degree, but there were other forces at work. With George Goldner [who confounded Red Bird] came his point of view, which was very much like Don Kirshner's, which was a twelve-year-old girl's point of view. The stuff that Mike and I liked to produce, which in comparison was real macho stuff, was considered vulgar and out-of-date. Which meant not salable.

Is that why you walked away from Red Bird in 1966?
We lost interest in the process. It became too predictable. Too samey. We started to get interested in other forms, hoping to be able to write things that were of more interest to us. We've been looking around, playing around with the theater. I'm not sure where our slot is now. But there are things we want to say and ways we want to say them. And we haven't found the medium yet.

Do you miss writing rock & roll and R&B songs?
I still write them from time to time. I've had no place to put them, frankly. I wrote a little lyric a while ago, it was going to be a kind of straight-on blues. Then Mike took the lyric and set it to a sweet tuneful kind of dance [laughs].

Stoller: I think, in a way, that for me to try to write what I wrote then...I could do it as an exercise, and I'm technically capable of writing in that style. But I don't know if it would be an honest expression. It would be a conscious effort to write in a particular genre, as if I was trying to write a Viennese, waltz R&B was something I used to write, but I don't live there anymore.

This story is from the April 19, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.

• Songwriter Jerry Lieber Dies at 78
• Photos: Remembering Songwriter Jerry Lieber

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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