Mike Stoller noticed two things about Jerry Leiber when the latter knocked at Stoller’s door in Los Angeles one afternoon in 1950. The first was Leiber’s eyes – one was blue, one was brown. Stoller stared in amazement at Leiber’s eyes until Stoller’s mother finally asked, “Aren’t you going to invite him in?”
The other thing Stoller, then seventeen, noticed about his future partner, also seventeen, was the notebook in Leiber’s hand. “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 phoned him about writing songs together. “I looked at it, and I said, ‘These aren’t songs, these are blues.’ Because he would have a line of lyric and ditto marks, then a rhyming line. These were twelve-bar blues progressions. I said, ‘I like blues.’ And we started writing.”
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who both turn fifty-seven this year) started writing that very afternoon – and never stopped. Their partnership has outlasted most marriages and survived innumerable revolutions in the music they helped create, rock & roll. So have the fruits of that partnership. As hit songwriters and hitmaking record producers, the Baltimore-born Leiber and Long Island native Stoller had few peers and no equals during rock & roll’s first golden era. The list of smash sides they wrote or co-wrote for their all-star clients throughout the Fifties and early Sixties reads like a history of the music itself: “Love Me,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Loving You” for Elvis Presley; “There Goes My Baby” and “On Broadway” for the Drifters; Ben E. King’s solo hits “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me”; “Yakety Yak,” “Sear-chin’,” “Poison Ivy” and “Charlie Brown” for those great rock & roll clowns the Coasters; seminal R&B ravers like “Kansas City,” “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” and “Hound Dog,” a hit for both Elvis and, in its original risque rendition, Big Mama Thornton.
But it is living history. More than any other top writing and production team in the Fifties, Leiber (words) and Stoller (music) initiated mainstream white America into the sensual and spiritual intimacies of urban black culture that fueled the birth of rock & roll. Their songwriting captured the essence and nuances of black music and language with a melodic invention, narrative ingenuity and cool hilarity that were true to the source while transcending it – heavy-duty R&B with a pop sensibility and lyric universality.
“We felt, in some cases, very successful if people thought that what we wrote was traditional,” says Stoller, who studied with the great stride pianist James P. Johnson. “We wanted people to hear that we were a part of the tradition, rather than imitating something that wasn’t ours.”
In 1966, after selling their share of Red Bird Records, where they oversaw the rise of top girl groups like the Dixie Cups and the Shangri-Las, Leiber and Stoller headed for more experimental pastures. They wrote the Brecht-Weill-style hit “Is That All There Is?” for Peggy Lee, produced early-Seventies records for Procol Harum and Stealers Wheel (“Stuck in the Middle With You”) and worked extensively in movies and theater. In the late Eighties their work included an animated movie feature, Hound Dog, which includes some of their classic songs, and a film of their life story, aptly titled Yakety Yak.
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.
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?
Leiber: 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?
Leiber: 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?
Leiber: 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
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