In 1956, Mike Stoller took his wife to France for 3 months. After wandering around the countryside in late spring and early summer they return home on the Italian liner, the SS Andrea Doria. It was the largest, the most spectacular, and safest of all of the Italian liners. As Mike and his wife crossed the Atlantic, he purchased a copy of A Night to Remember, a best-seller by Walter Lord and considered the definitive reading on the sinking of the Titanic.
At 11 pm on July 26th, the Stockholm, a smaller passenger liner, crashed into the Andrea Doria and it began to list starboard and take on water. So instead of reading about the Titanic in Walter Lord’s book, he is actually living it. He thought, “That’s it; I’m a goner and I’m going down on the Titanic just like all of those poor souls who perished at the bottom of the Atlantic.”
However, the crash took place off the coast of Massachusetts in a heavy shipping lane and within a short period, there was a massive effort to rescue the passengers before if sank to the bottom of the Atlantic 11 hours later.
Mike Stoller and his wife were rescued and they met Jerry Leiber at the dock in New York. Leiber brought a full set of dry clothes for both Mike and his wife and once he made sure that his friends were okay, he exclaimed, “You won’t believe this, but Hound Dog is a #1 hit!” Stoller was taken aback and said, “You mean Big Mama Thornton’s version,” who did it in 1953? “No,” Leiber replied, “Its Elvis Presley.” “Elvis Presley?” Stoller replied incredulously, “who’s that?”
Watch Big Mama’s version. She simply whacks Elvis with big ol’ purse of hers. Look for a young Buddy Guy on that video. Nobody messed with her.
Stoller had been out of the country and had not seen the explosion of “Black Music” that was recorded by White Artists like Elvis. In the span of 12 hours, Mike Stoller went from the brink of death to superstardom.
Leiber and Stroller, celebrating 60 years together. With his songwriting partner Jerry Leiber, they formed the team Leiber and Stoller and were inducted back into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, in one of the earliest classes. Leiber and Stoller were far more prolific than Lennon and McCartney but you may never have heard of these guys because they wrote for other artists of the time.
In fact, Leiber and Stoller started together simply by accident. Jerry Leiber had another partner who had to take a straight job because of a death in the family. However, this person suggested that Leiber should reach out to Mike Stoller, who was playing in some of the boogie-woogie juke joints in downtown Los Angeles. After a furtive phone conversation where Stoller begged off of Leiber’s requests, they banded together and they started a writing partnership that still continues to this day.
Both Leiber and Stoller were quite young when they began writing together in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s. In fact, they were so young that their parents had to co-sign the contract for their first record deal. Today the copy of the contract is featured in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Both Leiber and Stoller knew that theirs would be a tough road but they were young and had some ideas about how songs should be written. They were unique in that they were two Caucasian kids who wrote for African-American artists and audiences.
The Backstory of Hound Dog. In 1953, they got a bit of a break. A singer named “Big Mama” Thornton, who was an imposing presence, recorded one of their songs. It was created for a woman’s voice and it detailed why she was getting rid of her gold-digging boyfriend.
It did quite well in certain markets. It may be hard for some to believe today but 50 years ago, there were very few radio stations that played urban R & B music outside of Chicago, New York, or the New Orleans Delta. Popular fare consisted of people like Perry Como, Doris Day, or Patti Page. However Leiber and Stoller “high-fived” their modest success and went back to work. They were focused, wrote daily, and built up that pipeline while they made the rounds in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Three years have passed; it was now 1956 and both writers are eking out a living in the music industry. Mike Stoller got married and headed off France. Meanwhile Elvis Presley heard the song being played by house band of Las Vegas resort and wanted to record it. However, the lyrics are a bit different. Instead of being a song being from a woman’s perspective, it now reflected a guy’s point of view. The lyric change drove Leiber nuts; he said “I’ve written some bad lyrics over the years but this one was not my fault!”
Freddie Bell and the Bellboys changed the lyric to “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.” Elvis kept the lyric, made it his fourth number #1 hit of 1956 and it catapulted Leiber and Stoller’s career with “Hound Dog.” Well, as for the busted lyric, they cried all the way to the bank.
Here come the hits. When fortune smiled upon them they were ready; In short order, they wrote hundreds of songs and dominated the next 15 years, with “Kansas City,” “Yakity Yak,” ”Poison Ivy,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “There Goes my Baby,” “Charlie Brown,” “Ruby Baby,” “Stand By Me,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion #9,” “Searchin’,” “Young Blood,” “Is that all there is,” “On Broadway,” and “Spanish Harlem,” just to name a select few. This does not even cover all of the hits they produced out of the Brill Building in New York.
As music changed in the 1960’s, they made a second fortune allowing their songs to be used in commercials and movies. Then during the 1990’s they compiled their songs into a Broadway show called “Smokey Joe’s Café” that ran for nearly a decade on Broadway. They made a third and fourth fortune.
Movies. In fact, the film Stand by Me stemed from a Leiber and Stoller song. At a party one night, director Rob Reiner bumped into Leiber and Stoller and professed that he was a fan of their work. He sang a bunch of their music with Stoller on piano and then mentioned he had this film “in the can” based on a short story by Steven King. It was a novella called “The Body” but Reiner had to retitle it because this story was a sweet coming of age tale, not the normal Steven King slasher fare. The next day Reiner called and asked if they could use “Stand by Me,” as the title and theme of the movie. Reiner also kept the original Ben E. King version because he wanted his film to evoke the aroma of a period piece. The movie was so successful that it sold more records in 1961 than it did in 1957.
Jailhouse Rock. The great story about Jailhouse Rock was that Leiber and Stoller were having far too much fun in New York and failed to get to get down to business and write music for the upcoming Elvis movie. So the producer of the film, Pandro Berman, locked them into a hotel room and placed a couch outside so neither could escape. Three hours later, Leiber and Stoller emerged with three more hits that defined the movie, including Jailhouse Rock, (You’re so Square) Baby I Don’t Care, and I want to be Free.
The Tragedy of Elvis. Both Leiber and Stroller felt that Colonel Tom Parker wrecked Elvis and he could have been bigger than Marlon Brando. In fact, Jerry Leiber mentioned that he had spoken to some great Hollywood talent and who wanted to create a special package for Elvis in a movie directed by Elia Kazan, written by Budd Schulberg, and would have been the movie of the decade. However Parker erupted and would have none of it. He threatened to run would run them both out of town if this ever came up again.
An Enduring Bond. Even though both note that their partnership is a 60 year long argument, there is an underlying respect each has for the other. Both know that there are equals to the creation of the song and together they are bigger than their parts.
When you look back at many other songwriter teams, they normally have a short shelf life of a couple of years. Those that do survive often have a short period of explosive creativity before partnership fizzles out or simply implodes due an undertow of resentment. Looking back at that period, Gerry Goffin and Carole King ran into marital discord and got divorced. Lennon and McCartney simply tired of each other after nearly a decade of the Beatles. Burt Bacharach and Hal David exploded after the ruinous Lost Horizons in 1973 and did not talk for over 2 decades. The only duo that comes close to Leiber and Stoller after all of these years is Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones but they still have a long way to catch up.
Today, they are writing an opera based on the life of Oscar Wilde. They hope to have is finished soon and we’ll be there to watch it.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.