Leiber and Stoller
Leiber and Stoller
If Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll, then Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were the power behind the throne. The songwriting duo of Leiber and Stoller, two white kids from the East Coast transplanted to Los Angeles, wrote African-American style blues songs and helped to popularize them. What was rhythm and blues to a black audience became rock and roll to a white audience, and a new kind of music was born. After several years of writing songs for the recording industry, the pair began to produce music—first the songs they wrote themselves, and then songs others wrote for them; they were the first independent recording producers, a common job in the industry today. In these ways, the two men significantly changed the American music industry.
Jerry Leiber met Mike Stoller in 1950, when they were both 17 years old. Leiber told Audio magazine that he “was writing songs with a drummer… in Los Angeles. The drummer lost interest and suggested I call Mike Stoller…. I called Mike. He said he was not interested in writing songs. I said I thought it would be a good idea if we met anyway.” Leiber went over to his house that afternoon, but Mike wasn’t sure about the collaboration until he had seen some of Leiber’s lyrics. Stoller told Audio, “The thing that cemented our relationship was when Jerry showed me his lyrics and I saw that they were blues in structure.” Stoller, while not interested in writing sappy pop songs, was excited by the blues. That afternoon, they started writing, and they have been working together ever since..
Leiber and Stoller’s early years were filled with long days of writing at the piano. Leiber told Rolling Stone, “We used to go to Mike’s house, where the upright piano was. We went there every day and wrote. We worked ten, 11, 12 hours a day.” Stoller continued, “When we started working, we’d write five songs at a session. Then we’d go home, and we’d call each other up. Tve written six more songs!’ ‘I’ve written four more.’”
After a year or so of writing songs, Leiber and Stoller’s first real professional opportunity came when they met Lester Still, who worked for a local independent label, Modern Records. Still took the boys around to different studios to meet artists and executives and to play some of their songs. Leiber described for Robert Palmer in his book Baby That Was Rock& Roll: The Legendary Leiber & Stoller, just how they got their first song recorded by the Robbins: “The group was there, sitting around the room, and they said ’Come on, play us some stuff.’ Mike played the piano and I sang our song, That’s What the
For the Record…
Songwriters. Met in Los Angeles and began collaboration, 1950; wrote first song, “That’s What the Good Book Says,” recorded by Bobby Nunn and the Robbins, 1951; first rhythm-and-blues hit composition recorded by Charles Brown, 1952; produced first major hit recording, “Hound Dog,” for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, 1953; formed Spark Records, 1953; became independent producers for Atlantic records, 1956; “Hound Dog” recorded by Elvis Presley, 1956; other big hits include “Yakety Yak,” recorded by the Coasters, 1958, “There Goes My Baby,” recorded by the Drifters, 1959, “Spanish Harlem,” recorded by Ben E. King, 1960, and “Is That All There Is,” recorded by Peggy Lee, 1969; wrote songs for Presley’s first movie, Love Me Tender, Twentieth Century Fox, 1956; other Presley films include Jailhouse Rock, MGM, 1957;Loving You, Paramount, 1957; and King Creole, Paramount, 1958.
Awards: Inducted into Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, 1985; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987; Founder’s Award, Amercan Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, 1991.
Addresses: Office —9000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Good Book Says.’And they said,’Groovy, yeah, we’ll do that.’ It was as easy as that. We couldn’t believe it.”
Songs came fast and easy for them in those days. Leiber and Stoller wrote their first big hit, “Hound Dog,” in less than a quarter of an hour. In 1952 Johnny Otis, a leader of a popular blues band, asked the pair to come to a rehearsal, meet the singers, and write some songs for them. One of the singers, Big Mama Thornton, was one of “the saltiest chick[s]” they had ever seen, as Leiber told Palmer. They wanted to capture her personality in the song by writing a mean one, and the first printable line that came out was “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” Big Mama’s recording was a huge local hit in 1953.
When Elvis Presley recorded Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” in 1957, their national success was assured. Presley was so pleased with the success of “Hound Dog” that he asked the two to write songs for his movies, including Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. Because Presley was the most popular singer of his day, these two became the most popular song writers.
“Hound Dog” was not only Leiber and Stoller’s first big hit, it was the first song they also produced. Normally at this time, record companies kept people on staff to arrange the songs and oversee the recording process. When Leiber and Stoller wrote a song, they conceived the final sound as they wrote it. But when others produced their songs, the pair were not satisfied with the results. When Thornton and Otis went to record “Hound Dog,” Stoller and Leiber explained and demonstrated how they thought it should sound to the band, and sat in control in the sound booth.
The following year, in 1953, Leiber and Stoller established their own label, Spark Records, so that they could always produce their own songs. A few years later, they got tired of the business end of the process, sold Spark Records, and contracted to Atlantic Records as the first independent producers ever: they became musical arrangers who were not on staff, but were instead brought in for specific recordings.
In the following few years, Leiber and Stoller produced some of the biggest hits of the day, including “Yakety Yak,” recorded by the Coasters, and “There Goes My Baby” and “This Magic Moment,” both recorded by the Drifters. As independent producers, Leiber and Stoller also oversaw recordings for other major labels, including RCA Victor, Verve, Atco, Big Top, Kapp, Capitol, United Artists, MGM, and A&M. Today, most producers work independently.
Leiber and Stoller’s phenomenal success in the late 1950s and early 1960s as both songwriters and producers gave the pair the freedom to do whatever they wanted; when they got bored with one activity, they went on to the next. After writing songs for a few Elvis Presley movies, they looked for something more challenging, and started producing more and more songs for Atlantic and other labels, including their own Red Bird Records between 1964 and 1966. When they needed to move on to something else, they returned to songwriting, but changed their style as the popular style of the day changed. In the mid-1960s, they worked with singer Peggy Lee. After Lee sang their song “I’m a Woman,” they wrote their cabaret-style hit “Is That All There Is,” which she recorded in 1969.
Because of their monetary and professional success, the challenges Leiber and Stoller faced were few, and they were becoming bored. The song “Is That All There Is” presents a jaded, cynical, and at least in part, autobiographical view for the pair. Leiber explained the song to Audio in 1986: “We were thinking of moving on. We were getting older, and we weren’t writing for kids anymore; we weren’t kids anymore. We were looking for another, more mature audience. We thought perhaps the theater would be the place for us. So I started experimenting with some ideas, and Mike and I got together on that. ’Is That All There Is’ was one of the first ideas of that genre that we completed.” The two did move on into work for the theater, writing songs for both Broadway and films.
While Leiber and Stoller’s work as producers helped to change the way records were made, their songs have left a more tangible legacy; many of them are still known and popular nearly 40 years after their first recording. Not only were many of them reissued on CD format in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but some of the best have found new venues. Their 1961 hit “Stand by Me,” first recorded by Ben E. King, became a hit again 15 years later, when it became the title track of the 1986 movie of the same name. Twice, their songs have been reused in theatrical revues:Smokey Joe’s Cafe, put on in Seattle in 1990, and Baby, That’s Rock ’n’ Roll: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, which opened in Chicago in 1994. Their songs “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” defined the new sound of rock and roll in the mid-1950s, and will forever evoke that era.
Charles Brown, “Hard Times,” 1952.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, “Hound Dog,” Peacock, 1953.
The Cheers, “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” Capitol, 1955.
The Coasters, “Down in Mexico,” Atco, 1956.
Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog,” RCA Victor, 1956.
The Coasters, “Searching” Atco, 1957.
(With Doc Pomus) The Coasters, “Young Blood,” Atco, 1957.
Elvis Presley, “Don’t,” RCA Victor, 1957.
The Coasters, “Yakety Yak,” Atco, 1958.
The Coasters, “Along Came Jones,” Atco, 1959.
The Coasters, “Charlie Brown,” Atco, 1959.
The Coasters, “Poison Ivy,” Atco, 1959.
The Clovers, “Love Potion Number Nine,” United Artists, 1959.
Wilbert Harrison, “Kansas City,” Fury, 1959.
(Leiber only, with Phil Spector) Ben E. King, “Spanish Harlem,” 1960.
(With Ben E. King) Ben E. King, “Stand by Me,” Atco, 1961.
(With Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) The Drifters, “On Broadway,” Atlantic, 1963.
Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is,” Capitol, 1969.
Dino & Sembello, Dino & Sembello, A&M, 1974.
Peggy Lee, Mirrors, A&M, 1975.
Elkie Brooks, Elkie Brooks, A&M, 1976.
Bolcolm and Morris, Other Songs by Leiber & Stoller, None-such, 1978.
Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley Sings Leiber and Stoller, RCA, 1991.
There’s a Riot Going On, Rhino Records, 1991.
Also contributed songs to soundtracks for Elvis Presley films Love Me Tender, 1957;Jailhouse Rock, 1957;Loving You, 1957;King Creole, 1959; and Fun in Acapulco, 1963.
Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, Faber & Faber, 1990.
Helander, Brock, The Rock Who’s Who, Schirmer Books, 1982.
Palmer, Robert, Baby, That Was Rock & Roll: The Legendary Leiber & Stoller, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Popular Music, 1920-1979, edited by Nat Shapiro and Bruce Pollock, Gale, 1985.
White, Mark, “You Must Remember This”: Popular Songwriters 1900-1980, Scribner, 1983.
Audio, November 1986; December 1986.
Billboard, January 5, 1985; December 24, 1988; June 22, 1991; January 9, 1993.
Chicago Sun-Times, June 5, 1994; June 17, 1994.
Life, December 1, 1992.
Rolling Stone, February 12, 1987; April 19, 1990.
Variety, January 7, 1987; January 25, 1989; July 4, 1990.
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