If there were an award to bestow for the most accomplished living American pop songwriter who never doubled as a recording artist, the frontrunner would almost definitely be Mike Stoller, 89, half of one of the most famous writing duos of all time, Leiber & Stoller. Even if the memory of Elvis Presley were completely wiped away, like the Beatles’ in that “Yesterday” movie, this pairing would still be in the history books and collective consciousness for “Stand by Me,” “On Broadway,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Young Blood,” “Kansas City,” “Love Potion #9,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “I’m a Woman,” “Ruby Baby,” “Is That All There Is?” and other numbers deeply embedded in pop culture from the mid-‘50s forward.
But we do remember Elvis — and are remembering him more universally than we have since his 1977 death, thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s new “Elvis” biopic. So it’s a perfect chance to catch up with Stoller, who wrote the music to Jerry Leiber’s lyrics on two dozen Presley songs, including the classics “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Trouble,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Love Me,” “Loving You,” “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” “Bossa Nova Baby” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” No other writers are so closely associated with the King, even if their run of collaborations with Elvis was ultimately cut short by… want to hazard a guess? Yes, it was manager Colonel Tom Parker who had his reasons for finally cutting Leiber and Stoller out of Presley’s creative camp after 1963, none of them good.
Leiber died in 2011 but, creeping up on 90, Stoller remains active — still showing up to collect the few accolades he hasn’t already received, like the Icon award BMI bestowed upon him at its annual ceremony in May, and also working on a stage musical he doesn’t want to say much about at the moment. Variety met with him at the home he shares in the Hollywood hills with his wife, fellow musician Corky Hale. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member (class of 1987) told us about everything from why he never much liked Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” — Big Mama Thornton was a hard act to follow — to how he realized a Broadway musical rooted in the duo’s songs, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” could be a smash if they just dispensed with a storyline and script.
First of all, have you seen the “Elvis” movie?
Yes, Priscilla invited us to a private screening, and she and Jerry Schilling were there. It’s a very strong film; I really like the movie. The kid who plays Elvis, Austin Butler, is a knockout as an actor, a dancer and a singer, and I have a feeling he’ll be nominated for sure for best actor. And I was very happy with the way my songs were used. There’s about three different uses of “Hound Dog,” including the original Big Mama Thornton version, and of course there’s some “Jailhouse Rock” in there. I thought the way they used the song “Trouble” was very effective.
The Colonel would’ve made a movie like this — you know, without Baz Luhrmann’s ability or chops. Baz Luhrmann is much like Colonel Parker. [Laughs.] He sells!
Beyond the vintage songs, you and Jerry Leiber get credit on two new songs interpolating your old ones, by Doja Cat and Eminem. So when they call you and tell you Eminem wants to incorporate a song of yours into his, do you just say “sure,” or ask to hear it?
I think it was presented to the guys who run Leiber and Stoller stuff, and they had already done it and were gonna put it in the movie. What can I say? I hope it’s a big hit. They call it “The King and I,” which is a good title. It’s (Eminem performing) over the background sound of Elvis’ recording of “Jailhouse Rock,” which Jerry and I virtually produced as well as wrote — not the movie version, but the single version that Jerry and I were in the studio with Elvis working on back in 1957. … I’m not a super rap fan. My favorite rap was Grandmaster Flash on “The Message,” which goes back a whole bunch of years; that’s the only one that I was really taken with. But hey, it’s generational, I think.
The film has a big focus on Elvis’ manager Colonel Parker, of course. You had your share of contact with him during the years you were writing for Elvis. Didn’t he ask to become the manager of Leiber and Stoller, too… and, as the story goes, he presented you with a completely blank contract?
Yeah. It had a line for our signatures. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll fill it in later!” [Laughs.] “Don’t worry about it.” I think Jerry said, “You can’t, we’re unmanageable.” Which was somewhat true.
You were business guys as well as writer-producers, and you were not naïve enough to have the wool pulled off your eyes, even if you were still in your early 20s.
Well, we’d had it pulled over already, a few times. So we developed some protective mechanisms. … I think that these days – “these days” meaning going back a couple of decades — writers and performers have gotten very hip to protecting their stuff, much more so than we were. We bought our stuff back, a lot of it.
Is it true you two were largely responsible for producer credits starting to be added to records in the mid-’50s? If not the term “producer” really coming into usage in music?
What happened at Atlantic Records was, we said, “You know, we’re making these records. How about a credit?” And Jerry Wexler said, “But you wrote the song! How many times do you want your name on the record?” He was annoyed! And then I said, “Well, we did also a few songs that we didn’t write.” They finally decided that we were producers. Which I thought was weird, at the time. I thought it should have said “directed by,” like a film, because we weren’t funding it, like a film’s producers.
You had your first R&N No. 1 hit in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” which you wrote for her. There’s a story behind you two trying to cajole Thornton into singing it a certain way, which she didn’t take kindly to it at first?
Johnny (Otis) said, “Are you familiar with Willie Mae Thornton?” I said, no. He said, “Well, I gotta do a session with her, so you better get Jerry and come over to my place and listen to it, because I’m gonna need some songs.” So we went over, and she knocked us out. We went back to my house and, in about 10 or 15 minutes, we wrote “Hound Dog” and took it back. When it was just written lyrics on a piece of paper, she started to croon it. So then we had to perform it for her, as I played the piano and Jerry sang. The band was cracking up, to hear Jerry singing as if he were a blues singer, let’s put it that way. But she got it.
The next day we went into the studio to record, at Radio Recorders Annex (in Hollywood), and as we were walking in, Jerry said, “You know, she ought to growl it.” And I said, “Yeah… Why don’t you tell her?” And he said, “Why don’t you tell her?” [Laughs.] Anyway, one of us said, “Uh, Big Mama, you know, you could growl it,” and she said, “Don’t be telling me how to sing the blues!” [The version Leiber and Stoller relay in their memoir has a little more lewdness to the response.] But the first take was great. The second take was perfect. She growled it both times.
Would you say Elvis was growling when he covered “Hound Dog” three years later, in 1956, becoming the first of the big hits he had with your songs?
Well, it became a different song. I mean, Big Mama’s song was a woman singing it to a no-good guy, and the original lyric in the first verse was, “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more.” And the Presley version almost sounds like he’s singing it to a dog: “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.” I don’t know where that came from. [Stoller adds that the “rabbit” lyric might have been added by a lounge act Presley was believed to have seen and liked covering the song in Vegas prior to his taking it on.]
You always preferred Big Mama’s version, right?
I mean, if you’ve heard Big Mama’s record and the rhythm and the whole structure of the music, as compared to this kind of rockabilly [he claps out the differences in the two versions’ rhythms]… But as I’ve said: After it sold 7 million singles, I began to see some merit in it.
The Elvis version became a smash while you were overseas and blissfully unaware.
When I was 23, II got a royalty check for about $5,000 a song called “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” (a No. 6 pop hit in 1955 for the group the Cheers). And I thought, wow, that’s the most money I’ll ever see at one time! So I went to Europe for three or four months with my first wife, who I had just married a year before. As a matter of fact, when we were in Paris, I heard Edith Piaf at L’Olympia doing a French translation of “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” called “L’Homme a la Moto” – “The Man on the Motor Scooter” — which was a big thrill.
Finally, we got on the ship to sail back into New York, and we almost made it before our ship collided with a Swedish ship and sank. Fortunately I managed to get down a Jacob’s ladder into a broken lifeboat. We were picked up by a freighter, and I had to pay cash to send a wire to Atlantic Records that we were arriving. And when I got to New York and stepped off the gang plank, Jerry ran up to me — I hadn’t seen him in almost four months — and said, “Mike, we got a smash hit!” I said, “You’re kidding.” He said, “Hound Dog.” I said [incredulously], “Big Mama Thornton?” He said, “No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.” And that’s how I heard about Elvis.
I got to really appreciate Elvis. He was a fabulous singer, fabulous performer, and very special… and he’s very hot, again, still. I didn’t like “Hound Dog,” but I loved the way he did our other songs. And we got to demonstrate the others for him.
Most of the songs he cut of yours, you two wrote expressly for him. But before that he did have another big hit with a cover of one of your tunes, the ballad “Love Me.” Although Elvis sang it more seriously, It was surprising to read in your memoir that you had originally written “Love Me” as a country parody song — a spoof of a subservient hillbilly who doesn’t put up any objections to his lover treating him like garbage.
That was in our minds (during the initial writing). But we had recorded it with a Black duo, who were out of a gospel group, that we got to do a secular song — we called ‘em Willy & Ruth on our own little Spark Records label that we had with Lester Sill. I think that’s what we sent to (Presley), and he loved it. It became a big hit.
And then they asked us to write for a movie that became “Loving You,” when it was renamed after the song that we wrote. And then, of course, there was (the film) “Jailhouse Rock” (also retitled after a song Leiber and Stoller came up with), which was where Elvis heard the demos and wanted to meet us.
But first we had to pass muster with the Colonel, so we were invited to dinner by the music publishers Jean and Julian Aberbach, who also were tied in with the Colonel; they had started with Eddie Arnold, too, and met through that business relationship. So we went to dinner with the Colonel, and we had to laugh at his jokes, and then I guess we passed muster, so it was all right.
And then we hit it off with Elvis, very easily. But we used to have to say to him, “This is Jerry, and I’m Mike. Don’t call us ‘sir.” After all, we were all of two years older than he was! But he was being very respectful and polite. We found that a lot of the blues singers that we knew, he knew them also, which was a surprise to us. We thought we were the only white kids who knew all that stuff! So we hit it off and we had a great relationship.
We had a few run-ins with the Colonel. The Colonel was upset with us because we got friendly with Elvis, and he didn’t like that.
How did you finally land on the Colonel’s bad side?
I ended up being the piano player on screen in the movie “Jailhouse Rock.” And so (on-set) Elvis asked me, “Write me a real pretty ballad.” That was on a Friday. I called Jerry the next morning and said, “Hey, he wants a song.” So we wrote him a ballad and made a demo of it on Sunday, and I brought it in to him on Monday. That caused a big to-do, because they didn’t want anybody presenting him with a song that they might not own the publishing rights to. So that started a little bit of discomfort on the part of the Colonel.
But the thing that really did it for us… Jerry went to a party in New York and met a producer, Charlie Feldman, who was going to do a movie of a novel by Nelson Algren called “A Walk on the Wild Side.” He had (Elia) Kazan to direct, Budd Schulberg to write the thing and James Wong Howe to do the cinematography. He wanted us to write the score for it, and for us to help get Elvis to play the lead. We were blown away, and we even had some meetings with Schulberg. We told the music publishers, who were our contact with the Colonel, about this exciting opportunity not only for us, but for Elvis, who wanted to be Marlon Brando or James Dean. And Jean Aberbach said, “Well, fellas, let me speak to the Colonel. Why don’t you wait outside?” So we waited, trying to imagine how we were going to be rewarded for bringing this great plumb. And we finally were called in, and Jean Aberbach, in his Viennese accent, said, “Vell, ze Colonel said, if you ever dare try to interfere in the career of Elvis Presley, you will never work anywhere again — New York, London, Hollywood … nowhere.” And I don’t think we ever wrote anything more for him.
So, after a couple dozen songs together, that was it… one big strike with Parker and you’re out.
Years later, I think in the ‘90s, we all went on a trip to Graceland and were given a private tour by Georgie Klein, who was one of Elvis’ Memphis mafia guys. We told him this story, and he said, “Elvis would have given his left arm to be in a movie like that with those people. Are you kidding? He dreamed about that.” Elvis never knew. It was never told to him. It was sad. And it was the Colonel just wanting to do more low-budget stuff and crank it out. [A movie version of “Walk on the Wild Side” was eventually produced in the ’60s, with none of the same talent attached, and flopped.]
Do you think, based on your experiences with the Colonel, which weren’t great, that it’s easy to paint him as a villain? Or were there things he did right that he merits credit for?
Oh, sure. He made him. I mean, he took him away from Sam Phillips, which was not nice, but proved to be an amazing boon to his career and popularity. And the movies… I mean, naturally I liked “Jailhouse Rock,” but I don’t think it was a great movie. But I thought the next one was pretty good, “King Creole.” It was a better script, better story. But they all tended to be the same kind of story.
“Jailhouse Rock” had another name until your song came along and demanded to become the title tune, right?
Yeah, I think it was “Ghost of a Chance.” (“The Hard Way” is also on record as a temporary title.) That changed I think as soon as they heard the initial recording. Which is not the one in the film, because the one in the film was blown out and had a bigger orchestra. The single record was done with the Jordanaires and with D.J. Fontana on drums and Scotty Moore on guitar, and Bill Black, who passed away after that, on the upright bass. They had a piano player, Duddly Brooks, on the session. I played on one of the songs from those sessions (“Treat Me Nice”), but I wasn’t that good of a player.
You guys basically produced those “Jailhouse Rock” sessions, even though you didn’t get credit?
Yeah, that’s true. When we came in, Steve Sholes was the top guy at RCA Records. And he pretty much disappeared after we started talking and telling him what to do or suggesting this and that; he just took off. We had no contract and we were not compensated, but it turned out OK.
There is the legend of an afternoon where you and Leiber cranked out four classic Elvis film songs in just a few hours — “Jailhouse Rock,” “Treat Me Nice,” “I Want to Be Free” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” — pretty much because someone trapped you in a hotel suite and compelled you to be prolific.
We could write pretty fast, but that was an unusual situation. At the beginning of ’57, we’d taken a trip to New York and rented a suite and even rented a piano to put in there. But we were having too much of a ball, going to jazz clubs and going to the theater, and hanging out with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. The music publishers for Elvis were there. We were having brunch one day in the suite, and Jean Aberbach came in and said, “Boys, where are the songs?” And I think Jerry said, “Don’t worry, Jean, you’ll get ’em.” He said, “I know I will get them. I’m not leaving without them.” And he pushed this big chair in front of the door.
We picked up the script, which we hadn’t looked at yet, that was in the corner of the room with the What’s On Broadway magazines. One of the first things that we saw was the kid (in the screenplay) was in prison. So we wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” and then we wrote the others. “I Want to Be Free” had a kind of special meaning, because we wanted to get out of the goddamn hotel room! I must say, Jean Aberbach was instrumental in us doing that, just by saying, “You’re not leaving till I have them.”
Something else you wrote on the fly, on demand, that has endured well for 65 years: “Santa Claus Is Back in Town.”
Yeah, we did that in a hurry, also. He was doing a Christmas album, and we wrote it in another room during the recording session. I remember we went out — it probably took about 15 minutes — and we came back in and performed it for them. And the Colonel said, “What took you so long?”
People are so used to hearing it within the polite context of Christmas radio that they don’t think about what a down-and-dirty, raw song that is.
It’s the blues! Elvis loved it … because it was typical of blues, of rhythm and blues songs of that period, or even an earlier period.
Is there a song you wrote for Elvis you’re proud of that doesn’t get as much attention?
I very much like the ballad “Don’t,” which was also written on demand, so to speak, over a weekend.
Let’s talk about a few of the greats you worked with who were not Elvis Presley. With the Coasters, who you were just as prolific with, you had a whole style of songwriting going that was based in storytelling, almost like mini-musicals — you called them “playlets.”
Yeah, where the different voices was kind of commedia dell’arte. The Coasters were different characters. The bass was either the father or the heavy. Carl Gardner was the rube or the straight man. And Cornell Gunter was either the female role or some other such role. They all took little roles, and we wrote for what they could do.
That’s not really a style that survived over time, but those songs still grab people when they hear them — “Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak,” “D.W. Washburn,” etc. There just weren’t a lot of other performers who could pull that off.
Well, they were a lot of fun. And I mean, we enjoyed being in the studio with Elvis; we enjoyed being in the studio with the Drifters, with Ben E. King, with Peggy Lee. But the most fun we ever had in the studio working was with the Coasters.
From your memoir, it sounds like Peggy Lee might have been the least fun?
Well, yes and no. She could be difficult. Of course, we weren’t in the studio when she did “Kansas City” [in 1962]; there was a Quincy Jones chart on that. We were in the studio with her for “I’m a Woman” [later in ’62], and it worked out great. Then we didn’t see her at all for the next five or six years until she was presented with a demo that we had done of “Is That All There Is?” She said the song was written for her, that it was based on her life — which it wasn’t, but she said it was her life story. [Leslie Uggams released a version a year earlier.] Randy Newman was brought in and did an exquisite chart — fabulous — and we produced it out here.
Capitol didn’t want to release it, because it didn’t have a back beat. They were hot with Grand Funk Railroad and a variety of things, but that was not what they were looking for in 1969. Finally they asked her to do Joey Bishop’s show, and she said, “I’ll do it if I can do this song.” She did, and boom, everybody responded. Then we worked with her seven years later after she was no longer at Capitol [on the critically hailed, little heard A&M concept album “Mirrors”). And, yeah, she was very difficult to work with, and very wonderful.
When other songs from the catalog show up in contemporary usage out of nowhere, it must be beyond surprising you. “Stand by Me” is never going away.
“Stand by Me” as the song for the royal wedding, where they had the Black choir singing it, that was apparently Meghan Markle’s choice as the song for their wedding. … Bono and the Edge with the soldier in the bomb shelter in Ukraine — that was very touching, that they would choose that song.
The Beatles and the Stones both covered your songs (“Kansas City” and “Poison Ivy,” respectively).
Yeah, they liked us a lot. … A lot of the young Brits, the rockers, they were big fans of American rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues records. And seeing our names on (45 labels), they thought that “Leiber-Stoller” was a kind of music, like how they used to put “Foxtrot” on a record.
You and Jerry started producing more things that you didn’t write, including some rock albums of the ‘70s that people don’t associate with you because they aren’t the old-school Leiber-Stoller sound — like Stealers Wheel and “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
Yeah, we did some that were very successful. We did some that were not quite so successful. [Laughs.] We did Procol Harum [in 1975]. “Procol’s Ninth” was the name of the album. I think we maybe killed them!
“Smokey Joe’s Café,” a revue using 39 of your songs, ran for 2,036 performances on Broadway starting in 1995. And it still gets produced; it played in New York again in 2018 and in London last year. But there is some history with Variety’s initial bad review that maybe we should bring up.
I don’t remember that precisely. What I do remember is that the New York Times gave it, as the producer said, “not a money review” — and that they were very, very nice to Leiber and Stoller, but said that the show didn’t rise to the level of our work, more or less. Was the Variety review of the New York show, or was it the out-of-town tryout in L.A.?
It was the pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles. In the memoir you worked on with Jerry and David Ritz some years back, Ritz quotes you as saying: “Variety called it a loser. Variety fried it. The trade paper said, ‘Just buy a boxed set of Phil Spector records instead.’ The Phil Spector line was the lowest blow of all.” And then Jerry added: “Screw Variety.” I looked up the review, and it wasn’t very prophetic, saying that things did “not bode well for ‘Smokey Joe’s’ Broadway aspirations.” So maybe this is a place for you to get some official vindication.
Sure, of course. [Laughs.] Why not? It adds a little spice.
It certainly was a big question mark then as to whether people would accept a jukebox musical that had no book at all.
There was a precursor to [“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”] that was done up in Seattle. And I hated the show. Jerry actually hadn’t gone up to see it, but I went up with Corky,. The story made no sense. You know, it was Big Mama Thornton married to D.W. Washburn with a son named Charlie Brown — that kind of inane shoehorning of things. And I called, I think, Jack Viertel, because we had been working on a totally different kind of project — a ballet musical which never got finished — and I said, “Listen, I don’t like it. I don’t like the choice of all the songs. I don’t like the story. I don’t think the band is great. But you ought to see it, because there’s something happening with these songs in this theater.” You know, there wasn’t much rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues in these theatrical productions that I knew of at that time. And so they came to see it, and I said, “Listen, why can’t we just do it without a book?” And they liked the idea, and that’s how it got started.
You could never have predicted the longevity of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” surely.
It’s great. They’re doing it in Connecticut now; a young lady who was in the show in London is directing it. A nice thing is that the characters’ names are the real names of the first cast, and it’s kind of sweet — those first members of the cast have been immortalized.
You and Jerry had projects you wanted to do for Broadway with original stories and song scores. Is it bittersweet that you had your theatrical success with a revue?
In a way, sure. But I’m very proud of its success, nevertheless. I’m working on another show right now, and I can’t divulge the name of it, because the producers, when they’re ready, will want to do that. But I’m happy to have a show like “Smokey Joe’s Café” in existence.
That urge to write for the theater never went away, if you’re doing it now.
No, it never did. Unfortunately, Jerry and I didn’t complete a show we were working on about Oscar Wilde, and it’s kind of sitting in our back pockets. The attitude towards the work that was Jerry’s (lyrics) was, “We can’t use that,” and other people might disagree with what he did or his take. So it gets complicated, and it probably will never get done. But we did an album of the score with an orchestra and some wonderful British singers and actors. So who knows, maybe someday we’ll just decide to release the album of a show that didn’t happen.