Pioneering songwriting and producing duo reflect on their introduction to music, how they became partners and on their vast catalogue.
Jerry Leiber; Mike Stoller
Tavis: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have been writing hit songs together for nearly 60 years, including hits for everyone from Elvis Presley to Ben E. King, the Drifters, and so many more. In 1987 Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The new book about their life and times in music is called “Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography,” co-written by our friend David Ritz. Gentlemen, an honor to have you both on the program.
Mike Stoller: Pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Nice to see you both. Let me start by asking what music meant to you, how music impacted you as kids. I’ll start with you, because you were in – grew up in queens.
Stoller: Yes, I did – yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, and you grew up in Baltimore.
Jerry Leiber: Right.
Tavis: What was music like for you as a kid? How did it influence you as a kid?
Stoller: Well, I think the first piece of music I ever heard that I really loved was “Salome’s Dances” by Richard Strauss. And I played that 12-inch, 78 record, and I stood up on an ottoman to play it on a big Victrola. And I’d just keep playing it and playing it.
Then I heard boogie-woogie when I was eight years old. I went to a summer camp in New Jersey and it was a totally interracial camp back in 1940.
Tavis: That’s rare.
Stoller: Very rare, very unusual, and very left wing, of course, at that time, because anything that was interracial was considered subversive and left wing. And Paul Robeson would come up and sing to us, and Woody Guthrie, and really subversive. (Laughter.)
Tavis: But you got exposed to such an eclectic -
Stoller: I heard a young Black pianist. He was a teenager, I was eight years old, and he was playing boogie-woogie, and he just knocked me out. He thought he was alone in the old barn on the beat-up upright piano, but I was hiding in the corner so he wouldn’t see me.
Tavis: So the Black music hooked you early on.
Stoller: It hooked me.
Tavis: Jerry Leiber, what about you? How did music – what’ s your first conscious memory of music when you were a kid in Baltimore?
Leiber: The first memory I have was my sisters dancing to the radio when they played records by Benny Goodman and Harry James and of the sort. But the record that got me was a record by Derek Sampson, who was a young guy, called “Boogie Express,” and it was boogie-woogie. Really, it was on fire, and that got me.
And later on – I was around 10 or 11 then – later on, I was about 16 or 17, my family had moved to L.A. from Baltimore and I was working as a busboy in a restaurant. And one day I was bussing dishes and I passed a sous chef who was leaning against the Dutch door and smoking a cigarette, and the cigarette turned out to be grass, and he had the radio playing.
He had a disc jockey playing records, and the record he had playing when I passed this day was Jimmy Witherspoon singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” which got me – really got me. And I thought to myself, “I can do that.” (Laughter.)
Tavis: It’s fascinating that the boogie-woogie hit both of you (laughs) at different times, but got to both of you.
Leiber: Yeah. The strongest message out of all that music for me was boogie-woogie.
Tavis: Yeah. That’s amazing, that you both – it’s amazing to me that both of you were impacted by that long before you ever came together.
Stoller: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: That’s fascinating.
Stoller: But in coming together, what cemented the relationship was finding out that we shared that. And it took a while to figure out that we shared it, because Jerry called me – he got my phone number from a schoolmate of his who was a drummer. And I played piano at a dance in east L.A. and the drummer took my phone number.
And I thought I was going to get some more $3 gigs, but fortunately, he gave my phone number to Jerry, who was looking for somebody to write notes on paper.
Tavis: So finish the story of how the two of you actually connected, then, and became a songwriting duo.
Stoller: Well -
Leiber: That was it.
Tavis: That was it?
Stoller: Actually, Jerry called me and he said, “Are you Mike Stoller?” I said, “Yup.” And then he said, “You play the piano?” I said, “Yup.” He said, “Did you play the piano at a dance in Los Angeles?”
Tavis: Let me guess – and you said, “Yup.”
Stoller: You got it. (Laughter.) You can fill in, but then he said, “And can you write notes on paper?
Leiber: “Do you write notes on paper?”
Tavis: And then you said -
Stoller: And I said, “Yup.”
Tavis: – “Yup.” (Laughter.)
Stoller: And then he said, “My name is Jerome Leiber. I write lyrics. How would you like to write songs with me?” And I said, “Nope.”
Leiber: “Nope.” (Laughter.)
Tavis: And why did you say no to Jerry Leiber?
Stoller: Because I thought he would be writing something that would be very uninteresting to me – some kind of pop, floating down the river on a Sunday afternoon, or something that really – I was interested, and I was very pretentious about it at the time – I was interested in be-bop. I was a real be-bop fan, and I had wanted to be a jazz musician.
I kind of gave that up when I realized I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, or not even nearly. At any rate, he asked me, “Well, what do you like if you don’t like songs?” And I said, “Well, I like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and Bartok and Stravinsky.” But he said, “Hey, nevertheless -”
Leiber: I thought it was a butcher’s house. (Laughter.)
Stoller: He said, “Nevertheless, I think we ought to talk about it.” So I said, “Hey, you want to come over, come over,” and as I recall, as I was putting the receiver down, the doorbell rang.
Tavis: And it was Jerry?
Stoller: Yeah. (Laughter.)
Tavis: So are you willing now on national TV to concede that Mr. Leiber was right, 60 years later?
Stoller: Well, he was determined. (Laughter.)
Tavis: He was right, just say it.
Tavis: You guys have done some good stuff together.
Stoller: Are you kidding? (Unintelligible)
Tavis: You guys have written for so many people, I want to just throw a few things at you in the time I have and get your response. So Jerry Leiber, when I say Elvis Presley to you, talk to me about Elvis Presley.
Leiber: Elvis Presley, you can’t define him in a couple of sentences, but he was a country boy and he was very respectful. He used to say things like, “Yes, sir,” to us, and we both liked him. He was unabashed. And he was absolutely excellent in his performances. He never did more than two or three takes of anything, when we were used to doing 30 and 40 takes of everything.
And he was very friendly and very well behaved, but he was very private, but we also learned by hanging around him the amount of time we did that he had this vast knowledge of the blues. And we were surprised, because we didn’t meet any White boys that had that going.
Tavis: One of the more fascinating parts of the book for me, speaking of Elvis, are the number of hits you guys wrote for him, Mr. Stoller, the number of hits you guys wrote for him, like, in minutes.
Stoller: Well, actually, the first song that he did of ours was before we met him and before we actually knew much about him, and that was “Hound Dog,” because that song was written for Big Mama Thornton and by her physical presence and her attitude.
And of course it’s a woman’s song about a man, and Presley picked up this version of “Hound Dog” from a rock group or rockabilly group playing in Las Vegas, where he heard them, that lyric is a man singing to a dog, which was not the intent of the original composition and Jerry’s words are for a woman to sing.
Also, it didn’t have the feel that Big Mama’s record had. Big Mama’s record sounded the way we imagined it would sound. It was written rather quickly, but that’s -
Tavis: But because he was Elvis it becomes a huge hit, though.
Stoller: But then Elvis – yeah, it became a monster hit, and because of that the people who controlled Elvis’ music publishing contacted us and said, “Write some more songs.”
Tavis: And then you go on to write big hits like “Jailhouse Rock.”
Stoller: Yeah. That one was written in a hotel room with three other songs. We were kind of trapped in this hotel room by the music publisher, and he said, “You guys are not leaving. You’ve had a script for two weeks, I’m not letting you out of here until I have my songs.” (Laughter.) And so in order to get out we wrote four songs.
Tavis: Mr. Leiber, how do you work under pressure like that?
Leiber: Very well. (Laughter.)
Tavis: That’s amazing. When you look back on what’s catalogued, of course, in this book – look back on what you’ve been able to do over 60 years, what do you think of your catalogue? You happy with it?
Leiber: I like it a whole lot. (Laughter.)
Stoller: Yeah, I’m happy with it. But I think it’s missing some stuff that we have to do yet.
Leiber: Well, a lot of the things that are missing are already written, but not recorded, and a number of things are in the infancy. There may be a chorus or a chorus and a refrain that have to be finished.
Tavis: So to your point, before I let you go, how much stuff would you guess that you have written that with a little bit of work could be recorded? How much stuff do you still have that has not been recorded as yet, that you’ve written?
Leiber: Oh, I’d say something like those bossanovas that you wrote.
Stoller: That don’t have lyrics? Yeah.
Leiber: That don’t have lyrics, yeah. (Laughter.)
Stoller: Well, you’re sitting around, man (unintelligible).
Tavis: We’re waiting on you to write these lyrics, Jerry Leiber.
Leiber: Because I don’t speak Brazilian. (Laughter.)
Stoller: Learn. (Laughter.)
Tavis: So you got a bunch of stuff that could be recorded, though.
Stoller: We’ve got a lot of stuff. We’ve got a lot of ideas, we’ve got a lot of beginnings.
Tavis: Well, if I could sing I’d take a Leiber-Stoller composition any day.
Stoller: Thank you.
Leiber: You got it. Give us a half-hour. (Laughter.)
Tavis: Well, that’s about all they give me on PBS, is a half-hour, and I’m glad to have shared part of it with these two iconic songwriters. No surprise that the book would have to be called “Hound Dog.” They’ve written a lot of great hits, but what a great name for a song. “Hound Dog” is the new book, “The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography.” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, what an honor to have you both on the program. Thanks for coming to see us.
Stoller: Thank you so much.
Stoller: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you here.