Tavis pays tribute to the legendary lyricist who is described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the “defining creators in mid-century pop music culture.”
Jerry Leiber Tribute
Tavis: Also in 2009 we were paid a visit by the legendary songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote some of rock’s earliest hits, including classics like “Hound Dog” for Elvis Presley. The two joined us for a conversation about their memoir, appropriately titled “Hound Dog.”
[Begin interview clip]
Tavis: 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.
Mike 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
Leiber: Right, oh, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, 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, I played piano at a dance in east L.A. and the drummer took my phone number.
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.” 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: I said, “Yup.”
Tavis: “Yup.” (Laughter)
Stoller: 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: 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?” 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: 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? Are you kidding?
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. 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.
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. We were surprised, because we didn’t meet any white boys that had that going.
Tavis: That had that much information, yeah.
Tavis: 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: 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)
[End interview clip]
Tavis: Jerry Leiber died this week at the age of 78. Nick Ashford was just 70. Once again, next Tuesday night we’ll bring you the entire conversation with Ashford & Simpson, or you can access it now by visiting our website at PBS.org.
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