Popular music in the early 1950s was all about cardigan sweaters and sanitized tunes. But then a pair of upstart songwriters taught teenagers how to let down their hair. Here's how two Jewish kids from the East Coast brought black music to white America.
On July 25, 1956, a 23-year-old songwriter named Mike Stoller was on a boat to New York, returning from a European vacation with his wife. Just off the coast of Nantucket, their ship collided with another vessel and sank into the ocean. The passengers were rescued at sea, but when Stoller and his wife arrived on shore, an even bigger surprise was waiting for them.
Stoller’s songwriting partner, Jerry Leiber, was standing on the pier with some life-changing news: The duo’s tune “Hound Dog” had just reached No. 1 on the pop chart. “Big Mama Thornton?” asked Stoller. “No,” explained Leiber, “some white kid named Elvis Presley.”
Elvis was an unknown at the time, and so were the men who’d penned his first big hit. But all of their lives were about to take a turn for the better. Leiber and Stoller would go on to write many more hits for Elvis, as well as classic tunes such as “There Goes My Baby,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Stand By Me.” In 1987, they became the first songwriters ever inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Ebony and Ivory
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were born a few months apart in 1933—Leiber in Baltimore, Stoller in Queens. Leiber’s musical awakening came at age 13, when he heard bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” on the radio. Soon, he was writing his own songs. Stoller found his calling at age 8, after overhearing a black teenager play “boogie woogie piano” at summer camp.
When the pair first met in Los Angeles in 1950, their personalities couldn’t have been more different. Stoller was cool and moody; Leiber was animated and brash. But they quickly fell into a creative rhythm. Stoller wrote the music and tickled the ivories while Leiber scribbled lyrics and sang manically. In no time, they’d forged their way into the world of R&B—uncharted territory for white songwriters. For them, it was about capturing an attitude with their sound. Leiber and Stoller drew from their influences, and by 1954, they’d written a string of blues records.
The problem was, they didn’t have much to show for it besides the records themselves. Accounting practices in the music business were notoriously shady back then, and many record companies were owned by the mob. Tired of being ripped off, Leiber and Stoller started their own label, called Spark, and began partnering with other major labels. This allowed them to produce and write for artists while retaining their copyrights. It was a lucrative blueprint, and one that’s still followed today. In a sense, Leiber and Stoller were pop music’s first “producers.”
Tapping into Leiber’s love of vaudeville, they struck big with comic hits such as “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” Soon, Leiber and Stoller were in clear control of their destiny, rolling from one success to another with top black artists. They produced hits for legends including Jimmy Witherspoon, Floyd Dixon, and Big Mama Thornton. But then a white ex-trucker from Memphis stepped into the picture.
How to Breed a Hound Dog
Leiber and Stoller originally wrote “Hound Dog” for R&B singer Big Mama Thornton in 1952. Inspired by her seismic voice, they whipped up a slow, dirty blues number that began “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, quit snooping ’round my door.” The innuendo-laden record sold 500,000 copies. But when Elvis Presley covered it four years later, he brought the song to a whole new market.
When Stoller first heard Elvis’ recording, with its revved-up tempo and sneering attitude, he thought it sounded “nervous.” Leiber hated that Elvis had changed his lyrics, turning it into a song about an actual dog. (Elvis inserted the line “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”) More damning than any of that, however, was the fact that the pair thought Elvis was just a white boy trying to imitate black music. Even after the single topped the charts for 11 weeks straight and sold more than 7 million copies, they remained skeptical about Elvis’ artistic abilities. Still, the duo agreed to write some new numbers for him.
In 1957, they were hired to score Elvis’ third movie, Jailhouse Rock. It was on the set that they met the singer in person for the first time, and their attitude towards him quickly changed. Within minutes, they learned two crucial things about Elvis: He shared their love of hipster attire, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of R&B music. By the end of their first conversation, Stoller and Presley were at the piano, enthusiastically playing four-handed blues numbers together.
The three of them became fast friends and loyal creative partners. With Leiber and Stoller producing, Presley was a hip-shaking dynamo, cutting three or four songs a day. The atmosphere in the studio was loose and fun. In between takes, the trio goofed around and often broke into impromptu versions of their favorite tunes. For lunch, they even shared Elvis’ signature meal—fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches and Nesbitt’s orange soda.
All Shook Up
Elvis' cigar-chomping manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was less enamored with his client’s new friends. To him, Leiber and Stoller were loose cannons who encouraged Elvis to make music that was bluesier and blacker. To Parker, that meant one thing: less money. When Leiber and Stoller wrote the ballad “Don’t” at Elvis’ request, the Colonel gave them hell for not going through the proper channels. And when Leiber suggested that Elvis star in a film version of the novel A Walk on the Wild Side, he was warned, “If you two ever try to interfere in the career of Elvis Presley again, you’ll never work in Hollywood, New York, or anywhere else.”
Leiber and Stoller watched as Elvis’ handlers slowly tamed the star’s incendiary talent. Elvis wanted to make heart-wrenching music and serious films, but instead, he was forced to sweeten his sound and star in formulaic romantic comedies. Between 1956 and 1969, Elvis acted in 31 movies, nearly all of them forgettable, and all because the Colonel said so.
All of those corny roles and saccharine plotlines pushed Leiber and Stoller over the edge. After scoring 1958’s King Creole, the songwriters broke it off with the King.
School of Rock
Splitting with Elvis was difficult on Leiber and Stoller, and they realized they needed a change of pace. The pair moved to New York, where they continued to write for their music publishing company and produce for Atlantic Records. The move did them well. They made an instant splash with “Love Potion No. 9” by The Clovers and several hits for The Coasters, including “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak.” But it was 1959’s “There Goes My Baby” by the vocal group The Drifters that made the biggest waves.
It was a weird hybrid of a record— a collision of gospel and doo-wop set to a Brazilian beat and coated in silvery strings. In fact, it was so weird that Atlantic refused to release it, calling it “an awful mess ... like a radio caught between two stations.” But Leiber and Stoller fought for the song, and when Atlantic grudgingly put it out, the record topped the charts and sold almost 1 million copies. Moreover, it expanded the palette of rock ‘n’ roll, adding an orchestral sophistication that anticipated The Beatles and Motown by five years. It also helped black music break into the mainstream.
The hit was vital for the duo’s growth, too. “There Goes My Baby” opened the gate for Leiber and Stoller to pepper their sessions with exotic South American and African percussion, larger string sections, and unusual instruments like the electric sitar.
By the early 1960s, Leiber and Stoller’s maverick spirit had made them heroes to a younger generation of songwriters, who flooded their publishing hub inside the Brill Building in Manhattan. Burt Bacharach, who later composed the classics “What the World Needs Now” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” begged them to teach him how to make hit records. Carole King, then a teenage songwriter, soaked up every detail of the sessions, taking note of how they fearlessly intermingled genres from jazz to blues to bossa nova. It was a lesson she would draw on a decade later to create her landmark album, Tapestry. “For us, they were always that one step ahead,” King said. “They were trailblazers.”
One of their students, Phil Spector, wasn’t so humble. At age 20, Spector wanted to learn from the masters, so the duo signed the ambitious kid to a publishing agreement. They even paid for his airfare to New York and let him sleep on their couch. He shadowed them in the studio like a “not very loveable puppy.” Spector soon wheedled his way into a writing session with Leiber, and when their “Spanish Harlem” became a hit, Spector secretly parlayed it into a better deal for himself with another company. The contract he had signed with Leiber and Stoller mysteriously disappeared.
Is That All There Is
By the mid-1960s, The Beatles had changed the rules of pop music, spawning generations of bands who wrote their own material. Suddenly, there was less demand for hired songwriters. In 1969, Leiber and Stoller wrote one last piece, a queasy, carnival-sounding tune called “Is That All There Is?” Swing-era band singer Peggy Lee, who hadn’t had a hit in a decade, spoke and cooed her way through the existential lyrics. The song rose to No. 11 on the charts, but the title proved prophetic.
The 1970s and 1980s were lean years for Leiber and Stoller. The duo’s style didn’t jibe with hard rock and disco, and they failed to get several musical theater projects off the ground. Leiber moved to Italy, got divorced, and had bypass surgery. Stoller resigned himself to writing instrumental pieces.
But in 1995, their back catalog resuscitated their careers. They created a musical revue of their biggest hits called Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller. A huge success on Broadway, the revue ran for five straight years and won a Tony Award for Best Musical. Today, it still thrives in productions around the world. The duo has also continued to develop original musicals, including one about Oscar Wilde. But it’s not like they really need another hit. With hundreds of classics, covered by a staggering A to Z of artists including The Beatles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Neil Diamond, Leiber and Stoller have long solidified their place as the poet laureates of rock ’n’ roll.
The article above by Bill DeMain appeared in the Jan-Feb 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.