In 1950 a couple of rhythm and blues-loving teenagers named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller met for the first time. Leiber was looking for someone to help compose music for lyrics he'd written, and a friend recommended a piano player named Mike Stoller. They discovered their mutual affection for R&B, and, as Jerry and Mike put it in this fascinating autobiography, it was the beginning of an argument that has been going on for more than fifty years with no resolution in sight. Leiber and Stoller had their first success with a song called "Hard Times" that became an R&B hit in 1952. They followed it with the classic song "Kansas City," and then another bluesy composition, "Hound Dog," for the inimitable Big Mama Thornton. They were still in their teens and working with some of the pioneers of rock and roll. A few years later "Hound Dog" would become a #1 record for Elvis Presley, and Jerry and Mike became the King's favorite songwriters. They wrote such early Elvis hits as "Jailhouse Rock," "Treat Me Nice," and "You're So Square (Baby I Don't Care)." Their affection for Elvis was mutual, but Elvis's manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, didn't appreciate Jerry and Mike's independent ways and ended the relationship. Leiber and Stoller had a string of hits with the Coasters, including "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," and "Charlie Brown." They infused their songs with wit and playfulness. They had founded their own music label, which led them to an arrangement with Atlantic Records, where they wrote hits for the Drifters and Ben E. King, including "On Broadway" (with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) and "Stand by Me" (with King). Their productions for the Drifters brought new instrumentation and musical sophistication to rock music. Not yet in their thirties, Leiber and Stoller became part of the Brill Building scene in the early 1960s. Their Red Bird label produced and recorded some of the most successful girl groups of the era. Along the way they mentored an ambitious young writer-producer named Phil Spector and influenced musician Burt Bacharach. In a completely different genre, Leiber and Stoller wrote and produced "Is That All There Is?" for Peggy Lee. They also created the smash musical Smokey Joe's Café, which premiered in 1995 and became the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. With the assistance of David Ritz, they describe what it was like when Elvis was a fresh new face and when two young guys with tons of talent and an insatiable love of good old American R&B could create the soundtrack for a generation -- and have a great time doing it.
The golden days of rock 'n' roll flit by in this sprightly memoir by the celebrated songwriting duo. A couple of Jewish kids with a passion for black music, Leiber and Stoller started out as teenagers writing blues ballads, penned such early, genre-defining rock classics as "Hound Dog" and "Stand by Me," then conceived a midlife obsession with aging chanteuse Peggy Lee, for whom they wrote and produced an album of ruminative torch songs. Along the way, they went through iconic music-biz rites of passage: hanging with Elvis; working at the Brill Building; getting into financial disputes with Phil Spector, Atlantic Records and the Mafia. As arranged by collaborator Ritz, the authors harmonize well in their alternating reminiscences; Stoller is the more reflective one, while the best anecdotes belong to the brash Leiber, who was challenged to a drag race by James Dean, choked by Norman Mailer and forced to trade his car for a pair of shoes. There's not a lot of deep insight into the creative process-the authors seem to have written most of their songs on 15 minutes' notice-just vignettes from pop music's giddy youth, short and sweet and catchy. Photos. (June)
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Simon & Schuster
June 07, 2009
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Excerpt from Hound Dog by Jerry Leiber
In the King's Court
Stoller I guess it must have been in April of '57 that we met Colonel Parker for the first time. It happened over dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Jean Aberbach was the conduit.
"The Colonel wants to see you in person before you meet Elvis," said Jean.
"Is this an audition?" I asked.
"The Colonel is very careful about who he lets into Elvis's circle."
"I'm very careful about who I have dinner with," said Jerry.
Jean didn't laugh. "Just be on your best behavior," he told us both.
Leiber Of course, the Colonel wasn't really a colonel. He was Thomas A. Parker, whose former job as a carnival barker defined his personality. He had a definite shtick ("Pick a number from one to ten"). He told dozens of canned jokes. I can't remember any of them except that they weren't funny. But it didn't matter that we didn't laugh, because the Colonel wasn't really conscious of us. Of course, he knew we were the songwriters of "Hound Dog" and the new songs for Jailhouse Rock. He knew more hit songs for Elvis meant more money for him. Beyond that, though, he was more interested in putting on his own show than getting to know us.
He had his long cigar and his confected Southern accent. He was fat and smart and a nonstop talker whose ego was always on parade. He told us in great detail all he had done for Elvis -- and all he intended to do.
"Elvis," he said, "is going to be bigger than the president, bigger than the pope."
Naturally we agreed.
Stoller The Colonel had the kind of energy that sucked all the air out of the room, even the dining room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I had little interest in the man. Elvis was the guy we were eager to meet. The session was due to start later that week.
Leiber My heterosexual credits have long been established, so I can comfortably say that the first thing that hit me when I walked into the recording studio and found myself standing next to Elvis Presley was his physical beauty. Far more than his pictures, his actual presence was riveting. He had a shy smile and quiet manner that were disarming.
All this happened at Radio Recorders Annex, the same studio where Big Mama had recorded "Hound Dog" back in August of 1952. Elvis wanted us there to produce the songs for the soundtrack we'd written for him.
Stoller It's important to remember that on the day we met Elvis, he was twenty-two and we were twenty-four. We were contemporaries. Remember, too, that Jerry and I shared the uppity view that he and I were among the few white guys who knew about the blues. In the first five minutes of conversation with Elvis, we learned we were dead wrong.
Elvis knew the blues. He was a Ray Charles fanatic and even knew that Ray had sung our song "The Snow Is Falling." In fact, he knew virtually all of our songs. There wasn't any R&B he didn't know. He could quote from Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, B.B. King, and Big Bill Broonzy.
Leiber When it came to the blues, Elvis knew his stuff. He may not have been conversant about politics or world history, but his blues knowledge was almost encyclopedic. Mike and I were blown away. In fact, the conversation got so enthusiastic that Mike and Elvis sat down at the piano and started playing four-handed blues. He definitely felt our passion for the real roots material and shared that passion with all his heart. Just like that, we fell in love with the guy.
"Let's get started," Elvis said. "Let's cut some records."
We jumped right into "Jailhouse Rock." The initial idea was just to show up at the studio to meet Elvis. But, as naturally as the winter turns to spring, we found ourselves in charge of the session. We were producing the guy. Mike worked out the arrangement with Elvis's band -- Bill Black on upright bass, Scotty Moore on guitar, D.J. Fontana on drums, and Dudley Brooks on piano. As far as the vocals went, I was amazed to see that Elvis was happy to hear me sing the song with what I considered the right attitude. He was following my vocal cues.
Stoller Elvis was completely open and never acted like a diva. When it was time to do the actual recording, Jerry was in the control booth and I stayed on the floor. I played piano on one cut, and Jerry, with his unique style of body language, conducted Elvis's vocals.
The other thing that amazed us was that no one was rushing us to get through. During a recording session, Jerry and I were used to watching the clock. The musicians' union allowed four songs in three hours or you got into the dreaded overtime. On Elvis's sessions, though, those restrictions were lifted. The Jordanaires (Elvis's backup vocal quartet), the guys in the band and Elvis's paid companions (the so-called Memphis Mafia) would order lunch -- peanut butter sandwiches and orange pop -- while the clock kept ticking.
Sometimes we'd do two or three takes on a song; sometimes up to twenty-five. And yet, even in this relaxed atmosphere, by evening time we'd cut three songs.
At the end of the day, Elvis was as high on the music as Jerry and I. That was a Wednesday. Elvis didn't show up at the studio on Thursday, but he was back on Friday to do the fourth song, "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care."
Leiber The fourth song was the most fun because by then Elvis was deep into our producing style. Our style wasn't anything more than being loose and having fun.
Elvis's initial shyness had totally melted away and he was completely in the spirit of the music. He actually picked up an electric bass and kicked off the intro to "Baby I Don't Care." It also pleased me no end that even when I thought we had a perfect vocal take, Elvis would want to do another -- and then another. Each one would be better. He was digging deep and coming up with great new ammunition.
On our final day at Radio Recorders, when we had all gotten friendly and were listening to the playbacks, Elvis was slapping us on the back and telling us we were the baddest cats in town. A couple of the guys from MGM dropped by and listened as well. Elvis was singing our praises when one of the men -- he might have been the casting director -- looked at me and said, "He looks like a piano player."
"He's not," said Elvis. "That's Leiber. Leiber writes the lyrics."
"Well, he still looks like a piano player," the casting director repeated.
"The piano player's over there," said Elvis, pointing to Mike. "He writes the music."
"How 'bout if we get Leiber to play the part of the piano player in the movie?" asked the casting director. "All he has to do is run his fingers over the keys. Any fool can do that."
"Thank you," I said, "for the vote of confidence. But Mike 's the piano player."
"No, you go ahead, Jerry," said Mike in his customarily generous manner. "This is your big break. I don't want to deny you your screen debut."
So it was set: Jailhouse Rock, starring Elvis Presley and introducing Jerry Leiber.
Stoller On the morning that filming was to begin, Jerry called me.
"I got a problem. I can't make it," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, dying is definitely a problem. What's wrong, Jer?"
"A toothache from hell. You gotta replace me."
"But they want you," I reminded him.
"They'll never know the difference."
When I got to MGM Studios, they told me to shave off my goatee.
"It's a scene stealer," they said.
I showed up on the soundstage, went to wardrobe, where they put me in a Hawaiian shirt. I ended up in all the scenes where Elvis sang with the band. I never uttered a word. I wasn't allowed to. Because I wasn't in the Screen Actors Guild, I couldn't talk on screen.
Naturally, Elvis was the focus of attention. You couldn't help but notice his naturalness and ease as an actor. Yet, on at least one occasion, I noticed something else: his underlying insecurity.
It happened when Elvis walked through an area where the extras and bit-part players were sitting around. As he passed by, someone told a joke and everyone began to laugh. Elvis wheeled around and angrily said, "I bet you think you're really hot."
He had thought they were laughing at him. They weren't. I know; I was there. Elvis walked away, mumbling.
One day he approached me as we were leaving the set.
"Mike," he said, "I want you to write me a real pretty ballad."
"I'll get right on it."
That was on a Friday.
Saturday morning, Jerry and I got together and wrote "Don't." On Sunday, we got Young Jessie of the Flairs to sing the demo in an Elvis-like mode. (Jessie had recently substituted for Leon Hughes on the Coasters' recordings of "Searchin'" and "Young Blood.")
I brought "Don't" to Elvis on the set that Monday. He liked it, recorded it, and by January of the following year -- 1958 -- it hit #1, only three months after "Jailhouse Rock" had also gone to the top. You'd think we'd be heroes. But in the court of the King, it didn't work that way.
Leiber I get a call from Freddy Bienstock.
"What is your partner doing giving a song to Elvis Presley?" he asks. Freddy sounds enraged.
"Has Elvis decided to stop singing?" I ask.
"No, that's not the point." Now Freddy's yelling.
"Freddy," I say, "what's the problem, man? Did Elvis hate the song?"
"No, the problem is that he likes it."
"That's a problem?" I ask.
"It is when we don't have a contract. Nothing's written down. You just don't hand a song to Elvis without a contract. In fact, you don't hand a song to Elvis at all. You hand a song to me or to Jean Aberbach. Then we get the business straight first."
"Well, when Mike and I wrote the song, we presumed the business would be the same as all business with Elvis. The Colonel is going to demand that Elvis and the Aberbachs own the publishing rights, right?"
"And we'll give them the publishing rights, just like before. So again I ask the question: what's the problem?"
"It's a question of procedure. The Colonel hates it when anyone goes behind his back."
"Mike didn't go behind his back. Mike 's a straight shooter. Mike 's the original straight shooter. Elvis asked him to write a ballad for him and we did. Beginning and end of story."
"You still don't get it."
"Maybe I don't want to get it, Freddy. But it really doesn't matter because Elvis has the ballad he asked for. And he'll have another hit. And all's well that ends well."
"If only it were that easy."
"It is, man," I say. "Believe me, it is."
Stoller Another critical Colonel moment came during the shooting of Jailhouse Rock.
After a long day on the soundstage, Elvis invited me back to the Beverly Wilshire, where he was staying. He'd had a pool table set up in his suite.
"Wanna shoot a game?" Elvis asked me.
"Sure," I said.
This was after he'd recorded our four songs for the soundtrack and after I'd given him "Don't." At this point Elvis was a big Leiber and Stoller fan and was telling everyone we were his "good luck charms."
"Whenever I record," he said, "I want you guys in the studio. You're the guys who make the magic."
Music to my ears.
Elvis's companions, the Memphis Mafia, were all there. They were drinking Cokes and waiting for their turn at the pool table. On the radio, the DJ was playing "Ruby Baby," a song we'd written for the Drifters. Elvis was actually singing along with the record:
I've got a gal and Ruby is her name
Ruby Ruby Ruby Baby
She don't love me, but I love her just the same
Ruby Ruby Ruby Baby
Ruby Ruby how I want ya
Like a ghost I'm gonna haunt ya
Ruby Ruby, when will you be mine
"Hey, Mike," said Elvis, "how do you guys write all these great songs?"
"Well, Elvis," I said, "we just kinda sit down and jam."
"It's amazing to me. I guess I just ain't much of a writer."
"You don't have to write songs. You're Elvis."
With that, Elvis gave me one of those gosh-darn expressions. At that point in his career, he was still humble.
As our game went on, I was taking careful aim at the nine ball, trying to sink it and not scratch. I looked up for a second and suddenly there was no one in the room but me. Where the hell had everyone gone?
A couple of minutes went by. When Elvis returned, his head was down and his demeanor totally changed.
"I'm really sorry, Mike," he said, "but you're gonna have to leave. The Colonel came in and he doesn't want anyone here but me and the guys."
"Okay," I said, not wanting to make any more trouble. And with that, I left.
The next day at the shoot I mentioned the incident to one of Elvis's Memphis buddies.
"Don't take it personally, Mike," he said. "It's just that the Colonel doesn't want Elvis to develop a friendship with anyone but us."
Leiber A couple of months after Jailhouse Rock wrapped, Mike and I were still living in LA when we got a frantic call from Freddy Bienstock.
"Elvis is cutting a Christmas album," he said, "and they're a song short. He wants you guys to write something for him."
Next thing I know, Mike and I are driving over to Radio Recorders on Santa Monica Boulevard. When we walk in, Elvis is all smiles.
"My good luck charms are back!" He 's beaming.
The Colonel is scowling.
"You got the song?" the Colonel wants to know.
"We just got the call," I say.
"Write me something good," says Elvis.
"Write it right now," says the Colonel.
Mike and I go into a mixing room where there 's an upright piano in the corner.
"You know what, Mike," I say. "Let's not screw around with anything overly inventive. Let's write this guy a straight-up, no-nonsense twelve-bar blues with a Christmas lyric. What do you say?"
"Okay by me."
I start singing:
Hang up your pretty stockings
And turn off the light
'Cause Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight
It takes us about fifteen minutes. When we come back into the studio, I say, "Okay, we got it."
"What took you so long?" the Colonel asks.
"Writer's block," I say.
The Colonel doesn't laugh and the Colonel doesn't smile when we run down the song for Elvis. I know the Colonel thinks it's too bluesy and too black, but just before he can say anything, the King speaks out.
"Now that's what I call a goddamn great Christmas song!" he tells the Colonel. "I told you these guys would come through."
And with that, Elvis proceeds to sing the shit out of it.
He does it in just a couple of takes. When he's through, he puts his arms around me and Mike and says, "Whenever I record, you guys are gonna be with me."
For me, "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" lives on as one of Elvis's great blues performances. It took him back to his Beale Street roots, a place where he was always comfortable.
Stoller Given Elvis's enthusiasm for our work, I wasn't surprised that we got a call from Jean Aberbach inviting us to his LA office, which was housed in a big home on Hollywood Boulevard.
"The Colonel wants to manage you," he said.
"We 're unmanageable," Jerry was quick to retort. "Everyone knows that."
"This isn't a joke," Aberbach insisted.
"I wasn't joking," said Jerry. "We don't need management."
"Is that how you feel, Mike?" asked Aberbach.
"The Colonel feels he can do great things for your career," said Aberbach, "and he'd like you to sign these contracts." He handed us blank pieces of paper with only a signature line.
"Are you kidding?" we asked.
"No," Jean answered. "The Colonel said we can fill it in later, but basically it's a matter of mutual trust."
The Colonel got over our rejection of his offer. We knew that because we got a call late in 1957 that Elvis wanted more Leiber and Stoller songs. By then Jerry and I had made a permanent move to New York -- more on that shortly -- and went back to the Coast for a series of meetings.
The first was with Ben Hecht, the great Hollywood screenwriter, who had written, among many important works, Notorious for Alfred Hitchcock and The Front Page. Hecht had been in touch with us about an idea of Jerry's, a musical based on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Despite the week we spent with him at his beach home in Oceanside, California, the project never materialized. Welcome to Hollywood.
The second reason we had returned to LA was Elvis. He wanted us to write songs for his new movie, King Creole. It was based on Harold Robbins's novel A Stone for Danny Fisher, and the screenplay suggested some real substance. We submitted four songs -- "King Creole," "Trouble," "Steadfast, Loyal and True," and "Dirty Dirty Feeling." Elvis liked all four. ("Dirty Dirty Feeling" was dropped from the score, but two years later, when Elvis got out of the army, he remembered the tune and recorded it.) We worked in the studio with Elvis and, just like the Jailhouse Rock sessions, the rapport was good and the atmosphere relaxed. The Colonel may have been resentful that we turned down his offer for management, but when Elvis was happy -- and whenever we were around, he seemed happy -- the Colonel wasn't about to complain.
Leiber I was in New York. It was a rainy winter night and I found myself in a little cabaret. Cy Coleman, a wonderful pianist and classy composer -- he wrote "Witchcraft" for Sinatra and Broadway shows like Sweet Charity -- had hipped me to the place. The crowd was showbizzy with a jazzlike edge. The chick singer that night also had an edge. I ordered a double Maker's Mark and found a small table by the bandstand. When she sang Cole Porter's "Let's Do It," I couldn't help but take it personally. She was looking right at me -- and real good. After her set she joined me.
"I know who you are," she said.
"I like the Coasters, I like Ruth Brown. And I love Big Mama Thornton. I look at the labels and notice the writers. Plus, Cy Coleman is crazy about you. He pointed you out last week."
"I'm flattered that you stayed to hear me sing."
"It was a pleasure."
"Well, Jerry, it would give me pleasure if you hung around for another set and then let me take you to a very hot party over on the East Side. There 'll be all sorts of people there."
"I like all sorts of people," I said.
"Then we're on."
"We sure as hell are."
As she sang her last set, I was in heaven. Nothing is more exciting than knowing -- or at least believing -- that you're going to get laid. Especially when you don't have to work for it. And on this stormy night, this gal was doing all the work.
After her last song was sung, she came to my table, took me by the arm, led me to the hatcheck girl, where she got my overcoat and Borsalino, slipped into her mink jacket, led the way to the street and hailed a cab. When we arrived at a swanky address on Sixty-second Street on the Upper East Side, she paid for the cab. Another bonus.
A white-gloved doorman directed us to the party in the penthouse. When the elevator door opened, I was about a foot away from Gary Cooper.
The singer winked at me.
"Welcome to the party," she whispered. "Have yourself a ball."
She was the kind of cool chick who could handle herself in such a glamorous setting. She wandered off her way and I wandered off mine. I tried not to gawk at Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert standing with drinks in their hands in front of a floor-to-ceiling window and chatting intimately, the neon city blazing below. If that was Marlene Dietrich on a loveseat in the living room, well, so be it.
I went to the bar and got another double bourbon. I examined the Cubist paintings on the walls.
"Jerry," said the singer who had found me. "I'd like you to meet Charlie Feldman."
Charlie Feldman was a big-time film producer.
"Glad to meet you, Leiber," he said. "I admire the work you and Stoller have done with Elvis."
"In fact, I've been looking for you guys. It's providential that we're meeting here. Do you know Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side?"
"I think Algren's a great writer."
"Well, I think the book would make a great movie. I just bought the film rights. My idea is this -- Elia Kazan directs, Budd Schulberg writes the adaptation, Elvis stars, and Leiber and Stoller write the score. What do you think?"
"I love it."
"Will you bring it to Elvis?"
When I turned around to thank the singer for introducing me to Feldman, she was gone. I looked around. I caught a glimpse of her just leaving the party with Dietrich. She waved to me and said, "I hope it works out, Jerry."
"For you too, baby!" And with that, I blew her a kiss.
Stoller When Jerry came back with the idea about Elvis in A Walk on the Wild Side, I flipped. It was a natural, a perfect vehicle for Elvis to expand his acting chops and a great opportunity for us to write a really hip score.
We set an appointment with Jean Aberbach and his brother Julian at their office in the Brill Building. We just knew how excited they'd be.
Jerry pitched the idea. "We 're talking about a Kazan-Schulberg collaboration," he said, "the same team that did On the Waterfront for Brando. This is exactly the career move that will take Elvis to another level. He's a natural. He just needs brilliant material, a great director, and some real training."
"I'll have to speak to the Colonel about this, of course," said Jean. "I'll call him right away. Would you boys mind waiting outside for a few minutes?"
We waited for what seemed an eternity. We wondered what sort of reward or praise would be showered upon us for bringing in this fabulous prize. Finally, we were summoned back into the office.
Jean was stern when he said, "The Colonel has asked me to inform you that 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."
And with that, the project was over before it started. The Colonel had no interest in gambling on anything arty. His golden goose was going to lay the same egg, over and over. Don't mess with a proven formula.
Leiber Despite our attempts to upgrade Elvis's film career, we were not banished. In fact, every time Elvis went into the studio we'd get a call from Bienstock or Jean Aberbach saying that the King wanted us there. Even though we always wanted to work with Elvis, there came a time when it wasn't possible.