Jerry Leiber (4/25/33 – 8/22/11) and Mike Stoller (born March 13, 1933) were American songwriting and record producing partners. Stoller was the composer of the duo and Leiber the lyricist. Together they formed one of the best and most prolific songwriting teams of all time. There has, the two admit, been some flak amid the yak in their forty years together, although nothing worth splitting up over. “We started fighting the moment we met,” Stoller says, laughing. “We fought about words, we fought about music. We fought about everything.” In the 50s they began by writing music for black artists, initiating mainstream white America into the sensual and spiritual intimacies of urban black culture that fueled the birth of rock and roll. Their songwriting captured the essence and nuances of black music and language with a melodic invention, narrative ingenuity and cool hilarity that were true to the source. Jerry Lieber said, “I felt black…I was, as far as I was concerned. And I wanted to be black for lots of reasons. They were better musicians, they were better athletes, they were not uptight about sex, and they knew how to enjoy life better than most people. They were amused by us, two white kids doing the blues. They thought it was goofy, a lot of fun.” The songwriters had no idea they were part of the birth of a new form of music when rock and roll became the new idiom in America. “That was a label, we were busy doing what we were doing. We didn’t have a historical sense of who we were or what we were,” Stoller said. To which Lieber added, “We were completely unconscious of what it might imply, we were just doing numbers.”
Their first hit composition was Hard Times, recorded by Charles Brown, which was a rhythm and blues hit in 1952. Kansas City, which was first recorded in 1952 by rhythm & blues singer Little Willie Littlefield, became a No. 1 pop hit in 1959 for Wilbert Harrison. In 1952, they wrote Hound Dog for blues singer Big Mama Thornton, which became a hit for her in 1953. Royalties funded a 1956 trip to Europe for Stoller and his wife, and their return to New York was aboard the ill-fated SS Andrea Doria, which was rammed and sunk by the Swedish liner MS Stockholm. After their rescue, the Stollers finished the journey to New York aboard another ship. Leiber greeted Stoller at the dock with the news that Hound Dog had become a hit for Elvis Presley. Stoller’s reply was, “Elvis who?” Elvis Presley’s rock version was a much bigger hit than Big Mama Thorntons. Elvis’ recording was released in July of 1956 and bounded up the charts, selling millions of copies. Released the same year as Heartbreak Hotel, it put Elvis on TV and turned him into a phenomenon. His bumping and grinding on the Ed Sullivan Show, created such public excitement that on the Steve Allen Show they slowed down his act, with an amused Presley in a tuxedo and blue suede shoes singing his hit to a basset hound. The Leiber-Stoller song would be forever linked to Presley. “We feel that Elvis Presley was the high water mark of the 20th century. He’s a legend…no, he’s myth. He’s in that celestial place for mythological figures. At the time, we just thought he was a white kid trying to make it as a singer,” said Leiber.
As hit songwriters and hitmaking record producers, the Baltimore-born Leiber and Long Island native Stoller had few peers and no equals during rock and roll’s first golden era. The list of smash sides they wrote or co-wrote for their all-star clients throughout the fifties and early sixties reads like a history of the music itself: Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock and Loving You for Elvis Presley; There Goes My Baby and On Broadway for the Drifters; Ben E. King’s solo hits Spanish Harlem and Stand by Me; Yakety Yak, Searchin’, Poison Ivy and Charlie Brown for the Coasters; also R&B pieces like Kansas City and Riot in Cell Block No.9. The greatest compliment to any songwriter is to have his songs recorded by the best in the business. Artists who have recorded songs by Leiber and Stoller include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Joe Williams, Tom Jones, Count Basie, Edith Piaf, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, and over a thousand others.
Leiber and Stoller have received many accolades, including induction into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame (1985,) the Record Producers’ Hall of Fame (1986,) and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1987.) In February 1988, Elvis Presley’s recording of Hound Dog was placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in 1991, Leiber and Stoller received the Founder’s Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP.) They won a Grammy for the plaintive song about disillusionment, Is That All There Is? in 1969, and another for the cast album of Smokey Joe’s Cafe…a 1995 Broadway musical revue based on their work. Smokey Joe’s Cafe was also nominated for seven Tony awards, and became the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. Comprised of forty songs by the pair, the show was nominated for seven Tony Awards. In 2009, Simon & Schuster published Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, written by Leiber and Stoller with David Ritz. Leiber & Stoller continued to work on songs for musical theater projects until Jerry Leiber’s passing in August, 2011. If they had written no other song but Hound Dog, the names of Leiber and Stoller would still have been indelibly written in the history of popular music. Here’s a must-see 8-minute video about the pair and a short one from a performance in Smokey Joe’s Cafe.