An Audience With The King's Counsel

May 29, 2000
An Audience With The King's Counsel
The Daily Telegraph ran an interesting interview with Elvis' song writers Leiber and Stoller. It starts off with a story about meeting Elvis, but then focuses in on the songwriters. Interesting as background information on two people who contributed so much to Elvis career. David Gritten meets Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the pre-eminent rock'n'roll songwriters honoured at Thursday's Ivor Novello Awards. ONE Friday afternoon in 1957, on the set of the film Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley turned to songwriter Mike Stoller, who was playing the pianist in Presley's prison band. "Mike," said the King, "could you guys write me a real pretty ballad?" Stoller called his writing partner, lyricist Jerry Leiber, to tell him of Presley's request. "We wrote the song that Saturday," Stoller recalls, "we made a demo of it on Sunday, with a young singer we used, and I walked into the studio with it on Monday morning to play it for Elvis." The song was called Love Me. It may have been written extraordinarily fast, but, says Leiber now, "It was the best ballad we ever wrote for Elvis." And in Presley's hands it became a pop classic. In the retelling, Leiber and Stoller make the process sound effortless, and in 50 years of working together they have certainly been prolific. The pre-eminent US songwriting team of the rock 'n' roll years, they have crafted dozens of hits: for the Coasters (Yakety Yak, Charlie Brown), the Drifters (On Broadway), Ben E King (Stand by Me, Spanish Harlem) - not forgetting a whole batch for Presley: Hound Dog, King Creole, Jailhouse Rock, Don't, Loving You and Treat Me Nice among them. Their achievements have been immortalized on stage in the hit musical Smokey Joe's Café (named after a Coasters hit). On Thursday, they were honoured by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters at the annual Ivors, where they received a special international award. These days Leiber and Stoller are sleek, affable gentlemen, both 67. That they're a long-established firm is obvious: they complete each other's sentences, contradict each other and bicker good-naturedly. They met in Los Angeles in 1950, aged 17, and began writing together. "Jerry had a notebook of songs which I expected to be junk, but which were blues lyrics," Stoller says now. "They were terrific. We both liked R&B, which was unusual for Caucasian kids. We were both turned on by black culture, and we were comfortable around black people." The young songsmiths used to hang out with jazz musicians such as Ray Brown, Dexter Gordon, and Lester Young at LA house parties, and in 1954 hooked up with R&B pioneer and music publisher Johnny Otis. He asked them to write songs for one of his artists, blues singer Big Mama Thornton; they came up with Hound Dog. "We met her at the studio, drove back to Jerry's garage studio, and started beating out the rhythm for the song on the car roof on the way," Stoller says. "We wrote the song in 12, 15 minutes." Presley's cover version two years later, with amended lyrics, would become a high point of rock 'n' roll. But, although they could write songs remarkably fast, Leiber and Stoller had strong opinions about how they should sound. They became accomplished producers, and in 1955 signed as independent producers with Atlantic Records, the first such deal in music-business history. "It meant Atlantic paid us as songwriters and a royalty on top for making the record," says Leiber. "We'd have been happy to make them for nothing. "But we'd started producing in self-defense. A number of our songs were misinterpreted, a lot of arrangements of our songs misconceived." Presley had the sense to request their presence in the studio when he recorded their songs in his 1957-58 heyday, but in later years even he went astray. "He covered one of our songs, Fools Fall in Love, and got it wrong," says Leiber, shaking his head. "Too fast. Too high." Their painstaking, innovative approach to making records became even more apparent when they moved to New York in 1959 and worked with the Drifters and Ben E King. They would demand up to 60 takes for songs such as Spanish Harlem, experimented by adding a string section, and embellished productions with shuffling Latin rhythms. One protégé in this era was their assistant Phil Spector, who took their ideas even further to create his hallmark Wall of Sound. Leiber and Stoller, then, created a musical legacy, and changed the way pop music sounded. Some of their songs seem timeless: Stand by Me, a repeated hit, has the status of an anthem. "I heard that Bono from U2 did an LA concert and sang that song," Leiber says, "and 50,000 kids sang along. They knew it as well as they knew The Star Spangled Banner." The pair still write together, and are currently working on a musical. After the rock 'n' roll years they veered towards cabaret material, writing for artists such as Peggy Lee; Leiber deems her version of Is That All There Is? his favorite recording of their work - along with Big Mama Thornton's Hound Dog. And Stoller? "I love whatever song I'm working on right now."
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