Jessica Pons for NPR
Mike Stoller was 17 when he wrote his first song. He hadn’t been interested in songwriting before that, but was playing the piano in Los Angeles when a complete stranger – Jerry Leiber, also 17 – called him out of the blue.
“We had this funny conversation on the phone where he asked me if I wanted to write songs with him, and I said no,” Stoller laughs. He told Leiber that he didn’t like the songs he heard on the radio; he liked Bartok, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
“And [Leiber] said this word that stuck with me, because it changed my life. He said, ‘Well, However… I think we should meet.'”
They met, and when Stoller looked at Leiber’s lyrics, he recognized them as 12-bar blues. Stoller had grown up in New York, attending an interracial summer camp where he was exposed to boogie-woogie and blues music, and he was excited: “I went to the piano and started composing blues, and he started to sing,” he says. “And we shook hands and said, ‘We’ll be partners’ – and we have been for 61 years.”
These two white Jewish boys quickly carved out a niche for themselves writing rhythm and blues music primarily for black artists. One of their early hits was for “Big Mama” Thornton, a belter from Alabama.
Other early Leiber & Stoller songs were recorded by Charles Brown, Little Willie Littlefield, “Little Esther” Phillips and Jimmy Witherspoon. In 1956, armed with a $5,000 royalty check on their song “Black Denim Pants and Motorcycle Boots”, Stoller set off on a sea voyage to Europe with his wife. On her return voyage, the ship — the SS Andrea Doria — has sunk.
“Fortunately, I got down in a broken lifeboat,” he says. “When I got on a freighter that picked us up, Jerry was at the dock. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Mike, we’ve got a big shot!'”
Leiber told him it was their song “Hound Dog”.
“Grandma Thornton?” Stoller asked him.
“No,” replied Leiber. “A white kid named Elvis Presley?
Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” reigned at number one on the chart for a record 11 weeks and became the best-selling single of his career. Naturally, says Stoller, “the music publishers who controlled Elvis Presley’s music … asked us if we had anything else that might be good for Elvis. Jerry thought of this kind of blues ballad we had written and titled ‘Love Me’.”
Presley “loved it, and he recorded it, and it became a hit,” Stoller says. “And then they kept asking for more songs.”
Stoller and Leiber became Elvis Presley’s lucky charms – “He called us that”, says Stoller, “but not necessarily directly to us” – and the duo gave him a parade of hits including “Loving You”, ” Jailhouse Rock, “No”, “King Creole” and “Santa Claus is Back in Town”.
Stoller, 89, is in a reflective mood with the release of Baz Luhrmann’s film Elviswhich features many of the songs he wrote with Leiber, who died in 2011.
When they finally met The King, who was only a year younger, Elvis was respectful of his court composers. “We had to say, ‘Elvis: It’s Jerry. I’m Mike. Don’t call us sir!'” Stoller laughed.
When they started writing songs specifically for Elvis, “We just knew he could sing well this and sing this“, says Stoller. “The truth is this: Elvis was very special – he could sing well anything.”
Of course, Elvis wasn’t the only performer of Leiber & Stoller songs. They also wrote “On Broadway”, performed by The Drifters and later George Benson; “Yakety Yak”, performed by the Coasters; and “Love Potion No. 9”, which was a hit for the Clovers. One of Stoller’s favorite recordings is Peggy Lee’s otherworldly version of “Is That All There Is?” from 1969.
However, perhaps their most enduring song is the one they wrote with singer Ben E. King in 1960.
Stoller’s “Stand By Me” bets have been covered a thousand times. A few years ago, he serenaded the royal family at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Karen Gibson, conductor of the London-based Kingdom Choir, was invited to Kensington Palace to discuss the arrangement with the couple, who wanted an extremely streamlined version.
After several attempts, Gibson improvised, asking the choir to add “oohs” behind Paul Lee. At first she thought it was awful – “But the couple really loved it. They really loved it,” she says.
When they performed it at the wedding in 2018, the whole world fell in love with the Kingdom Choir.
Gibson, a self-proclaimed “gospel guru”, thought the song should be loaded with bells and whistles. But “what I think that arrangement did,” she admits, “is it opened the song up in a completely different way for people. … So yeah, they were absolutely right, and I was wrong.”
As well as loving the song’s lyrics – about wanting to be loved and supported, with spiritual roots in the Psalms – Gibson came to appreciate the beauty of the melody that Stoller helped compose.
“You would have thought you couldn’t sing the song without that bass line,” she says, humming the famous groove that opens Ben E. King’s version. “But this arrangement shows that the song is strong on its own.”
When Stoller heard it, “I loved it,” he says. “I was so moved by it.”