Mike Stoller has long been known as one-half of the legendary songwriting & producing duo, Leiber & Stoller. For 60 years, he teamed up with Jerry Leiber (who died in 2011) to create many classic hit songs from the early years of rock & roll. The duo wrote many standards such as “Hound Dog,” Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” “Yakety Yak” and “I (Who Have Nothing).” Impressively, they have been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Stoller, who is now 89, is being honored this month (May 2022) at the BMI Pop Awards in Los Angeles. He and legendary songwriter Carole Bayer Sager will be honored as BMI Icons. This special award celebrates their outstanding and timeless contributions to the art of songwriting.
Stoller, who has lived in Los Angeles and New York, formed a partnership with Leiber when they were both 17 years old (they were born in 1933). Stoller is known for composing the music and playing piano, and Leiber wrote the lyrics. They quickly developed their songwriting skills, and by the time they were 20 they had already written songs for Ray Charles and Jimmy Witherspoon.
It was in 1953 that Leiber & Stoller had a breakthrough, when they wrote & produced “Hound Dog” for blues/R&B singer Big Mama Thornton, and the song became a #1 R&B hit. However, it wasn’t until 1956 that the song reached mass appeal when Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog” and it became a #1 pop hit.
The success of “Hound Dog” led to Leiber & Stoller becoming top songwriters for Elvis Presley. The duo wrote the #1 hit “Jailhouse Rock” for the movie Jailhouse Rock, and they wrote the ballad hit “Loving You” for the film Loving You, and the hit “King Creole” for King Creole. Also, they wrote the Elvis hits “Don’t” and “She’s Not You,” and the classic songs “Treat Me Nice,” “You’re So Square Baby I Don’t Care” and “Love Me.”
In addition to their work with Elvis, Leiber & Stoller wrote & produced hits for many other artists. They are known for their hits with several vocal groups, including The Coasters and The Drifters. For The Coasters, they wrote the classic hits “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Searchin’,” “Young Blood,” “Along Came Jones” and “Poison Ivy.” For The Drifters, they co-wrote the hits “There Goes My Baby” and “On Broadway” (which was co-written by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil and was later a hit for George Benson).
Leiber & Stoller also had hit success with singer Ben E. King, who eventually left The Drifters to launch a solo career. Leiber, Stoller & King wrote the classic hit “Stand By Me,” and Leiber & Stoller wrote King’s hit “I (Who Have Nothing)” (which was later a hit for Tom Jones).
Other hits by Leiber & Stoller are “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison (also recorded by The Beatles), “Love Potion No. 9” (The Clovers), “The Reverend Mr. Black” (The Kingston Trio), “Is That All There is?” (Peggy Lee), and “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” (The Cheers).
In 1995, the songs of Leiber & Stoller were featured and celebrated in the hit Broadway musical, Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller, which won a Grammy Award. The show was also nominated for seven Tony Awards.
Stoller has also been honored with a Trustee Grammy Award, the Johnny Mercer Award presented by the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Ivor Novello International Songwriters Award, and 57 BMI Awards.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Mike Stoller. He tells many stories about his great career and how he and Jerry Leiber wrote the hits “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway.”
DK: Early on, how did you get started with music and writing songs? I read that you became partners with Jerry Leiber when you were 17.
Mike Stoller: I wasn’t really into writing songs until I met Jerry. I was a music fan, a jazz fan, and I loved the blues. Then one day Jerry called me on the phone—he got my number from a drummer that I played at a dance with in East L.A. Jerry wanted to know if I was interested in writing songs with him, and I said, “No” (laughs). He said, “Why not?” I said, “Well, I don’t like the songs I hear on the radio.” He said, “Well, what do you like?” I said, “I like Bartok, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.” And he said, “Well…nevertheless (laughs).” That word changed my life. And I said, “Well, if you want to come over, come over.”
So Jerry came to my house, and he had a notebook. I asked, “Are those your lyrics? Let me see ‘em.” I was being kind of aggressive (laughs). Then I looked and I saw a line of lyric, a line of ditto marks, and a rhyming line. I said, “Oh, these are 12 bar blues. I love the blues.” So I sat down and started playing, and he started singing along. Then we shook hands and said, “We’ll be partners.” And we were partners for over 60 years.
Here’s a video from the movie Jailhouse Rock, with Elvis Presley
performing “Jailhouse Rock,” written by Leiber & Stoller.
DK: I read that Jerry wrote the lyrics and you wrote the music. Is that correct?
Stoller: That was pretty much it, although at the beginning we wrote lyrics and music back and forth. I gave him a line here or there, and he would say “This note should go up, not down,” and so forth. But after a while, it became all his lyrics and all my music.
DK: Did you play a lot of different instruments—piano, guitar, bass and drums?
Stoller: No. I used the piano but I never considered myself a great player. But Jerry insisted that I play piano on a lot of our early recordings. And I wrote the little charts…guitars, sax, drums, etc. Jerry liked the way I played, and it worked pretty well.
DK: You must be an advanced musician, to write the charts for all the different instruments.
Stoller: I don’t know if I was that advanced, but I knew how to do that. The only other instrument I played competently was the tuba, which I played in high school in New York, before I moved to Los Angeles.
DK: Where did you live when you met Jerry?
Stoller: In Los Angeles. I lived east of Alvarado St. near Belmont High School, which is where I graduated from in January 1950.
DK: I read by the time you were 20, you and Jerry were already getting cuts with Ray Charles, Jimmy Witherspoon and other artists. How did you get those early placements?
Stoller: There was a fellow in town, (music exec) Lester Sill, who met Jerry at a record store. He took a liking to him and liked his songs. I think it was Lester who told Jerry, “You’ve gotta find somebody who can write notes on paper.” And that was one of the questions he asked me on the telephone. At the time, Lester was sales manager for Modern Records, which was heavy into rhythm & blues. So Lester introduced us to a few people in that field. We met Jimmy Witherspoon and hit it off pretty well. We were friends for a number of years, and we met Ralph Bass, who was the head of Federal Records in L.A. Ralph introduced us to (bandleader) Johnny Otis, who needed songs for his various singers in his touring band. And that’s how we got to meet Big Mama Thornton.
Here’s a video of Elvis Presley performing his hit “Hound Dog,”
which was written by Leiber & Stoller.
DK: You recorded “Hound Dog” with Big Mama Thornton, which was years before Elvis Presley cut it.
Stoller: Well, Big Mama recorded it in August of 1952, and it came out in ’53. And Elvis released it in July 1956. So there was a four-year span between Big Mama’s record which I loved, and Elvis’ record.
DK: Jerry was known for creating unique song titles like “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak” and “Poison Ivy.” So did Jerry have the title “Hound Dog” before you met Big Mama Thornton?
Stoller: No, we wrote that song in about 15 minutes after meeting Big Mama. We met at Johnny Otis’ house—he had this band rehearsal going on where his garage was. And Big Mama knocked us out. Then we went back to my house, and within about 15 minutes we wrote the song. But originally, Jerry didn’t have the words Hound Dog in it. He had something less printable (laughs) or playable on the radio. I said, “Jerry, they’re not gonna play it (on the radio).” And then he said “Hound Dog,” and I said, “Yeah!” Jerry said, “Do you think that’s good enough?” I said, “I think it’s perfect.” And it stayed.
DK: You had a lot of success with Elvis Presley, and one of your biggest hits was “Jailhouse Rock.” Can you tell the story behind writing “Jailhouse Rock”?
Stoller: After Elvis had a hit with “Hound Dog,” the music publishers who controlled Elvis Presley’s music (Jean Aberbach & Julian Aberbach, who owned Hill & Range Music) contacted us. They asked if we had any other songs that might be good for Elvis. Jerry thought of this song “Love Me” which we had originally written and recorded on our own label, Spark Records. Elvis apparently loved the song and recorded it, and it was quite a big hit. Then the publishers asked us to write a song for a film (starring Elvis), and we wrote a song called “Loving You.”
Then Jerry and I were on a trip to New York, around early 1957. We were having a ball in New York. We’d come from L.A. and we had a hotel suite with two bedrooms and a living room, and we rented a piano. Jean Aberbach (of Hill & Range) asked us to write songs for a new film (starring Elvis) that was called Ghost of a Chance, and he gave us a script. But at the time, we were having so much fun, we just threw it in the corner with some of the local magazines. We were also meeting with Atlantic Records, who we started to produce records for. And we were going to nightclubs, theaters…having a wonderful time.
Here’s the audio of Ben E. King’s hit “Stand By Me,” which was
co-written by Leiber & Stoller.
One day Jean said, “Boys, where are my songs?” And Jerry said, “Oh don’t worry, Jean. We’ll have them.” Then Jean came into our hotel room while we were having breakfast and he said, “I know I’m going to have the songs, because I’m not leaving until I get them.” Then he pushed a big overstuffed chair in front of the door which was our only way out, and we wrote four songs that afternoon. One of them was “Jailhouse Rock” .
DK: Did you know that this would be an Elvis movie about him being in prison?
Stoller: We had the script but we hadn’t looked at it. So we opened it while Jean was there (laughs). We glanced at it, and there was a scene in prison, so we wrote “Jailhouse Rock.” And then we wrote “Treat Me Nice” and “You’re So Square Baby I Don’t Care.” And I’ve always said that the fourth song had a double meaning for us, which was “I Want To Be Free,” because we wanted to get out of the hotel room (laughs). Anyway, we wrote those four songs in about five hours, and we got out. Then they changed the title of the film from Ghost of a Chance to Jailhouse Rock.
At some playbacks, one of the people involved with the film production approached Jerry and said, “Hey, you could be in the film. You could be the piano player.” Jerry said, “Well I don’t play the piano.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter.” Then the day that Jerry was supposed to show up for a costume fitting, he had a horrible toothache, so he said to me, “You go.” I said, “They asked for you.” But Jerry said, “They won’t know the difference.” Anyway, in the film I am the piano player.
DK: You and Jerry were also known for writing & producing songs for The Coasters. Can you talk about your work with them?
Stoller: Well, there had been a group called The Robins. They performed on one of our early songs, “That’s What The Good Book Says” on Modern Records. Then when we started our label Spark Records, we got ahold of The Robins. They were happy to join us, and we started to make records with them. One of the songs was “Smokey Joe’s Café.”
Here’s the audio of The Coasters’ hit “Yakety Yak,” which was
written by Leiber & Stoller.
We really liked working with them, but a couple of the guys, when we got this offer to produce records for Atlantic Records, we asked them to come with us. But their manager was starting his own label, so two of the guys came with us and then we found two more guys and we renamed them The Coasters, because we were out there on the (west) coast. And they were the most fun we ever had working with a performing group. We had a wonderful time with them, and we used to rehearse them for weeks before we’d go into the studio. I’d write out the little charts and I’d play piano with them, and the first two records that we made out here in Los Angeles—“Searchin’” and “Young Blood”—became a two-sided hit and sold over a million copies. And I used a sax player named Gil Bernal, who was a great blues and jazz player.
When we moved to New York in late 1957, we started recording The Coasters there. Then one day in New York, we heard (legendary sax player) King Curtis playing as we were packing up from some other session, and we said, “Wow, that’s the guy we want.” From then on we had King Curtis on almost every record we made with The Coasters.
DK: How did you and Jerry usually write? What came first, the music or the lyrics?
Stoller: It varied…it was kind of spontaneous combustion. I’d be jamming at the piano, Jerry would be walking around the room, and he would shout out anything that came to his head, like a phrase. Then if something stuck and sounded good with what I was doing, we’d work on it. For example, that’s the way “Kansas City” was written. There was something I was playing, and Jerry started shouting and a song came together. “Kansas City” and “Hound Dog” were two of the first. We wrote those when we were 19.
DK: Besides The Coasters, you also had great success with The Drifters, and then with Ben E. King (who was in The Drifters). Can you talk about your work with The Drifters and Ben E. King?
Stoller: Due to our producing a number of big successes at Atlantic Records, they suggested we produce one of their star acts, The Drifters, which had Ben E. King at the time. We loved the way Ben. E. King sang. The Drifters were young guys, but Ben had such a mature style of singing. It was wonderful. And (the hit) “There Goes My Baby” was one of the first records that we added strings.
Here’s a video performance of the hit “On Broadway” from
the hit musical Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which was co-written
by Leiber & Stoller.
DK: Yes, “There Goes My Baby” had a beautiful string arrangement.
Stoller: Well, (Atlantic Records execs) Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun were not so pleased when we played it for them (laughs). In fact, Jerry Wexler was so infuriated, that he said it was like “flushing his money down the toilet.” However, eventually they released it as the B side and it became a big hit. After [it became successful], they let us do even more extravagant orchestrations, and we worked with a wonderful orchestrator & arranger named Stanley Applebaum.
Then at one point, Ben E. King left the group and his new manager called us. He asked, “Would you be willing to record Ben as a solo artist?” And we said, “Of course.” We loved the way he sang. And his first session of four songs included “Stand By Me” and “Spanish Harlem,” and two other songs. That was terrific.
DK: How did you and Jerry write “Stand by Me” with Ben E. King?
Stoller: Ben had an idea for a song, and he and Jerry were working on lyrics when I walked into the office. Ben started singing, and I went to the piano and I sussed out all the chords and it started to sound real good. Then I came up with the bass pattern at which point Jerry said, “Oh, now we’ve got a hit.” And the bass proved to be one of the key elements…it’s a lovely song. Then I met with (orchestrator) Stan Applebaum and I said, “Look, the way the song is structured, you could play this [bass pattern] throughout.” So Stan added the strings which matched the bass pattern, and it worked perfectly.
DK: In the early ‘60s, you and Jerry wrote the classic song “On Broadway” with (legendary songwriters) Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. How did the four of you get together to write this song?
Stoller: We knew Barry & Cynthia, because they used to come to our office, just like Carole King and her husband Gerry Goffin did, to try to sell songs to us. They played their songs and hoped we could record them with The Drifters. Then one day, (their music publisher) Don Kirshner called and asked if we would co-write a song with Barry & Cynthia. He said they wrote this song and Phil Spector made a recording of it, but it didn’t happen. And Don said, “I think it could be better. I think it’s a good title. Would you rewrite it and maybe produce it?” We said, “Yes, with Barry & Cynthia’s permission, we’d be happy to write it with them,” which is what happened. We sat around at Jerry’s apartment in New York, and rewrote the song with Barry & Cynthia. It came out rather well, and then Jerry and I produced the record on The Drifters.
Here’s the audio of the Beatles’ recording of the hit “Kansas
City,” which was written by Leiber & Stoller.
DK: Then a decade later, George Benson recorded “On Broadway” and had a big hit with it.
Stoller: I was about to say that—that was a gift. I mean, it was an incredible gift [the way George Benson recorded it]. It was wonderful.
DK: You and Jerry wrote so many great songs. Do you have two or three favorite songs that mean the most to you?
Stoller: Yes, I will name a couple songs that you know. One was Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” which to me is still a special and fabulous recording. And I love “Is That All There Is” by Peggy Lee, with a brilliant arrangement and orchestration by Randy Newman. And my other favorite is the one I’m working on now (laughs).
DK: What song are you working on now?
Stoller: I am working on a new album and a new Broadway show. But I can’t tell you anymore about that because when it’s ready, the producers will obviously want to make an announcement.
DK: Will either the new album or Broadway show include new songs?
Stoller: The album will consist of a number of songs that I wrote with Jerry. A couple of songs were recorded before, but most of them were not. And there may be a song that I wrote with Alan & Marilyn Bergman, and a song that I wrote words & music as well. The show will all be brand new. I’m writing it with a person who’s writing the book and the lyrics. So it will all come out when it’s ready to go.