Leiber & Stoller: Rock and Roll Pioneers
“Leiber & Stoller” are the names you’ll find in the composer-credits under the titles of many – if not most – of the classic rock & roll hits of yesterday. You’ll find their names under Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” Loving You,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” You’ll find them on the Coasters’ “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Along Came Jones,” and “Poison Ivy.” You find them also on Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and “Spanish Harlem,” on the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City,” The Cheers’ “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” and Peggy Lee’s “I’m A Woman.” And they also wrote “Ruby Baby,” “Fools Fall In Love,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” and “Riot in Cell Block #9.” And that barely scratches the surface of their prolific output.
Leiber & Stoller happened at just the right time – the beginning of the 1950s – to have a major hand in the creation of rock & roll. As Greg Shaw put it in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, “They were the true architects of pop/rock. Their signal achievement was the marriage of rhythm & blues in its most primal form to the pop tradition.”
Jerry Leiber was born in Baltimore in 1933. Mike Stoller was born a few weeks later in Belle Harbor, New York. The families of each moved to the West Coast after the war and the two boys met in 1950 in Los Angeles. They were two Jewish boys who shared an affinity for black music and the blues. “We were absolutely enamored of the blues,” Stoller says. “We wanted to try and be as authentic in our writing as possible. But with the exception of a very few black writers, most of the people who wrote blues were the singers themselves. They just didn’t expect people to sit down and work at writing this kind of music. When we walked into a few record companies, at first they were very amused by us.”
Leiber wrote the words and Stoller the music. When he was seven, Mike heard boogie-woogie piano and tried to copy it. This led to lessons from the legendary Harlem stride pianist, James P. Johnson. “Had I been a whole lot older, I could have possibly learned a whole lot more from him that just boogie-woogie,” Stoller says, “but that’s all I wanted to know.”
Soon the team had their songs recorded by Amos Milburn, Floyd “Skeet” Dixon and Jimmy Witherspoon, all blues singers. They scored their first national success with “Hard Times,” which was recorded by Charles Brown. They joined up with Johnny Otis, a Los Angeles R&B artist who was also a songwriter and a promoter. Through him they met Big Mama Thornton, for whom they wrote the now-legendary “Hound Dog.” Her recording topped the R&B charts for seven weeks in 1953.
With promoter Lester Sill they formed the Spark label, where they turned out a number of hits for the Robins, including “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Riot in Cell Block #9.” The result of this was the purchase of their label by Atlantic Records (then an independent company with an excellent reputation for jazz albums and R&B singles), and the transformation of the Robins into the Coasters (from “West Coasters”) – for whom Leiber & Stoller continued to turn out hit after hit. In 1955 Atlantic signed Leiber & Stoller as the first independent producers – a deal which would change the way records were made.
Elvis Presley recorded his version of “Hound Dog” in 1956, and this single – backed by “Don’t Be Cruel” – took Presley to the top of the charts for 11 weeks in 1956, making him a star and setting a record for the amount of time any record has been #1 which still stands. By now the songwriting team were in New York City, operating out of the famous Brill Building, with their own recording studio adjacent to their offices.
“The guys that were the most fun were the Coasters,” according to Leiber. “We used to just laugh ourselves silly.” But, he adds, “I think the easiest one to work with was Presley. He was a workhorse. He had no problem doing 35 takes if you wanted to. Normally you didn’t have to, because he would get it right away. But he could sing all night and all day, and he loved it.” They wrote extensively for Presley.
In 1964 they left Atlantic and started up the Red Bird label. This was the label which gave us the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” (written by Greenwich & Barry), and the Shangri-Las. Of Red Bird’s first 30 singles, 11 made the Top Forty – an unusually high percentage for any record label. In 1966 Leiber & Stoller sold their interest in Red Bird to their partner, George Goldner. Soon thereafter the label folded. It had been primarily a “girl-groups” label and with the ascendancy of the Beatles, girl groups lost the limelight.
Indeed, by the mid-1960s a revolution had occurred. Rock had lost its “roll,” and groups, following the lead of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, were writing their own music. Soon, following the lead of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, they would be producing themselves as well. The era of rock & roll songwriters was waning.
And Leiber & Stoller had grown up. After 15 years of writing rock & roll hits they were ready to try something else. They turned to Broadway. But the show they put together did not make it to opening night, and one song they’d written for it was recorded by Peggy Lee in 1969. That was her biggest late-career hit, “Is That All There Is?”
Since then Leiber & Stoller have won a number of awards, and were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1985, the Record Producer’s Hall of Fame in 1986, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1988 Presley’s recording of “Hound Dog” was placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in 1991 Leiber & Stoller were presented the Founders Award of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers – better known as ASCAP. In the 1990s a Broadway musical based on their hit songs, Smokey Joe’s Café, was a huge success and has since toured the country. The songs can make anyone who grew up in the 1950s feel nostalgic, but they still have their old magic and appeal, even today.