Friends and Colleagues Pay Tribute To Songwriting Great Jerry Leiber

Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley and Jerry Leiber at MGM Studios in Culver City, California. 1957.
Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley and Jerry Leiber at MGM Studios in Culver City, California. 1957.

June 17, 2016
Alex Theatre, Glendale, California

It was a tribute to the late Jerry Leiber, who passed away in 2011, and a love letter to songwriting. Presented and performed by those who knew and love him, including his musical partner Mike Stoller, it was a night of much joy – punctuated by the long chain of standards all written by Leiber & Stoller, including “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion # 9,” “Kansas City,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Is That All There Is?” and more. Even included were wonderful Leiber & Stoller gems that had gone, until this night, unheard.

Hosted and beautifully staged by the wonderful Tricia Tahara, and with a remarkable 13-piece band led joyfully by Patrice Rushen, we were taken on a journey through the Leiber & Stoller songbook that was a pure delight, and capped by a wonderful performance by Mike Stoller himself. Always humble, he said, “There are so many great singers and musicians here tonight. I am not either. But I did write the songs.” He then proceeded to play something he said he didn’t love – a medley – and at the big grand piano, within moments, had the whole audience in tears with his poignant performance of countless classics.

Stoller got choked up a little bit recounting his first teenage meeting with Jerome Leiber, as he then called himself. Leiber was writing words – poems and songs – and needed a melody man. Stoller told him, “But I don’t like songs.” What he meant was he didn’t like pop songs. He liked blues. However, unbeknownst to Stoller, Leiber was writing blues. So Jerry interjected, Mike said, with “Nevertheless…” (Much laughter). He insisted they meet. And songwriting history was written. They became architects of rock and roll, two of the most influential songwriters ever in American popular music, as well as accomplished, impactful producers of hit records.

One of the other most poignant parts of the show was when Artie Butler performed, solo, at the piano. Artie told the great story of being a “button-pusher” in a recording studio while Leiber & Stoller were doing a session during which their pianist could not nail down the part. Though his boss shot him a dirty look when he said it, he said, “I could play that part.” They gave him his shot. He played it perfectly, and they hired him as a pianist arranger, launching his career.

In their honor he performed a heartfelt and glorious version of his beautiful song “Here’s To Life,” for Jerry and Mike. Standing ovation.

Tricia started by explaining her connection to the legendary duo. “Leiber had a partner named Stoller,” she said. “Stoller had a son named Peter. Peter married me.” She fluidly wove in and out of the show, soulfully and elegantly performing songs both famous and not, and sharing the stage with a mighty roster of talent that did justice to the astounding range of songs. Leiber & Stoller were songwriters in the truest sense of the word, in that they wrote songs in all styles and genres, from blues – such as “Hound Dog,” which was a blues before it was rock and roll- though early rock and roll – to Country with “Jackson” and sophisticated ballads such as “Is That All There Is?” All were unified by their love of song, with Jerry’s great lyrics wed to Mike’s melodies and grooves.

“Hound Dog,” as students of songwriting know, was originally recorded as a blues howl by the great Mama Thornton. Jerry and Mike were known to be dismayed by Elvis’ version, which they felt robbed it of its righteous anger. That is, as they explained in one of many priceless film clips, until it became a hit. Then they got to like it.

So it was great that in their spirit, they enlisted Jensen McRae to perform the original, to the same swampy yet urban groove and howling blues vocal. Jensen, a small woman wearing glasses, had a voice which belied her delicate frame. Maybe a third the size of Big Mama, she sang it like she had been singing it for decades, with a voice of strident soul. It was tremendous.

All the singers were powerful, wrapped in the joy of these great songs. But T.C. Carson, with his great basso profundo pipes and monumental stage presence, stole the show anytime he was onstage. As Tricia said of him, “He brings me to my knees.” It wasn’t overstatement. The man commands the stage with grace and great power. It brought to mind the great Ben Vereen, who could sing with all the soul of James Brown, yet move with the elegance of Fred Astaire. Carson is cut from that cloth.

Other family members told stories and performed, including Peter Stoller, Mike’s son, as well as Corky Hale, the legendary jazz harpist and pianist who is Mike’s wife. Corky performed a beautiful elegiac tribute to her husband’s lifelong partner.

We even got the privilege of hearing some previously unheard Leiber & Stoller gems, such as “Fallen Stars.” Leiber’s son Jed made a demo of the song in Nashville after Peter Stoller chose it as a song he always felt should be in the world. Sung beautifully by Morgan St. Jean, it is indeed a magical song, easily taking its place among its iconic brethren.

The band was stellar, “some of the greatest musicians in the world,” as Tricia said, including Patrice Rushen and Michael Arrom on keys, Alphonso Johnson on bass, Land Richards (drums), Steve Trovato (guitar), Jonathan Sim (guitar), R.C. Rossell (guitar), Vanessa Brown (percussion), Bill Churchville (trumpet), Scott Mayo (reeds), Jim McMillan (trombone) and Nikki Garcia (violin/fiddle). (Nikki’s joy at being inside the music, whether playing or just taking it in, was palpable and great.) Ryan Lindveit conducted the orchestral style arrangements.

The singers, in addition to Carson and McRae, were Skyler Garn, Jej Millanes, Rosie Tucker, Morgan St. Jean, Caitlin Notey and Tiah Barnes.

Many luminaries were in the audience to share this night, including singer-songwriter Skip Heller and the legendary composer-songwriter Perry Botkin. “Mike [Stoller] was my favorite performer of the evening,” Perry said, “nothing like hearing music from the source.”

Agreed. It doesn’t get better. Thanks to Tricia Tahara for this beautiful voyage into the source of these miracle songs, and this celebration of one of American song’s greatest and most timeless partnerships.

Mike Stoller and Perry Botkin. Photo by Paul Zollo
Mike Stoller and Perry Botkin. Photo by Paul Zollo