Hollywood. Sunset Boulevard. A suite of offices appointed with large, brightly colored folk-art paintings of blues heroes Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon. It’s the headquarters of the legendary songwriting duo Leiber & Stoller, the team who created many of the first and most famous blueprints for rock and roll-songs such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Kansas City”-by building a bridge from the past (the blues) to the future (rock and roll).
This article was originally published in American Songwriter in 2007.
Hollywood. Sunset Boulevard. A suite of offices appointed with large, brightly colored folk-art paintings of blues heroes Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon. It’s the headquarters of the legendary songwriting duo Leiber & Stoller, the team who created many of the first and most famous blueprints for rock and roll songs such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Kansas City” — by building a bridge from the past (the blues) to the future (rock and roll).
Talking today, in 2006, to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller is an unparalleled experience for many reasons, not the least of which is that there are so many unlikely components to their story. Like any meeting with legendary songwriters, there is the surreal recognition that their songs are infinite and unbound, yet the songwriters are quite finite and human even, sitting here in the same room-bound by time. Two Jewish boys from L.A. who got famous for writing in a black genre, they are now American icons who are integral facets in the history of rock and roll. Yet with a few exceptions, they’ve remained silent about the 56 years of their celebrated collaboration and have never really participated in their history as it’s been written.
Their feelings about their now-mythic songs are bittersweet-often more bitter than sweet. And almost every one of the published stories which purport to get their history right, are wrong, including those surrounding the writing and recording of their most famous songs, like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” (both recorded by Elvis), “Kansas City” (recorded by The Beatles among many others) and “Stand By Me” (recorded by Ben E. King originally and later John Lennon). The Beatles also cut two other Leiber & Stoller’s songs on their first demo, “Searchin'” and “Three Cool Cats.”
It is true though, that-as the story goes-Stoller didn’t like the idea of writing songs with Leiber when they met in 1950. It’s not true however-as has been reported-that he said he didn’t like songs. What he said he didn’t like were popular songs; he preferred jazz. But when he realized that the young Jerome Leiber had written not lyrics for pop songs but blues, a bridge was built between them that still stands to this day. It’s a bridge built on the blues.
Because their most famous songs came fast and easy to them, “hot off the griddle,” as Leiber puts it, they don’t tend to value them to the extent that they value songs like “Is That All There Is?” an existential theatrical ballad made famous by Peggy Lee. To this day, Leiber, the lyricist, and Stoller, the melodist, yearn to be known as more than writers of simple rock and roll. When I lingered on the writing of “Jailhouse Rock,” for example, Leiber looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Why are you spending so much time on ‘Jailhouse Rock’? Is it that important?” Well, yes. It is. Though they’ve written some of the most lasting popular songs ever, they didn’t think any of them would last. As soon as they were off the charts, they felt they would vanish.
Leiber & Stoller have long felt their famous rock and roll songs were kids’ stuff, and they wanted to write songs for adults-deeper, more musically and lyrically complex songs of which there exists an abundance in their mythical “vault.” But except for “Is That All These Is?” it’s their simple, easy songs that have connected them timelessly to popular culture. Out of the universe of albums that have been recorded containing their songs, the one that they speak of with the greatest pride is Peggy Lee Sings Leiber & Stoller, a collection of their “adult songs” sung by the legendary vocalist.
And while you might assume any songwriter would be forever proud to have had a song recorded by Elvis or The Beatles, they never liked The King’s rendition of “Hound Dog,” nor did they like The Beatles’ recording of “Kansas City” (for reasons explained in the following). They only wrote “Jailhouse Rock” because the movie’s producer refused to let them out of their hotel room until they came up with some songs. “Hound Dog” was written on the fly, and not for Elvis but for Big Mama Thornton. From the second Jerry uttered its title he didn’t think it was sufficiently explicit, and still doesn’t feel it is as biting as he wanted-nor does he see much value in other legendary titles he’s created, such as “Jailhouse Rock” or “Spanish Harlem.” Elvis’s rendition of “Hound Dog”-perhaps the most famous recording ever of one of their songs-doesn’t even use the right lyrics. Instead it copies improbable lyrics written for the song by Freddie Bell, who introduced the whole notion of a rabbit to the song, a notion that Leiber & Stoller regard as nonsense.
They were the first independent record producers to be officially designated as producers-“producer” being a title they invented themselves (they wanted “director”). But they started producing records only in self-defense, to ensure that their songs wouldn’t be wrecked when translated to records. “We don’t write songs,” Leiber famously has said. “We write records.”
Even with their most famous non-rock creation, “Is That All There Is?” they are forever dismayed by Peggy Lee’s insistence on changing one word, an alteration-in their opinion-which dilutes the entire point of the song.
To this day, they often finish each other’s sentences though their memories frequently clash. “Our relationship is the longest running single argument in the entertainment business,” Jerry says, only half-joking.
But the connection that led them to write words and music like one person over the decades, even when they wrote them apart (they separately wrote the words and music to the refrain of “Is That All There Is?” yet then discovered that both parts fit perfectly), remains powerful, and as often as they argue, they laugh. And it’s clear that there are few people they’d rather spend time with than each other.