Interview With Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller 



Introduction

As if any introduction is necessary for this legendary song writing team, Jerry 
Leiber and Mike Stoller met at the age of 17 while working in Los Angeles. Mike 
was a Jazz enthusiast while Jerry was into the Blues. It was these styles that 
dominated their early years of writing, predominantly in the early years for 
black artists. 

After Elvis recorded their now legendary song Hound Dog, they wrote on occasion 
specifically for Elvis, one such song being the timeless "Jailhouse Rock". Elvis 
would record twenty-four of their songs altogether. Elvis was only a small part 
of their career, but to listen to them talk he was clearly an important part to 
them. 

Their output of songs which they either wrote or produced run to many hundreds, 
including "Yakkety Yak", "Under The Boardwalk", "Charlie Brown", "Love Me", 
"Kansas City", "Bossa Nova Baby", "Stand By Me" and many more.

In the early days they were prolific writers, writing songs now regarded as 
classics in relatively short periods of time. These include the songs "Hound 
Dog" in only eight minutes, four songs for the film Jailhouse Rock (including 
the title track) in less than four hours and "Yakkety Yak" while Jerry was 
boiling a kettle to make tea. They moved in to producing records, then forming 
their own record companies.

We have all enjoyed their music over the years. So now sit back and read what 
they recently said about some of the defining moments in popular music of the 
last fifty years, a time in which they have played a very important part. 
The Press Conference

We had been invited to attend a Press Conference with Jerry Leiber and Mike 
Stoller, (for which we are indebted to Ken Lower of Hermana). On the day both 
Harry Carrigan (representing our club) and Gerry McLafferty (representing The 
Elvis Presley Film Society) were in attendance. The press conference was held at 
the Atheanæn Hotel in London on the Wednesday 27th June 2001 at two o'clock. It 
started with the announcement of the forthcoming charity tribute show to Leiber 
and Stoller, which was to take place at the London Apollo, Hammersmith on Friday 
29th June. The show was to include many major performers including, Ben E King, 
Elkie Brooks, Meatloaf and Tom Jones to name a few. The conference was then 
turned over to those present to ask questions and the first question was put 
immediately. The press conference had begun and it was a free-for-all, those 
that were first in with a question got answers, some people present never even 
got to ask one question, unlike ourselves who asked several.

Let us welcome two of the greatest songwriters of the last 50 years, Jerry 
Leiber and Mike Stoller (there was a long round of applause), to which Mike 
Stoller says "I always take great pleasure from welcoming myself". This sets the 
scene for the whole press conference, which is laid back and humorous from the 
start. 

Question 
So many different versions of your songs have been recorded by several different 
artists. Can I ask for a selection of some of your favourite covers to these 
songs? Or, are they all the original versions like for example "Jailhouse Rock", 
the version by Elvis Presley. 

Mike Stoller 
That's the best, as for "Kansas City", our favourite version is Joe Williams 
with Count Basie.

Question 
How about things like "Cell Block No 9" the old Coasters stuff. They've been 
covered all over the place. Haven't they?

Mike 
Well not really, The Coasters stuff, "Kansas City" maybe has 1000 or so covers, 
but most of The Coasters stuff has five or six or eight successful covers that I 
know of. The best version is by Ray Stevens; I like The Drifters, original 
records by George Benson very much. 

Question 
Did you write any songs for Elvis that you thought maybe we should have got 
somebody else to perform them?

Jerry Leiber 
Not at all. In fact with Elvis after we sort of parted company after half a 
dozen years. He did songs of ours by The Coasters, it was unlikely but he did 
them.

Mike 
And, The Clovers songs like "Bossa Nova Baby", and songs by The Drifters, and 
"Little Egypt".

Question 
I'm curious to know about the relationship between the songwriters and the 
artists. Do they just come to you to see what you've got or did you send, like a 
reel-to-reel around. How did they know exactly what to do?

Mike 
Well, with The Coasters, we formed that group and chose the singers for their 
voices. In the beginning it was mostly people we recorded. In the very beginning 
we were called by record companies who were having a recording session coming 
up, or artists would call and said I think you should come over we're having an 
rehearsal at my house, I want you to hear this. Then it was mostly we would get 
a call from a record company, bandleader or we were producing it ourselves and 
we knew what we wanted to do.

Question 
Is that how Johnny Otis originally got a credit on "Hound Dog" because he was a 
bandleader?

Jerry 
Well he kind of put his name on it and we after a short time had it removed.

Mike 
It was not unusual in the early days even before, for the leader of a big band 
including Duke Ellington to find their name, the name of the bandleader, 
alongside a member of the profession, usually an instrumental. And it was done, 
but we didn't like it when it was done to us. So we took it off.

Question 
As simple as that? You took it off.

Jerry 
It took about eight or nine years.

Question 
How difficult was it for a couple of white teenagers to be taken seriously by 
these great black artists that you wanted to sing your songs?

Jerry 
We weren't white then.

Mike 
We didn't think of ourselves as white. In fact we thought of ourselves as being 
black, and we used to argue between the two of us who was the blackest.

Question 
Who won?

Jerry 
No-one, we won.

Question 
Who did Willie Mae Thornton think was the blackest?

Mike 
She was sceptical.

Jerry 
That was an eye-opener Willie Mae, the day we brought her in "Hound Dog" on a 
piece of paper, we actually seen her audition at the garage with Johnny's Band, 
with "Five Types Of Joy" and "Chain and Ball", and it knocked us out, we had to 
write for her. That's the reason we headed for Mike's house and we wrote 90% of 
"Hound Dog "on the way over, to a little piece we call Buck Dane, I can't do it 
anymore.

Mike 
I would have done the same but I had to hold the steering wheel.

Jerry 
When we got to his house he went straight to the piano. He didn't bother to sit 
down, we pretty much worked eye to eye, and we liked it like that. We took the 
song back to Big Mama and had this little bit of paper, she took the paper out 
of my hand, does this rock, I said I hope so, let's see how it goes. She had the 
paper upside down and she finally righted it, "Hound Dog and she was singing it 
like Frank Sinatra's "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning", and she's about 
280-320 (Mike jumps in - pounds not stones), I said it don't go that way, she 
said, white boy don't you be telling me how to sing the Blues. It was a long 
-----, but we finally got through it. Mike said he had to go, but Johnny brought 
him back into the room and… That was one of the moments when you say to yourself 
how do you reel it back in. But it was…

Mike 
But, may I add that that experience was very good, because most of the people we 
worked with, almost all the people we worked with, artists like that....

Jerry 
We worked exclusively with black artists because of the things we liked the 
music they made.

Mike 
We thought we were black.

Question 
Did you both agree Elvis's version of "Hound Dog" would be a hit?

Jerry 
No, because when it came out they said immediately, in like twenty hours, there 
wasn't any question of predicting it, it was a hit.

Mike 
I didn't hear it right away, Jerry told me about it.

Question 
You where on the boat?

Mike 
Yeah, I was, I had been on the Andrea Doria.

Jerry 
He was sinking on the Andrea Doria while "Hound Dog" was going up.

Question 
That story's right then, you met him at the quayside and said "I'm glad you're 
OK"?

Jerry 
I didn't say that.

Question 
By the way Elvis has recorded "Hound Dog"?

Jerry 
I said, "Hound Dog" is a big hit and he looked at me and said, "You insensitive 
mother you, I almost drowned and you're here telling me about a hit record, and 
what do you have in your hand"? I had a suit, a mohair suit that you could see 
your face in, and he said what's that? I said, it's for you, for me!

Mike 
He thought that I was soaked but alive, but he said we've got a smash hit with 
"Hound Dog", I said the Big Mama record? And he said no some white dude by the 
name Elvis Presley. I said Elvis who? Then I heard the record and I was 
disappointed it was too fast, too white. But you know after a few years and it 
had sold seven or eight million records, it started to sound better.

Question 
Do you feel that Elvis' and Big Mama Thornton's interpretation of the song was 
the way you felt when you were writing that particular track?

Mike 
Big Mama's record was the intention, it was perfect.

Question 
That was the intention. Elvis chose to use Freddie Bell and The Bellboys version 
as his inspiration. Is that in particular why you didn't like it?

Mike 
Well I hadn't heard that record either at that time. I only heard it after I'd 
heard Elvis's, but I must say that the other things that we did with Elvis were 
great. My favourite two are "Love Me" and "Jailhouse Rock".

Question 
Do you always write together?

Jerry 
At the same place at the same time doesn't mean together, but we do write them 
together. It's as simple as that, and they do have words. Sometimes he (pointing 
to Mike) goes home and stays there for months.

Mike 
But if you can't, can't put the words immediately, why stay around? 

Question 
Which songwriters have you admired more recently?

Jerry 
Recently, so not George Gershwin or Cole Porter. The greatest one's Irving 
Berlin, he's number one.

Mike 
Randy Newman, The Beatles, they were the highlight of the 1960s I think. 

Question 
But more recently?

Jerry 
There are some oddball writers out there, but it has to do with history, but if 
the song stays with you for fifteen, twenty, thirty years, it's hard to come up 
with someone who wrote a song last year that's a hit. It doesn't have the 
distance or the time on it.

Mike 
The truth is, we don't listen.

Jerry 
But if you talk about the 1960s favourite records, Pete Seger, no Bob Seger, 
that's right.

Mike 
Everybody's been telling you that.

Jerry 
How come I didn't hear it. You were talking while I was trying to listen.

Mike 
I was talking while you where thinking.

Jerry 
That'll do it too. Bob Seger is a great Blues singer, great bands and performer, 
singer songwriter, arrangements, outlandish. I just thought he was so original, 
all round.

Mike 
Like James Brown.

Jerry 
I was going to say that James Brown was the first guy that put a band together 
like that. You know, and Motown. We like being up to our ears in the Blues.

Question 
Do you have a jaundiced view of singer/songwriters because they obviously put 
you out a bit?

Mike 
No, not really, not if they are good. I have a jaundiced view of bands that 
can't really write but sing. I don't have a jaundiced view, not if it's good.  I 
just think we did that as producers. We didn't write everything we produced, 
whoever the artist was we always went for the best song and we would bring in 
other writers like Doc Pomus and go for the very best songs we could get. 
Sometimes we fixed them up a little and sometimes we asked and they gave them.

Question 
Why did your record labels Red Bird and Spark have such short existences?

Mike 
Spark was one story and Red Bird another. Do you want to tell them about Spark.

Jerry 
What happened with Spark was that we had our biggest hit, which I think sold 
100,000 singles in Los Angeles. And from the rest of the country we were getting 
the samples back for refunds, and because we didn't have enough money to promote 
so. It was heard by a guy who sent it to his brother at a record company, they 
then brokered a deal and bought us out.

Question 
Since you both spent time with Elvis Presley in Hollywood, in particular during 
the production of "Jailhouse Rock" in 1957, and given that you were very 
involved in writing songs for his movies at that time, did you see any evidence 
of Elvis being pressured into performing several songs in each film, when he had 
made a very clear statement that he was primarily interested in acting in 
dramatic productions without any songs at all?

Mike 
I never read that but we had no problem with Elvis, it was great.

Question 
I know that would not benefit yourselves, the statement he made.

Jerry 
We didn't solicit him, we didn't go after him at all. First off, he did not fit 
the bill, he was white. He was not somebody that we would record.

Mike 
Nobody's perfect.

Question 
People thought he was black?

Jerry 
We didn't, I didn't.

Question 
That's what they say.

Jerry 
After he recorded "Hound Dog" and it became such a monumental blockbuster. His 
publishers called us in and offered us to write songs for specific Elvis 
pictures and recording session, and we went, and we took the deal, and we wrote 
for about six years or so.

Mike 
No it was nearer three years. '56 was when he did "Hound Dog" and from '57-60 
that was pretty much it. After that we had a fall-out. We also got bored with 
his movies.

Question 
Did you regret the fall-out? Did you regret that breach, that period you sort of 
lost him?

Jerry 
No, no. it's interesting when you get an artist like Elvis. It's a licence to 
print money. You could write anything on a piece of paper and he could sing it 
well. He could sing the telephone book. But, we wanted to keep our interest. The 
fall-out, I'll tell you if you're interested. I got walking pneumonia in '60. I 
was walking along the street, I didn't even know I was sick, and I collapsed. 
This Good Samaritan cab driver drove me round different hospitals and he 
couldn't check me in, finally he got me into a hospital and I was there for 
about nine days or so. When I got home I found all these telegrams, about twenty 
or so stuffed in my mailbox. I opened some and they all said basically the same 
thing, they wanted us to go to Los Angeles immediately as Elvis was going into 
the studio and he wanted us there. Anyway, my doctor said I wasn't to travel so 
I got on the phone and spoke to Colonel Parker. I explained that I was ill, I 
wasn't to travel and he said this is important business, that's spelt 
B.I.D.N.E.Z. and to tell Mike to get there to. Well you don't tell Mike anything 
you ask Mike. I told him I couldn't travel but he said, well I'm just gonna send 
you the contracts anyway. 

About two or three days later a manila envelope arrived with a cover note and 
two signatory pages, this was a blank page with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 
type at the bottom left hand side, and to the right a line where we had to sign, 
and nothing else. So I called up his secretary, I said there must be a mistake 
here, she said, oh no. I said there must be a mistake as I've got two cover 
letters and I've got two signatory pages, they've left the middle pages out, so 
she went to get the Colonel. That's always amused me he's no more a Colonel than 
I'm a ballet dancer. So he said, what's wrong son? I said, there's nothing 
really I got the contracts. He said, what's wrong with them? I said, I got two 
cover pages and I got two signature pages, which are blank. So he says, what's 
wrong with that? I said there's nothing wrong with that either, but there's a 
page missing. Which one is that? I said that's the contract. He said, don't 
worry about that just sign it and we'll fill it in later. That was it.

Question 
Did you notice any difference between New York and Los Angeles, musical 
differences in genre and style?

Unfortunately the tape ran out at this point and part of the answer was lost. We 
hope this does not spoil your enjoyment.

Mike 
--------- we moved a piano, a filing cabinet and that was that. We didn't move 
into the Brill building until, like three years after we got to New York. Sort 
of worked out of our briefcases at Atlantic records. It was very much more a 
graphically close set up in New York. With Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Jazz within 
a few blocks from 57th down to 42nd. 

Jerry 
There where hangouts where everybody hung out. It was a different kind of 
community then. Today it's the opposite. The record business is going that way; 
it used to be very convivial and very social. You would meet someone in a bar, 
go ahead try it out and all that. Then there where small family businesses where 
as today you have major corporations, international corporations, where as right 
now they may own a hundred catalogues or more. 

Mike 
Also then the records reflected the tastes of the owners. Some maybe make 
records whose tastes are Mississippi Blues and other record companies may make 
Rock 'n' Roll or Rhythm and Blues or whatever. They had different styles and 
frequently a label would have in his directive a certain kind of music. Then 
they were all bought up.

Question 
Tell us the Red Bird story?

Mike 
We just got bored after awhile.

Question 
As songwriters who obviously rely on royalties to make a living. When you see 
what's happening with people using Napster. How do you feel? Do you think this 
will put an end to professional songwriting?

Mike 
I hope not, we're suing. Jerry and I are the nominal plaintiffs against this 
particular case.

Jerry 
You'd better talk to him about it because he knows all about it.

Mike 
We were at a congressional hearing and I was a witness, I sat between two guys, 
one was representing MP3 the other was representing Universal and they where 
talking about how each one was affecting the other and so on and so forth. All 
record companies like to tell the music publishers that more records are sold 
than they do the source, the songwriters. Anyway, this happened on the Thursday 
and I went to Loa Angeles on the Monday, and it was announced that Universal had 
bought MP3. So I'm wondering if that happened over the weekend. I doubt it.

Question 
Of all the songs that you've produced. What are your particular favourites? Yes 
of the songs that you've produced.

Jerry 
All of them

Mike 
"Hound Dog" the Willie Mae Thornton record, "Is That All There Is" by Peggy Lee, 
"Stand By Me". Of the ones we didn't write, "Save The Last Dance For Me".

Question 
In hindsight, are there any you don't like?

Mike 
That we've produced? If I remembered any, I wouldn't tell you.

Question 
I heard that you like Hip-Hop?

Mike 
I was impressed by the first Hip-Hop or first Rap record that I ever heard, 
which was "The Message" by GrandMaster Flash. It was original, raw and 
political. A lot of it now is just bland with a lack of tune to it.

Question 
Do you think there are any comparisons between Elvis and the way he took over 
everything he was doing, you where there, and what Elvis was doing right through 
to what Eminem is doing today and all these other white artists? 

Mike 
Yes there is a similarity in a sense, as Elvis sold to a predominately white 
audience. 

Jerry 
They're all good. Although I'm not that interested in that movement, but pop 
singing, as I see it today is not as exciting as it was back then. I don't see 
anything out there now that does it, not like, say Elvis was back then.

Mike 
No, but when it's original, political, but once the opportunistic record 
companies take advantage of the fact, well that's that.

Interview abruptly stopped by manager. 
After Press Conference Discussions

After the press conference both Leiber and Stoller stayed around for awhile for 
some additional discussions and gave us the opportunity to have some pictures 
taken. Of the comments we have selected including some exclusive comments, the 
comments either cover subjects not covered in the press conference or comments 
that elaborate on what had been said earlier. 

Talking about the Internet and copyright infringement

Mike The Internet is going to be a problem for all writers, book writers, 
scriptwriters, journalism and songwriters. But, it really all has to do with 
copyright. But if we lose the importance of copyright then I think we'll have 
much less writing and the defining of culture.

Talking about the fact that they are white not black. Like their music.

Jerry 
Well we are.

Mike 
That's their problem. No we're not surprised. We are white guys. Well we thought 
of ourselves as black, very much so.

Additional discussions about the song Hound Dog

Mike 
It's not that it wasn't to my liking, it's just that when I first heard it I was 
disappointed, I was comparing it to the original record by Big Mama Thornton. 
You must remember Elvis knew the Big Mama record, but it was with a woman's 
lyrics.

Jerry 
I don't know if I would call it sabotage but the lyrics were changed by Freddie 
Bell and the Bluebells. They where rehearsing for a show in Las Vegas and Elvis 
was walking through the lounge and he heard the song. Elvis had this talent of 
remembering every tune, and he heard them sing the song and he went out and did 
it. He went ahead and made a record of it. They changed my lyrics.

Talking about their passion for writing

Jerry 
I don't know where the passion came from. I had a lot of access, interaction and 
contact with the black community, but I'm not sure.

Talking about their previous quote, "We don't write songs, we write records"

Mike 
It's a statement one of us made and he's lived to regret it, we've both lived to 
regret it. We've tried to get people to stop using that quote.

Jerry
I was looking for a way, I coined the phrase, to tell people that what we did 
was something special. Not like anybody else, and not just to say that we were 
special, but also to through some light on the fact that it was the truth. We 
didn't write songs like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. We wrote songs with the 
recording session in mind. We wrote songs that can't be less than 2 minutes 20 
seconds, or more than 3 minutes 40 seconds. We wrote to the stopwatch. Not that 
we were mechanical, but after awhile we got to the point that it seemed to be 
mechanical. What we wrote were not songs but what we conceived were records. 
With the Coasters songs we wrote out the little saxophone phases between lyrics. 
So we had the concept of the whole thing.

Talking about Ben E. King and the song Stand By Me

Mike 
Yes, when Ben E. King was young he had a very mature styling of any of the 
singers at that time. He had this very comfortable, very mature style.

On finding out we were from Scotland

Mike 
How's Gerry Rafferty, he's from Scotland. We produced his first album "Stealers 
Wheel" and the second one "Ferguslie Park". It was done at Apple; the building 
was totally empty. Nothing but a shell, that was in '72 and '73.

End of Interview 
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