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A&E profiles Lieber-Stoller, who wrote songs for early blues, rock 'n' roll stars

Monday, August 27, 2001

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Mike Stoller remembers the day he got a call from Jerry Leiber, long before the two had written "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock" or "Charlie Brown."

"He wanted to know if I would be interested in collaborating on songs with him. And I said 'No,' because I was sure he'd be writing some kind of corny 'Take me in your arms and thrill to all your charms' kind of stuff. And he said 'Well, why not?' And I said, 'I don't like songs.' He said 'Well, what do you like?' And I said 'Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stravinsky and Bartok.' He said, 'Well... nevertheless, I think it would be worthwhile for us to meet and discuss this.' So I said 'Hey, if you want to come over, come over.' "

A&E Pop Week starts tonight at 8 with another documentary featuring Leiber & Stoller, "Hitmakers: the Teens Who Stole Pop Music" and continues every night at 8 through Friday. The Leiber & Stoller special is Thursday.

Leiber came over and showed his future partner a book of lyrics.

"He had one of those speckled composition books," says Stoller. "I opened it up and saw a line of lyrics and a line of ditto marks, and then a rhyming line, and I said, 'Oh, these are 12-bar blues. I didn't know you meant the blues. I love the blues.'

And so, I went to the piano, started playing, he started singing and we decided we'd be partners."

Raised in New York City with the radio tuned to the classical station, Stoller took piano lessons from an aunt at 5, but quit after only three, he says, because she "hit my hands when my fingers weren't curved properly."

He discovered his love of the blues at summer camp when he stumbled across a kid playing boogie woogie on piano.

Mesmerized, he had his parents bringing boogie woogie records home so he could study the parts. "And frequently," he says, "the other side would have a vocal on it. That's how I became familiar with blues poetry. And so, of course, I recognized the style, and subject matter even, instantly in Jerry's writing in his composition book."

The legendary duo, profiled this Thursday on an A&E Biography, broke into the business placing songs with independent-label blues and R&B acts. "The first time we saw our names on a record, we were just over the moon," he says. "Even though both names were misspelled."

They hit the charts in 1951 when Charles Brown recorded "Hard Times." Little Willie Littlefield recorded "Kansas City." A young Ray Charles did one of their songs. And then, one day, they got a call from Johnny Otis inviting them to meet a singer named Big Mama Thornton.

"She just knocked us out," says Stoller. "She was a very formidable person. Very large. She had some razor scars on her face and had a very salty, nasty disposition. Of course, underneath that, she was like a marshmallow. But it was her whole demeanor that sparked this kind of angry thing in the lyrics of 'Hound Dog,' which, of course, was written as a woman's song."

And that's how Thornton sang it in the classic '53 original.

Three years later, Stoller learned that someone else had hit the charts with "Hound Dog." A singer named Elvis.

"It was a little disappointing," says Stoller, "except for the fact that it was a hit. It sounded nervous and it didn't have a bluesy feel to it. It didn't have any insinuating rhythm. It was just kind of chunk-a-chunk. But as we've said on numerous occasions, after it sold 7 [million] or 8 million records, we began to think it was better than we thought at first."

In addition to writing major hits for Elvis, the Coasters and more, the two began producing other writers' compositions for such legendary artists as the Drifters.

Thornton's "Hound Dog," Stoller says, was actually their first production. But the name producer wasn't being used at that point.

"That name was applied to us first, I believe, by Atlantic Records," he says, "when we asked them for credit years later. And their initial response -- because most of the records we made, we also wrote the song -- was 'How many times do you want your names on the record?' But then, when we started producing songs we hadn't written, they kind of got the point and started giving us this credit, which they called producer."

Even Phil Spector himself would have to call the strings and timpani they brought to the street-corner soul of the Drifters' hit "There Goes My Baby" producing.

As Stoller recalls, "The reaction at Atlantic was 'What the hell kind of crap is this?' I remember Ahmet Ertegun, being the diplomat that he is, saying, 'Listen fellas, you can't hit a home run every time you get up to bat. You guys make wonderful records, but this is just, you know, I mean...' But we convinced them to put it out and it became a smash. And encouraged by that, we went on to expand the use of orchestral colors."

As their reputation as producers grew, they established a stable of regular writers -- Carole King and Gerry Goffin; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman; Bacharach and David.

"We wrote some," he says. "And we collaborated on some. But the idea was to get the best material possible for the records that we were producing, although in the case of the Coasters, we wrote almost everything."

The Coasters, a group that he and Leiber molded from the remnants of the doo-wop group the Robins, hold a special place in Stoller's heart. And not just because of the records. "We'd be rolling on the floor," he says, "laughing while we were rehearsing. And I think it came through in the work."

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