A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Los Angeles for the Wall Street Journal to interview Mike Stoller at his home high in the Hollywood Hills. My conversation with rock 'n' roll's first successful songwriter—with hits dating back to 1951—appears in today's paper (or go here). [Photo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller by David Attie for Vogue's "People Are Talking" in July 1959]
On June 14, the Songwriter's Hall of Fame will honor Ben E. King, Mike and his late writing partner Jerry Leiber after naming Stand By Me (1961) the 2012 "Towering Song of the Year." Mike co-wrote many of R&B's and early rock's biggest hits, including Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Kansas City, Love Potion #9, Poison Ivy, Smokey Joe's Café, Yakety Yak, On Broadway, Young Blood, Fools Fall in Love and There Goes My Baby. Leiber and Stoller also wrote Peggy Lee's hit versions of "I'm a Woman" and "Is That All There Is?" The list goes on and on. [Pictured above: Ben E. King and Mike Stoller]
In Part 1 of my conversation with Mike, the 79-year-old R&B and pop-rock songwriter talks about early piano lessons with a jazz legend in the '40s, his close call on the high seas in 1956, and the crossover of R&B to rock 'n' roll in 1957:
Marc Myers: Nine is a lucky number for you, isn’t it?
Mike Stoller: [Laughs]. Always. Love Potion #9, Riot in Cell Block #9 and others. We always knew the word “nine” sounded great. Strangely, when I go for my annual physical, my doctor puts his stethoscope on my back and asks me to say "nine." The number vibrates.
MM: Can you still play a mean boogie-woogie?
MS: I doubt it. I haven’t played a boogie-woogie in ages. I use the piano in my office here to write, and I’m still sort of uncertain and very private when I write. Even at home, when I’m working alone, I like to wear headphones that cover my ears. I find my place when all is blocked out.
MM: How many lessons did you take with James P. Johnson?
MS: Oh, six or seven in 1943 or 1944.
MM: Would your life have been different if those lessons didn’t take place?
MS: Probably. I may have picked up some of the information I learned about the blues from listening. But getting it directly from James P. was much more powerful and first-hand. Things like the structure of blues and boogie-woogie. Before taking those lessons, I would play a 1 chord until I got tired and then move to a four chord until I got tired of that one—without the knowledge of the 12-bar structure.
MM: James P. Johnson should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
MS: [Laughs] I suppose so.
MM: What was Johnson like?
MS: He was very gentle, considering I was a little kid who wanted to play boogie-woogie. That’s all I wanted to play. Of course, he could have taught me so many other things and so much more if I had been interested. He was a wonderful composer and stride pianist.
MM: In pictures, his face looks so kind and nurturing.
MS: Yeah, that’s what I felt when I was with him. He made me feel comfortable. He did keep a bottle of Southern Comfort on the piano. He never drank from it, though. When I told Jerry about the bottle after Jerry and I met in 1950, he said James P. kept it there for when I came over [laughs].
MM: Did your lessons improve as the bottle level declined?
MS: [Laughs] I didn’t draw any correlation.
MM: When Johnson said to you, “Understanding structure is the key to confidence,” what did he mean?
MS: Just that. That I had to know certain rules first—not in the sense of rules that couldn’t be broken. All rules are meant to be broken here, there or everywhere. What he meant was that if you have the knowledge of structure, you will feel safe and in control, enabling you to try new things.
MM: You were on the S.S. Andrea Doria when it was struck in July 1956.
MS: Yes, I was on board with my first wife [today, Mike is married to jazz pianist and harpist Corky Hale]. It was a traumatic event. When the ship was listing, I said to myself, “This is it.” But when I got off the ship, I blocked most of it out.
MM: But you recall what happened?
MS: Yes, it's still there. In 1981, 25 years after the event, I was living in New York and was asked to go up to Boston for a radio show about the ship’s sinking. I hadn’t really thought much about it and never dwelled on it. Occasionally it was a subject that came up during dinner conversation. That kind of thing. At any rate, in Boston, they asked me whether I remembered Linda Morgan, the little girl who had survived by being thrown randomly from the ship to the Stockholm as it hit us. When I thought back, I started to cry without being able to prevent it. I had pushed those memories out of my mind, and they came back with the question.
MM: How did you change creatively after the collision and rescue?
MS: I can’t tell you that. It’s impossible for me to know.
MM: Most people hear a song’s words and assume that’s the song. How do you explain what you do?
MS: Jerry wrote words and I wrote the music—the melody and harmony. But I would make suggestions for lyrics and Jerry would contribute to the music. I’d suggest using “and” instead of “but” and he’d say, "Make the note go up rather than down.” In the beginning, it was all back-and-forth, the two of us shouting phrases—words and notes. Jerry couldn’t write music but he could sing a line. Even with that said, Jerry really wrote the words and I really wrote the music. [Pictured: Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber]
MM: But beyond the music?
MS: With small groups, I often wrote the arrangements and played the piano on almost all the Coasters records and some of the other things we recorded. When we started to use larger orchestras after There Goes My Baby, I didn’t feel confident enough, so I liked to work with very talented orchestrators and arrangers like Stanley Applebaum.
MM: How did that work?
MS: I’d work with the orchestrator at the piano, and he would sketch what I wanted. I felt that if he put his pencil on the score, it was going to sound more professional and safe than if I did. But I contributed to the orchestration on almost all the records we produced.
MM: In 1957, was the crossover of your songs from R&B to mainstream rock ‘n’ roll intentional?
MS: How so?
MM: Were you and Leiber looking for a way to widen the audience for your music—or did it just happen?
MS: It just happened. We had always written primarily for black audiences. We had started out writing blues for Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Brown, Little Esther, Big Mama Thornton and others. Before 1957, there were rare moments when we were hired to write for white R&B groups. The rare exception was Black Denim Trousers for the Cheers in 1955. It was an urban take on the Western sagas that Frankie Laine was singing at the time. It also was a take on the motorcycle movies like The Wild One. Edith Piaf wound up recording it in French.
MM: The turning point appears to be when Elvis Presley recorded your song Hound Dog in 1956. After, you and Leiber wrote a string of hits for him.
MS: That’s correct. It's a funny story of how that came about. After a freighter picked up me and my first wife from a lifeboat after the Andrea Doria went down, we were taken to New York. When I arrived, Jerry met me at the pier. The first thing he said was, 'Mike, we have a smash hit—'Hound Dog.' Confused, I asked, 'With Big Mama Thornton?' I just assumed our earlier R&B hit was back for some reason. He said, 'No, some white kid named Elvis Presley'" [laughs].
MM: From then on, starting with Jailhouse Rock, your brand of R&B became rock ‘n’ roll.
MS: Yes, but it was accidental. When Jerry and I first started writing, recordings of our songs were played on the extreme ends of the radio dial on stations that had black listening audiences. These stations beamed to those neighborhoods in big cities. After 1956, we found that white kids were tuning into those stations because the music was more exciting than artists like Perry Como.
MM: And Pat Boone?
MS: Actually, Pat Boone was an imitation of R&B. He was singing covers of Little Richard, while Georgia Gibbs was covering LaVern Baker. That was in response to white teens who were tuning into those end-of-the-dial stations. Once the major labels found out about the R&B trend, they had white artists cover the songs, artists they felt who wouldn’t offend their advertisers.
MM: Weren't the humorous lyrics of your songs, particularly with the Coasters, also a big part of your music’s crossover appeal?
MS: Yes, that’s true. There certainly were elements of Yiddish humor in our songs, and black audiences related to it. Yiddish humor is gallows humor, poking fun at misfortune. Many people don’t realize that Jerry’s first language was Yiddish. He spoke Yiddish until he was 5 years old.
MM: And yet songs like Yakety Yak, One Kiss Led to Another and Wait a Minute had a sophisticated silliness about them—serving up R&B without losing the black delivery and feel.
MS: Yiddish humor and black humor aren’t that different. “If it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” If you use an Eastern European accent, the song could have been written there in the late 1800s.
JazzWax note: For more on Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, I recommend Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, as told to David Ritz.
JazzWax tracks: There are multiple sets of Leiber and Stoller recordings. The Leiber and Stoller Story is a three-volume set of CDs from the UK that runs about $20 each. Or you can do what I did: Opt for the Spark Records Story, a label Leiber and Stoller started in the early 1950s. There are 30 tracks on a single disc featuring a wide range of songs they wrote and/or produced for various artists.
Then I went for a used copy of The Coasters on Atco: There's a Riot Goin' On, a four disc set that sells for around $45, which is sensational.
The Drifters aren't offered on anything as complete, but you have a couple of solid choices: The Drifters: The Definitive Soul Collection and a knock-out 40-track download—The Drifters: The Singles Collection 1953-1960. It's $11.99 at the Apple Store in the U.S.
JazzWax clips: Here's Big Mama Thornton and Buddy Guy in 1965 reprising her 1952 hit with Leiber and Stoller's Hound Dog...
Here are the Drifters with Clyde McPhatter singing Leiber and Stoller's Fools Fall in Love (1957)...
And here are the Coasters singing a rare outtake of Leiber and Stoller's Yakety Yak (1958)...