Songwriters Mike Stoller and the late Jerry Leiber wrote Hound Dog and K.C. Loving (Kansas City) in Los Angeles in 1952 just as Gerry Mulligan was forming his pianoless quartet with Chet Baker a few miles away. My point is that Mike may be among the most significant living figures in the evolution of post-war R&B and early rock 'n' roll. Mike, along with Leiber, crafted musical ideas that didn't really exist yet, nor was there a large marketplace for them. Fats Domino and B.B. King were perhaps the leading exponents of the pre-rock form in '52, but their fabulous music then was largely regional and instrumental. [Pictured above: Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber]
But as the 1950s evolved, Mike and Leiber became known for something else that today is largely overlooked—record production. When I interviewed Burt Bacharach last fall, he shook his head and remarked at how everyone in the business marveled at the way Leiber and Stoller could magically build dramatic orchestration in the studio behind R&B vocal groups and how many songwriter-producers tried to pick up tricks from them on their own records.
In Part 4 of my conversation with Mike for my Wall Street Journal profile (go here), the songwriter talks about how Stand By Me became a Top 10 hit twice (in 1961 and 1986), and the thinking behind their much-emulated approach to heavy-drama orchestration that became a staple during the pop-rock era of the 1960s:
Marc Myers: How did the movie Stand By Me come about?
Mike Stoller: Rob Reiner called me in 1985. I had met him first at a party, when he asked me to play the piano. I’m not given to performing at parties, you know. But he insisted.
MS: He wanted to sing every song Jerry and I ever wrote, and he knew the lyrics to all of them. So I did. That was our first meeting. Then several months later, he called.
MM: What did he want?
MS: He said, “I have this movie. It has the right title, but I can’t use it. It’s called The Body. The movie is based on a Steven King story, but if I use the title, people will think it’s a film based literally on the Steven King book. Then they'll assume it’s a horror film. But it’s not a horror film. It’s a coming-of-age film.”
MM: So he called you to talk about his film-naming issues?
MS: [Laughs] Rob wanted to call the film Stand By Me. He loved the song. I said, “Hey, be my guest.” Then we hung up. But I thought for a minute and called him back. I said, “Who do you think we could get to record the title song? Tina Turner or maybe someone else who’s hot now?” Rob said, “We thought about it. It’s a period piece, so we want to go with the original record.” So the movie comes out, and the original song Stand By Me almost becomes as big a hit in 1986 as the first time it was out 25 years earlier. [Note: The song peaked at No. 4 in 1961 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and at No. 9 in 1986]
MM: In addition to desegregating R&B, you and Leiber were key to changing how records were produced and recorded in the late ‘50s.
MS: I suppose. I leave that to people like you.
MM: By adding strings and layering instruments, you created enormous drama, in effect tricking out the music and giving it much more import and appeal.
MS: The big thing people talk about with us on this topic—simply because we thought it might work—was adding strings to the orchestration for the Drifters' There Goes My Baby in March 1959. It was probably the first time strings were added to music considered R&B. [Note: Dinah Washington's What a Difference a Day Made album for Mercury was recorded later in the year.]
MM: How did adding strings to your song for the Drifters come about?
MS: When Jerry and I were working on the song, I hummed a line, and Jerry said, “Hey, that sounds like violins.” So we added them to the orchestration.
MM: R&B was like religion with you guys, wasn’t it?
MS: It was. We lived and breathed the music and loved it. R&B had been segregated in the charts for years. After There Goes My Baby, pop-rock and girl groups started becoming big along with more elaborate orchestrations. [Pictured from left: Mike Stoller, Lester Sill and Jerry Leiber. Sill first urged a young Leiber to find a pianist if he wanted to write songs, which led to a phone call to Mike]
MM: Was adding strings in 1959 a conscious decision on your part to expand R&B's appeal?
MS: No, not at all. Our decision to add strings had nothing to do with any social-consciousness. Strings just sounded good and added optimistic, cinematic drama. As it turned out, the strings also helped R&B cross over. But that was a by-product, not a motivation.
MM: Did executives at Atlantic, the record company you were writing for in the late ‘50s, love the sound in the studio when the Drifters were recording?
MS: [Laughs] Are you kidding? Jerry Wexler [pictured] hated it. He said it sounded like a radio dial picking up two stations at once.
MM: [Laughing] A simultaneous cross between easy-listening and R&B.
MS: Jerry thought we were flushing Atlantic’s money down the toilet. Ahmet Ertegun said as much, but more diplomatically: “You know, boys, you make great records but you can’t hit a home run every time.”
MM: What did he mean?
MS: He meant, “Don’t overthink your songs.” But after we had commercial success by adding four fiddles and a cello to There Goes My Baby, everyone in the business tried to do the same thing.
MM: But your use of strings didn’t end there.
MS: That’s right. Because we had success with strings, we loved the idea of constantly experimenting with colors and percussion. We started adding bigger string sections and, on occasion, brass as well. For example, the orchestration for Spanish Harlem included a curved soprano saxophone.
MM: Why curved and not the straight-neck model?
MS: Because it has a special sound. The curved-neck one has less of a snake-charmer sound. Phil Bodner played it on Spanish Harlem.
MM: Was Stand By Me recorded at the same session as Spanish Harlem.
MS: Yes. What’s interesting is we had varied instrumentation on Spanish Harlem. Yet when it came to Stand By Me, we didn’t use the marimba, the soprano saxophone or many of the other instruments there that day.
MM: Why not?
MS: I don't fully recall, but it may have been that we started recording Stand By Me with many instruments but kept paring them back after the first few takes because they were getting in the way of something that was interesting and very simple.
MM: Where were Spanish Harlem and Stand By Me recorded?
MS: At Bell Sound at 237 W. 54th St., just off Broadway.
MM: What about your and Leiber’s studio sound in general?
MS: Jerry and I liked to create as much texture as possible.
MM: Was everything you and Leiber recorded done live?
MS: Meaning that the orchestra and singer were in the studio at the same time? Yes. Ben E. recorded with the orchestra on Spanish Harlem and Stand By Me. There was no overdubbing.
MM: So did Phil Spector, who worked for you and Leiber in 1960 under an exclusive publishing contract, model his "Wall of Sound" approach to production based on yours? You put him on sessions as a guitarist, and he observed everything you guys did first-hand. He co-wrote Spanish Harlem after all.
MS: Well, Phil’s “Wall of Sound” came a little later, in the early ‘60s, and he did something different than we did.
MM: How so?
MS: We went for a textured sound that distinguished the quality of the instruments used, to show off the differences and combinations. When we used two instruments playing the same lines, it was to get a specific timbre.
MM: And how did that differ from Spector’s approach?
MS: For the most part, he had everyone in the studio doing everything at the same time and as loud as possible. His “Wall of Sound,” at its optimum, was about power—a kind of sledgehammer sound. We went for trying to get individual textures of the instruments. And we didn’t layer all that much.
MS: The only texture with multiple parts was when we used the baion rhythm, where we’d have bass drum, conga, and African hairy drum all playing together. On occasion there would be acoustic and 12-string guitars together. But that’s it. When we used four or more guitars, one would play the chord while the other would play rhythmic "chicks" on the two and off-three beats. We liked to get multiple rhythmic things happening on songs.
MM: But didn’t other producers who followed borrow that dramatic, layered pop-rock orchestral concept from you and Leiber?
MS: I imagine so.
JazzWax tracks: Here's There Goes My Baby recorded by Ben E. King and the Drifters, produced by Leiber & Stoller...
And here's the magnificent Peggy Lee in 1969 singing Leiber & Stoller's masterpiece, Is That All There Is? Dig the genius of the words and music—and Randy Newman's orchestration...