By Mike Zwerin
On July 25th, 1956, the 23-year old Mike Stoller was returning to New York after a leisurely trip to Europe financed by Annie Mae “Big Mama" Thornton’s hit rhythm and blues record of his song, “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog."
At 11:10 PM – it was a dark and foggy night - the Andrea Doria, the modern ocean liner on which he was a passenger, collided with the SS Stockholm off the coast of Nantucket and sank. Stoller was picked up by a passing freighter, and his songwriting partner Jerry Leiber was waiting for him on the pier. Leiber said that some white kid named Elvis Presley had recorded “Hound Dog," and that it was already number one on the pop charts.
Stoller was at the 32nd Flanders Film Festival in Ghent, Belgium, last month to accept its World Soundtrack Lifetime Achievement Award for their film music - an eclectic list including “Jailhouse Rock," “Pull My Daisy," and “Reservoir Dogs." Leiber had an inner ear problem, had been warned not to fly, and remained at home in Los Angeles. Stoller seemed somehow incomplete without him. Although he is still trim at 72, it was kind of like interviewing Hardy without Laurel.
After “Hound Dog," Leiber and Stoller wrote “Love Potion Number Nine," “Kansas City," “On Broadway," “Ruby Baby," Charlie Brown," “Stand By Me," “Yakety Yak," “Is That All There Is?" and countless others; which have been performed by Johnny Otis, Johnny Cash, James Brown, The Beatles, Ritchie Valens, Count Basie, Fontella Bass, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Sacha Distel, Sonny Stitt, Buddy Holley, the Neville Brothers, Milt Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, Liza Minnelli, Solomon Burke, Donald Fagan, Carmen McRae, Ike and Tina Turner, Frank Zappa, Barbara Streisand, David Bowie, Los Lobos, George Benson, Neil Young, Bjork, and equally countless others.
After accepting the award, having to do double duty in Ghent, Stoller sang a homemade but soulful version of “Is That All There Is?" He had never sung in public before. He was very nervous. He could not help also being a bit sad thinking about how much Jerry would have loved the awards ceremonies. But the whole thing had been taped, so he’ll definitely get to hear him sing eventually. But he would have to prepare Jerry for how lousy he was – he even mixed up the lyrics one time. Afterwards, everyone complimented him anyway. He’d call Jerry tonight, it’s nine hours earlier in LA, and Jerry doesn’t get up much before 10:30.
Leiber and Stoller have been called the “Gilbert and Sullivan of rock ‘n’ roll." They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Record Producers Hall of Fame. They were the first to combine the functions of songwriters and record producers, and they experimented with effects like putting strings behind the Drifters. For many years, they produced the Coasters, which, says Stoller, was “the most fun I ever had in music." “We don’t write songs," they famously remarked: “We write records."
The first time Leiber came over to his house - some 55 years ago - the 17-year old Stoller had somehow assumed that he wrote stupid love songs like everybody else in those days. But he soon saw that one song was about a kid getting yelled at by his parents, and that the songs had a sense of humor and were about real life. They were just 12-bar blues, written in the language of the blues. He went to his piano and played the blues while Leiber recited his lyrics. When they were through, Leiber said: “We’ll be partners."
More or less instantly, their early songs were recorded by Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Brown, and a young Ray Charles. They became best friends. Both of them were in love with black culture. They hung out in black clubs, they had black girl friends (Stoller dated Miles Davis’s ex wife Frances), and they listened to black music. Leiber told Dave Tianen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1998 that they had real “disdain" for Elvis Presley at first: “Our respect for him grew over time. Our disdain was the disdain we felt for white people. We were pretty high hat about it. People who thought we were white just because we were white, didn’t get it. We considered ourselves black."
Stoller remains a prototype hipster, although heavily disguised by now behind so much good fortune. He had been a boogie-woogie fan until the age of eight, when he got interested in modern jazz. When he was 16, having just moved to Los Angeles with his parents, he played the piano at a Philippino wedding with a band that included Chet Baker. He looked really pleased to cite that credit.
His wife, the harpist Corky Hale, who currently plays the piano in her club Corky’s Jazz Room on Beverly Boulevard, was with him in Ghent. Living in America today is tough for hipsters. When the Stollers travel in Europe, which is regularly, they are tempted to tell people they are Italian. They both speak Italian.
Married for 35 years (he obviously is good at long-term relationships), they spent the summer in their new penthouse condo near San Remo on the Italian Riviera. Which is convenient – they can fly straight into Nice. It has a terrific view of the Mediterranean.