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Musical Revives Pioneer Rock and Roll Composers' Songs


Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller teamed up in 1950 to write music, and went on the compose some of the biggest rock and roll hits of the 20th century, including Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog."

When rock and roll took the world by storm, Leiber and Stoller were at the center of the storm.

They teamed up in Los Angeles when they were 17 and were soon working with Johnny Otis, a rhythm and blues musician and music producer. They wrote songs for Otis and blues artists like Charles Brown and Little Willie Littlefield.

Otis was doing rehearsals in his studio one day and invited young Leiber and Stoller to meet Big Momma Thornton, a powerful African American rhythm and blues singer.

"He had us listen to her. And we jumped in my [19]37 Plymouth and went back to my house. And within about 10 minutes, the song was done," Mike Stoller recalled the day.

The song, called "Hound Dog", would become a hit in rhythm and blues circles.

Within a few years, the team was successful enough that Stoller and his wife could make an extended trip to Europe.

In July 1956, the couple returned from Naples to New York. They had planned to take a Greek ship, but a travel agent persuaded them to change to a luxury liner called the Andrea Doria.

"He said, 'Oh, don't worry about it," said Stoller. "Take it; you'll never forget it.'"

They never did forget it. In one of the worst maritime accidents of the century, the Andrea Doria collided with another ship off the coast of Massachusetts, leaving 46 passengers dead. More than 1,600 were rescued, including Stoller and his wife.

Reaching New York, his partner was there to greet him with some good news.

"He said, 'We've got a smash!' I said, 'What is it?' He said, 'Hound Dog.' I said, 'Hound Dog?' 'Big Momma Thornton?' He said, 'No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.'"

But Stoller says he was not happy with the recording.

"It was very disappointing to me and to Jerry because it didn't have the feel that Big Momma had."

But after the Presley version sold seven million singles its first year, Stoller says they saw some merit in the record. Leiber and Stoller went on to write more than 20 songs for Elvis, including hits like "Jailhouse Rock."

They started their own company, Spark Records, with a black group called The Robins, then signed a production deal with Atlantic Records. That got national distribution for their recordings of The Coasters, who performed such Leiber and Stoller songs as "Searchin'", "Charlie Brown", "Poison Ivy" and "Yakety Yak". That Coasters' hit reached the top of the music charts in 1958.

"They were a great bunch of guys. They would come in off the road and show us how they had performed the song that we had done on the prior session, and the choreography and the gestures and so on and so forth, and we would fall on the floor laughing," he said. "And then we would play them the new song and they would fall on the floor laughing. And it was just a wonderful, wonderful happy time."

Other hit Leiber and Stoller songs would be recorded by The Drifters, including "Dance with Me" and "On Broadway." Ben E. King had hits with Leiber and Stoller's "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem". And in 1959, Wilbert Harrison had a number one hit with an earlier Leiber and Stoller song, "Kansas City".

Peggy Lee recorded another big hit for the writing team in 1969, a cabaret-style song called Is That All There Is?

A 1995 musical stage show was based on the songs of Leiber and Stoller. Called Smokey Joe's Café, it was named after one of the team's early rhythm and blues songs, and its five year run set a record on Broadway for musical revues.

Stoller's wife of 38 years, jazz musician Corky Hale, is helping produce a revival of Smokey Joe's Café at the El Portal Theatre in Los Angeles. She says the show excites youngsters when they first hear the music, and brings back memories for older fans.

"One of the reasons that I think it's such a hit is that people say, 'Oh yeah, I was in high school then. I was dating Mary Smith and we used to play that song all the time.' So people remember from each of those songs something in their childhood," she said.

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