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May 07, 2013

Songwriter Looks Back at Rock and Roll Repertoire

by Mike O'Sullivan

The songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller was at the birth of rock and roll. Among other hits, the duo wrote the Elvis Presley hit "Hound Dog" and the rhythm and blues classic "Kansas City," recorded by dozens of artists.  Jerry Leiber died in 2011, but Mike Stoller is still composing in Los Angeles, and he spoke with Mike O'Sullivan about their legacy.

"Jailhouse Rock" was one of more than 20 Leiber and Stoller songs that Elvis Presley recorded.  Another Presley record, written by Leiber and Stoller, was an even bigger hit.

Along with Elvis and other artists, Leiber and Stoller were at the heart of the rock and roll revolution.  Mike Stoller says he started writing music with friend Jerry Leiber when they were 17.

"I'd be jamming at the piano and he'd be walking around shouting phrases out, anything that came into his head," said Stoller.

The pair wrote and produced a series of popular songs by The Coasters, including "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," and "Charlie Brown."

Many Leiber-Stoller songs were recorded by different artists and climbed the record charts at different times.  "Ruby Baby" was a hit for The Drifters in 1956, and for Dion six years later.

The Clovers, The Coasters and many other groups performed another of the duo's hits, "Love Potion No. 9."  And more than 100 artists have recorded this Leiber-Stoller hit.

Another song that became a major hit, "Stand By Me," was a collaboration with singer Ben E. King.

"Benny had basically the tune pretty much in his head," said Stoller. "He started singing.  I went to the piano and started sussing (figuring) out the chords, and then I came up with the bass pattern - boom, boom, boom-boom-boom, boom ...."

It's one of scores of Leiber-Stoller tunes that are now American standards.  Mike Stoller, at his piano, sometimes reminisces.

What's his favorite song?  Stoller says it changes.

"My favorite song is always the one I'm writing at the moment because I can't get it out of my head," he said.

Jerry Leiber is gone now, but at age 80, Mike Stoller is keeping busy writing new songs, and celebrating the old ones.