Jessica Pons for NPR
Mike Stoller was 17 when he wrote his first song. He hadn’t been interested in songwriting before that, but he was playing piano around L.A. when a total stranger — Jerry Leiber, also 17 — called him out of the blue.
“We had this funny conversation on the phone where he asked me if I would like to write songs with him, and I said no,” Stoller laughs. He told Leiber that he didn’t like songs he heard on the radio; he liked Bartok, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.
“And [Leiber] said this word that has stayed with me, because it changed my life. He said, ‘Well, nevertheless… I think we ought to meet.'”
They did meet, and when Stoller looked at Leiber’s lyrics, he recognized them as 12-bar blues. Stoller had grown up in New York, attending an interracial summer camp where he was exposed to boogie-woogie and blues music, and he got excited: “I went to the piano and started comping some blues, and he started to sing,” he says. “And we shook hands and said, ‘We’ll be partners’ — and we were for 61 years.”
These two Jewish white boys quickly carved a niche by writing rhythm and blues music mostly for Black artists. One of their earliest hits was for “Big Mama” Thornton, a belter from Alabama.
Other early Leiber & Stoller songs were recorded by Charles Brown, Little Willie Littlefield, “Little Esther” Phillips, and Jimmy Witherspoon. In 1956, high on a $5,000 royalty check from their song “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” Stoller went on an ocean trip to Europe with his wife. On his voyage home, the ship — the SS Andrea Doria — sank.
“Fortunately, I got off in a broken lifeboat,” he says. “When I arrived on a freighter that picked us up, Jerry was at the dock. First thing he said to me was, ‘Mike, we’ve got a smash hit!'”
Leiber told him it was their song “Hound Dog.”
“Big Mama Thornton?” Stoller asked him.
“No,” Leiber answered. “Some white kid named Elvis Presley?”
Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” reigned at number one on the chart for a record 11 weeks, and became the highest selling single of his career. Naturally, Stoller says, “the music publishers who controlled Elvis Presley music … asked if we had anything else that might be good for Elvis. Jerry thought of this kind of blues ballad we had written called ‘Love Me.'”
Presley “loved it, and he recorded it, and it became a hit,” Stoller says. “And then they kept asking for more songs.”
Stoller and Leiber became Elvis Presley’s good luck charms — “He referred to us that way,” Stoller says, “but not necessarily directly to us” — and the duo gave him a parade of hits including “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t,” “King Creole,” and “Santa Claus is Back in Town.”
Stoller, 89, is in a reflective mood with the release of the Baz Luhrmann film Elvis, which features several of the songs he wrote with Leiber — who died in 2011.
When they eventually met The King, who was only a year younger, Elvis was respectful of his court composers. “We had to say, ‘Elvis: That’s Jerry. I’m Mike. Don’t call us sir!'” Stoller laughs.
When they began writing songs specifically for Elvis, “We just knew that he could sound good singing this and singing that,” says Stoller. “The truth of the matter is: Elvis was very special — he could sound good singing anything.”
Of course, Elvis wasn’t the only interpreter of Leiber & Stoller’s songs. They also wrote “On Broadway,” performed by The Drifters and later George Benson; “Yakety Yak,” performed by the Coasters; and “Love Potion No. 9,” which was a hit for the Clovers. One of Stoller’s personal favorite recordings is Peggy Lee’s otherworldly take on “Is That All There Is?” from 1969.
Maybe their most enduring song, though, was one they wrote with singer Ben E. King in 1960.
Stoller wagers “Stand By Me” has been covered a thousand times. A few years ago, it serenaded real-life royals at the wedding for Harry and Meghan. Karen Gibson, conductor of the London-based Kingdom Choir, was invited to Kensington Palace to discuss the arrangement with the couple, who wanted an extremely pared-down version.
After several attempts, Gibson improvised, instructing the choir to add ‘oohs’ behind lead Paul Lee. At first, she thought it was awful — “But the couple absolutely loved it. They really loved it,” she says.
When they performed it at the wedding in 2018, the whole world fell in love with the Kingdom Choir.
Gibson, a self-proclaimed “gospel guru girl,” thought the song should be loaded with bells and whistles. But “what I think this arrangement did,” she admits, “was it opened up the song in a completely different way to people. … So yeah, they were completely right, and I was wrong.”
Besides loving the song’s lyrics — about the desire to be loved and supported, with spiritual roots in the Psalms — Gibson came to appreciate the beauty of the melody that Stoller helped compose.
“You’d have thought that you couldn’t sing the song without that bass line,” she says, humming the famous groove that opens the Ben E. King version. “But this arrangement shows that the song is strong in itself.”
When Stoller heard it, “I loved it,” he says. “I was so moved by it.”