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The Soundtrack of Your Life

You may not know Leiber and Stoller, but you grew up with their music

posted by Richard Harris, June 3, 2014 More by this author

Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller

Richard Harris is a freelance writer. He was senior producer of the 2013 PBS documentary Guns in America. Follow Richard on Twitter at @redsox54.


Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
Smokey Joe’s Café—The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
Photos by Teresa Wood
For 60 years, one wrote the lyrics and the other composed the music. And through it all, they argued about each other's words and notes.

Together Jerry Leiber, the lyricist who died in 2011, and Mike Stoller, the composer, produced nothing short of the soundtrack of several generations, an astounding list of chart hits from 1952 to 2006.

Their names may not ring a bell, but their songs will. Back in the day, you may have even slipped a coin or two in the jukebox to hear Hound Dog, Poison Ivy, Love Potion No. 9, On Broadway, Kansas City, There Goes My Baby, Stand by Me, Spanish Harlem or dozens of other titles that today you may listen to as digital downloads.

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“We thought the songs might last six months, maybe a year, but 50, 60 years? We never imagined,” says Stoller, 81.

He was at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage this week for the premiere of the latest incarnation of Smokey Joe's Cafe, the Leiber/Stoller musical revue that's been packing in boomers around the country for the past 20 years.

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Smokey Joe's has allowed us to do what most record producers and songwriters who are stuck in studios and back rooms never get an opportunity to do — meet our audience. Last night, a gentleman was saying how much his life was so affected by our music. Doesn't get much better than that," Stoller says with a smile.

How They Came to Be

Leiber and Stoller were two white kids, steeped in jazz, the blues and black culture. Years ago, Leiber put it more bluntly to NPR's Terry Gross: “These two white Jews raised themselves as black.”

Leiber grew up in a predominantly black section of Baltimore, hearing early rhythm and blues coming out of the radios and record players in the homes of black families where he delivered groceries.

Stoller was a New York City kid who joined a Harlem social club and attended an integrated camp where he sat on Paul Robeson's lap as he sang Negro spirituals to campers. With fascination and some envy, Stoller watched a black teenager's fingers dance across the keys of the camp piano, playing boogie-woogie. That was the moment he knew he'd spend the rest of his life in music. “I hadn't heard anything like that before. It was magical,” Stoller says.

Leiber and Stoller first met as 17-year-olds after their families moved to California. Just two years later, they had their first big hits, including Hound Dog for Big Mama Thornton. They weren't even old enough to sign their own contracts.

Sometimes, the songwriting was pure serendipity, like the time Stoller was riffing on the piano in Leiber's apartment and Leiber shouted from the other room, “Take out the papers and the trash!” Stoller shot back: “Or you don't get no spending cash!” So, Yakety Yak was born and became a huge hit for the Coasters.

“Years later, Jerry told me, 'I wasn't writing anything. I was telling you to take out the papers and the trash,'” Stoller says.

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A Close Call and a Big Hit

But the partnership was nearly cut short in 1956.

Stoller was returning to New York from Europe on the ocean liner Andrea Doria when it was struck by another ship in dense fog off Nantucket, ripping a massive hole in its side. The ship listed to one side and, hours later, sank; 51 people died. Stoller and his first wife managed to climb down a wildly swinging Jacob's ladder into a lifeboat and were rescued by a nearby freighter and then taken to New York.

As Stoller came down the gangplank following the ordeal, he was greeted by Leiber, who shouted, “Mike, you're OK!” adding, “We have a hit!”
 
“You're kidding,” Stoller answered.
 
Hound Dog!” Leiber announced.
 
“Big Mama Thornton?” Stoller asked.
 
“No, some white kid named Elvis Presley,” Leiber responded.
 
Elvis had changed some of the lyrics to their song. At first, neither Leiber nor Stoller was happy about it, but Stoller told me: “After it sold 7 million singles, you begin to see some merit in it.”

Music for a Movement

A few of their early songs, such as Framed and Run Red Run, had overt political lyrics about the lack of justice for blacks and were played mainly on black radio stations before black artists were crossing over to white radio stations.

“People got tired of listening to Perry Como and Patti Page and young people began to turn the dial on the radio to the far end to find something that excited them,” Stoller says.  

For me, in the early 1960s, it was Boston's WMEX at the far end of the dial, which featured the Leiber/Stoller records that got me hooked on rhythm and blues.

“Until Leiber and Stoller, there was music by nice people singing nice songs,” says Randy Johnson, who directs Smokey Joe's Cafe and wrote and directed the Broadway production of A Night with Janis Joplin. “It was sort of numbing after World II, nice healing songs by The Andrew Sisters or Glenn Miller. Then you began to question things and songs were created to effectuate change. Their music was part of the civil rights movement.”

During the first part of their career, Leiber and Stoller worked almost exclusively with black artists and groups — The Coasters, The Drifters and Ben E. King. And according to civil rights leader Julian Bond, the Leiber/Stoller songbook did something else — it helped bring black and white together.

The evolution of the blues to rhythm and blues to rock 'n' roll “introduced white youngsters to black America, telling them blacks were people with talent — skilled and responsible people to be reckoned with, not 'nobodys' who cleaned their kitchens. It helped set the tone for future activism,” says Bond, the former chairman of the NAACP.

‘The Biggest Honor’

This weekend, Stoller and his wife, Corky Hale, active in civil rights causes and an accomplished jazz pianist who played with Billie Holliday, will accompany Bond on his annual civil rights tour of Atlanta and Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Ala.

Last year, the Civil Rights Memorial Theater at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery was named for the Stollers: It's The Mike Stoller and Corky Hale Stoller Civil Rights Memorial Theater.

More than his induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or any other award during his long career, Stoller calls this “the biggest honor of his life.”

Clearly proud of his long list of songs that hit the charts and touched so many lives from the early '50s to the late '90s, Stoller doesn't have a favorite.

“It's the one I'm writing now,” he chuckles. “It's always a big kick to hear your song in a supermarket, a drug store or a taxi,” Stoller says.

But he's prouder still that that the music he and his partner created in some small way broke down the color barrier and brought people together during a time the country needed some joy.