One day last year, while fooling around on the Internet, I discovered that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had an office on Sunset Boulevard. You could just ring them up, like a law firm or a dry cleaner.
To me, it was like finding out William Shakespeare was alive and well and listed in the Stratford phone book. Leiber and Stoller were legendary figures, songwriters who practically invented rock 'n' roll. I had assumed they were long gone.
But if they weren't gone--if they were still together, still collaborating at age 72--where was the music? What had they been doing all these years? Could it be that they had another "Hound Dog" or "Kansas City" buried somewhere?
Naturally, I called their office. I'm a sucker for a good mystery.
Harry Truman was in the White House when Leiber and Stoller started out, two 17-year-old Jewish kids from L.A. Stoller liked to goof off from his classical piano studies by playing boogie-woogie. Leiber wrote blues lyrics during class at Fairfax High. They were destined to meet, and they did in 1950 through a mutual friend. Soon they put together words and music.
Their first famous hit, in 1953, was Big Mama Thornton's rendition of "Hound Dog." Then came Wilbert Harrison's "Kansas City" and a string of rock comedy smashes by the Coasters: "Young Blood," "Searchin,' " "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown" and "Poison Ivy." For the Drifters and Ben E. King, they turned out "On Broadway" and "Stand by Me." Elvis Presley recorded almost two dozen of their songs, including "King Creole" and "Jailhouse Rock." Over the next 15 years they would go on to log more than 150 chart hits.
But Leiber and Stoller were more than songwriters. They were pioneers in business as well as in music. They cut a deal with Atlantic Records that made them the industry's first independent producers. They were among the first arrangers to put strings on an R&B; record (with the Drifters' "There Goes My Baby"). They mentored Phil Spector, Carole King and a long list of others. They founded a label in New York, Red Bird Records, and put out girl-group hits by the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups that presaged the explosion of instruments and echo that came to be known as Spector's Wall of Sound.
Eventually, they were the first nonperforming songwriters inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which described them as "pop auteurs who wrote, arranged and produced countless recordings" and who "advanced rock and roll to new heights of wit and musical sophistication."
In 1966, Leiber and Stoller abruptly sold their stake in Red Bird to their partner, George "The Mambo King" Goldner, for $1. Rumors were that Goldner, a chronic gambler, was in trouble with the Mob, and Leiber and Stoller suspected that he was stealing from the company to cover his debts. In any case, they wanted out--and fast.
They'd write one final hit three years later: "Is That All There Is?" a cabaret-style ode to disillusionment sung by Peggy Lee for Capitol Records. But by then, their rock 'n' roll days were over.
"These are very private guys," Marilyn Levy, Leiber and Stoller's secretary, told me when I first called. "Write them a letter. Maybe they'll answer. Maybe they won't."
So I wrote, and several weeks later Leiber phoned. "How are you?" I asked. It seemed like a stupid question, but I had to start somewhere.
"Not so great, not so freilich," he answered. "I was just in the hospital. My pacemaker ran out of gas." There was some Columbo in his voice, and some Mel Brooks too.
"English isn't your first language, is it?"
"No, Yiddish. How did you know?"
Jerome Leiber was born in Baltimore shortly after his parents arrived in the U.S. from Poland. When he went to school, the kids laughed at him because he didn't know the English word for "fork." Twelve years later he was writing musical vignettes of black ghetto life so pitch-perfect that critic Nelson George compared him to Langston Hughes.
We talked that first day for almost an hour, Leiber's voice getting stronger as he went along. He's a storyteller, and I was a fresh and eager audience--a perennial teenager whose 33 years of living in Israel had suspended me, musically anyway, in the Detroit of my youth, circa 1965.
He told me how his mother left her little ghetto grocery in Baltimore and took him out to L.A. on a Greyhound bus. He told me about hearing bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon on the radio, and realizing that he wanted to make up songs too. He told me about how he had once met Irving Berlin on the lot of a movie studio. "Irving Berlin was the greatest songwriter of all time," Leiber said. "I was in awe of him. But his music wasn't my music. My music was the blues."
As a conversationalist, Leiber is actually more of a jazzman, full of tasty asides and abrupt digressions. He was in the midst of an anecdote about high school when he lapsed into an odd little story about his cousin Paul.
"Paul Leiber was a brilliant physicist," he said. "During World War II he invented something important for the Air Force. To pay him back, they arranged a meeting for him with his idol, Albert Einstein. Einstein asked him what he wanted to do next. Paul said he wanted to do something more challenging. And Einstein told him, 'Just stick with what you're doing and ultimately you'll find it rewarding.' Paul took his advice, and he went on to a very distinguished career."
It was the opening for a shameless authorial segue: "You and Stoller are the Einsteins of rock 'n' roll," I said. "I'd like to come out to California and meet you, maybe write your biography."
"Sure," said Leiber. "I've even got a title for you. 'How Two Jews Brought Rhythm and Blues Up the River.'"
Great, I thought; he's on board. "When can I visit?"
Leiber hesitated for the first time. "I'll have to check with my partner, Mike," he said.
"We've really put you through the wringer, haven't we?" said Mike Stoller. It was mid-June, and I'd been chasing Leiber and Stoller for four months.
We originally had scheduled a meeting for late February, but they canceled at the last moment. I talked them into another appointment, which we fixed for mid-March. The day before, their New York agent Johnnie Planco, called and canceled again. "These are very private guys," he said. They had decided that they didn't want to be written about, and that was that.
But it was too late. I was hooked. By now, I had discovered that Leiber and Stoller were not only together, they were still writing. In fact, they had never stopped. In 2001, Leiber's son, Jed, told a television documentarian that their new songs were some of the best work they had ever done. "They got the songs in a vault," he said.
I wanted to break into that vault, to hear the sounds of the last 30 years of their collaboration. I had been listening to Leiber and Stoller all my life, and I felt I had a right to know. I wasn't going to let them slip away so easily.
For the next few weeks, I called everybody I could think of who might be able to get Leiber and Stoller to talk to me. I spoke with the surviving members of the Coasters and the Drifters, old-time L.A. record men and former business associates. Everybody basically said the same thing: "Wish I could help, but these are very private guys."
Finally, I sent a letter informing Leiber and Stoller that I was going to write their story--with or without their help. That prompted a call from Stoller. "Are you trying to threaten us?" he asked.
I assured him, with the utmost sincerity, that I was not.
It worked. And now here I was, sitting across a perfectly empty desk from Stoller in the office suite he shares with Jerry Leiber. "Wringer? Naw, no big deal," I said waving aside the canceled appointments, wasted airline tickets and anxious negotiations with his staff. Go out to solve a mystery, and you expect a little inconvenience.
The golden years of rock 'n' roll are full of hard-luck tales, but the Leiber and Stoller story isn't one of them.
They were cheated out of royalties in 1953, when Peacock Records cut them a bad check for Big Mama Thornton's version of "Hound Dog." (Peacock was one of the few labels owned by an African American, Don Robey. "Two Jews screwed out of their money by a black record company owner," Leiber told me. "Go figure.") The experience taught them a lesson. In 1954, they formed their own record company, Spark.
From the start, Leiber and Stoller astutely insisted on owning their own songs. As time passed, they also bought the song catalogs of other publishing companies--something unheard of in those days. They were great judges of value. Three years ago, they sold this collection of catalogs for a reported $60 million. As for their own hits, they put them together in a show, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," that opened on Broadway in 1995 and ran for more than 2,000 performances.
Leiber credits Stoller for taking care of the business side of the partnership. But when I mentioned this to Stoller, he demurred. Bragging isn't his style. He was one of the great barrelhouse piano men, and he played on the Coasters' best records, but he was always too shy to perform in public. He once was so cowed by the prospect of pitching "Is That All There Is?" to Marlene Dietrich that he and Leiber got Burt Bacharach to sit in for him.
Stoller wore jeans to our meeting, but not Hollywood jeans--just a regular pair that looked as if it came from the Gap. And when he apologized for putting me through the wringer, he sounded like he meant it.
Mike Stoller grew up on Long Island and came to Los Angeles as a high school senior. Unlike Leiber, who heard black music working in his mother's store, Stoller's first exposure occurred at an integrated, socialist summer camp.
"Mike is from a better family than I am," Leiber had told me in our first phone conversation. "His father was alive, and he had an aunt who knew George Gershwin." Stoller's parents weren't immigrants, either. The only Yiddish he knows he learned from Leiber.
The phone on Stoller's desk rang. It was Leiber. They spoke briefly. Stoller hung up and said, "Jerry's coming in to see you after lunch."
"How often do you guys talk?" I asked.
"Oh, five or six times a day usually."
"Do you socialize?"
Stoller blinked. "We had dinner together last night."
"Don't you get tired of each other? After 55 years?"
"Jerry's my brother," he said matter-of-factly. "We've grown up together. He's my friend, my business associate and my collaborator. He's a brilliant guy with a unique sense of humor. We love each other as brothers."
Leiber and Stoller married their first wives about the same time, moved to New York together in 1957, fathered their first sons in 1960, got divorced and remarried, and moved back to Los Angeles together in 1989.
"I think my dad and Mike had a trial separation once," Jed Leiber jokingly told me the next day. "But it only lasted a week."
For the last 35 years, Stoller has been married to Corky Hale, a highly regarded musician who owned Corky's, an L.A. jazz club. "I fell in love with her 11 years before we met," he said. "I heard her playing harp on a record." He gestured out his plate-glass office wall toward the Hollywood Hills. "Our house is right there on the top of the ridge."
"I hear Leiber's house is down by the beach in Venice."
"It's a Craftsman house, very beautiful," said Stoller. "Ours is nice too. But, you know, we have different taste."
The Leiber and Stoller legend is composed of set pieces endlessly recycled in interviews over the years.
One is the Meeting: how Leiber turned up at Stoller's door one day with a notebook full of lyrics. How Stoller was taken aback by Leiber's eyes, one brown and one blue. How Leiber asked Stoller to write some songs with him. How Stoller said, "I don't like songs," leafed through Leiber's notebook and said, "but these are blues. I like blues."
Leiber knew Lester Sill, an up-and-coming record promoter in L.A. whom he had met while working after school at Norty's Music Center, a Fairfax Avenue record shop. Sill became their mentor and introduced them to Gene Norman, an R&B; disc jockey.
"Gene took us to a blues festival at the Shrine Auditorium where we heard Wynonie Harris, Sticks McGhee and Jimmy Witherspoon," Stoller said. "Afterward we went to the Dunbar, the black show-business hotel, around 41st and Central. Everybody was jamming. It was wonderful."
Norman opened a door, and the boys stepped through. They took up residence in South-Central and began to live the life. "We considered ourselves black," Stoller recalled. "We dressed black. We talked black. We dated black girls."
And they composed black music. The hottest jump artists and blues shouters on the West Coast lined up for material. One of their first recordings was "Real Ugly Woman," sung by Leiber's boyhood inspiration, Jimmy Witherspoon. Soon they were writing and producing records for Ray Charles, Little Esther Phillips, Amos Milburn, Charles Brown and LaVern Baker.
Leiber and Stoller considered themselves rhythm-and-blues men, not activists. They never set out to break down the walls of musical segregation. But in the mid-'50s, when Elvis Presley came along, they were ready to rock 'n' roll. "Hound Dog," which they wrote for Big Mama Thornton, became, in Elvis' throat, an interracial teenage battle cry.
"You think you could still write like that?" I asked.
Stoller paused to consider. He didn't want to boast, but he didn't want to dissemble either. "If I had a desire to compete in the R&B; market, there's a chance we could do it. But it wouldn't come from the inside now, so it probably wouldn't be very good. We're older. Black music, R&B;, was the spark, the flame. I still love the blues in its original forms. I love it in jazz. But. . . ." His voice trailed off.
When I arrived at the office that morning, Marilyn Levy had handed me a list of Leiber and Stoller songs. It ran 13 pages, from "After Taxes" (recorded by Billy Edd Wheeler, Cab Calloway and Johnny Cash) to "You're the Boss" (LaVern Baker, Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Ruth Brown). I tapped the list. "What happened in 1975?"
"What do you mean?"
"You stopped writing."
Stoller shook his head. "No we didn't. We were working." His gaze fell on the discography. It listed a few instrumentals recorded by Nino Tempo, Guilherme Vergueiro and Stoller's wife, Corky, in the mid-1990s; a couple of songs from 1995, including "Style Is Coming Back in Style," by John Pizzarelli and Frank Sinatra's "The Girls I Never Kissed"; and a few odds and ends. But that was it.
Stoller studied the roster. "It's lean, I must admit," he said, sounding surprised.
I regretted showing him the evidence. These weren't lost years by any normal standard. He and Leiber had built a vast publishing business, raised children and received a pile of lifetime achievement awards.
"I understand you've got a lot of great stuff in the vault," I said.
"The songs you haven't put out yet. They're supposed to be terrific."
Stoller actually blushed. "Well, we have been working for a long time. On a theatrical piece. A musical."
"When are you going to produce it?"
"I'm not sure it's ready," Stoller said. "If you're being paid, it's about deadlines. But if you're writing something especially dear to your heart, it doesn't make a difference if it takes 10 minutes or 20 years. I don't have to meet a deadline. I just don't have to. I'd say the new stuff is about a year away, but I just don't know."
"What's it called?"
"Oh, we have a working title, but I don't want to tell you," he said. "I'm a little superstitious."
I hesitated for a few seconds before daring to ask: "Can I hear some of it?"
"Maybe after lunch," Stoller said, "I'll play you a song."
We ate Thai food at a restaurant down the street from the office, Stoller carefully monitoring the dishes to make sure they weren't too spicy for my taste. As we ate, he urged me on--try the dumplings, have some noodles, take the last appetizer, the pad Thai here is delicious--with an almost paternal solicitude. For an hour, the most important thing in Mike Stoller's world was seeing to it that I had enough to eat.
Leiber came in shortly after we returned from lunch. He was dressed for comfort in an old sweatsuit, a swirl of unkempt white hair making him look like a Jewish Spencer Tracy in "Inherit the Wind." His office is right next to Stoller's, but he settled himself behind Stoller's desk.
"It's more comfortable," he said.
Before handing me off to Leiber, Stoller invited me to meet him the next day at The Studio, a state-of-the-art recording facility owned by Jed Leiber. "Jed and my son Peter and I are going to be working on the remix of 'Mirrors,' " he said.
"Mirrors," recorded by Peggy Lee in 1975, was the turning point in Leiber and Stoller's career. Before it came "Young Blood" and "Ruby Baby" and "Spanish Harlem" and a turn producing rock bands such as Procol Harum and Stealers Wheel. After "Mirrors," silence. I asked Leiber why.
"We got tired of the record business, tired of turning out product on an assembly line," he said. "And we were sick of writing ditties for teenagers. Mike is a terrific musician, a classical pianist who studied with some of the greats. He wanted to exercise some of his musical muscles. I felt the same thing in a literary way. We said, 'What the hell. Let's just write for ourselves.' "
The result was "Mirrors." It was their first mature work. It was their first attempt to write in their own voice. And it was their first real failure.
The album was a smorgasbord of ragtime, atonal jazz and cabaret. Stoller turned over the orchestration to others, including Frank Sinatra's arranger, Johnny Mandel, and a very young Randy Newman. The lyrics were American Brecht--brittle, decadent and despairing. "An archbishop from Boston wrote me after he heard it," Leiber said. "He called 'Mirrors' a great work on modern depression."
Rock critics savaged the album as an act of betrayal. Mainstream reviewers scoffed at the artistic pretensions of the guys who had composed "Yakety Yak." "Mirrors" went down practically unheard. Leiber and Stoller were never the same again.
"Until then we felt indestructible," Leiber said. "Afterward. . . ."
Leiber spent a few years writing a score for a musical based on Mordecai Richler's cynical novel, "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," but nothing much came of it. He and Stoller still got together and wrote, but they no longer expected hit records.
"At that point, we had the stage on our minds. But we didn't pursue Broadway with the fervor and commitment it demands. Sondheim did in the musical theater what we did in the record business. He had fervor and commitment, he paid his dues, he mastered his craft. He learned how to make a pair of pants."
Leiber and Stoller could still make pants, but not the kind they wanted to wear. With "Mirrors," they had deliberately violated Einstein's advice to Paul Leiber: Stick with what you know.
Now they were back to "Mirrors," hoping to revive it through electronic magic. (It was released in December, with some additional tracks, as "Peggy Lee Sings Leiber & Stoller.") The album, after three decades and Lee's death in 2002, remains a showcase for Mike Stoller's musical eclecticism and Jerry Leiber's demons. Freudian drama is everywhere. It is especially evident in "The Case of M.J.," a desolate meditation with a haunting question for a refrain: "How old were you when your father went away?"
Leiber was 5. At his father's funeral, he slipped and nearly fell into the open grave. "I dreamed about that for years," he said. "The strange thing is, in my dream a part of me has always wanted to stay in the grave with my father."
About the time "Mirrors" came out, Elkie Brooks recorded another fraught Leiber lyric, "Honey, Can I Put On Your Clothes?"
"After my father died I used to put on his stuff, just so I could smell the scent of him," he said. "That's what the song's about. Barbra Streisand recorded it too, but she changed the last line. I wrote 'Honey, can I put on your clothes/because they feel so good and they smell like you.' She sang it 'they feel like you.' She's a great artist, but she ruined the feeling of that song."
Leiber's mother is also on "Mirrors."
"Ready to Begin Again (Manya's Song)" is a tribute to her resilience in the face of old age. In his younger days, Leiber had made her the subject of a blues song, the swaggering "I'm a Woman."
"It's based on Muddy Waters' 'I'm a Man,' " Leiber said. To him, the connection seems natural. "A big part of black music is humor and attitude," he explained, "and I learned about that when my mother used to take me to the Yiddish theater in Baltimore. I found out about the blues there. Black humor to me was like Jewish humor, equally hip. As far as I was concerned, nothing goyish was funny or amusing."
I pointed out that there's no Jewish content in any of his songs (except, of course, "Charlie Brown's" "Why is everybody always pickin' on me?").
"The Jewish references aren't in the words. They're in the attitude, the gesture. That's where you look. Hey, you want to hear our new things?"
He pointed at a small CD player sitting on a shelf behind him. It took me a moment to realize that he was motioning toward "the vault."
Leiber walked over to the CD player and punched the play button. Suddenly, the office filled with a sound that was more Gilbert and Sullivan than Leiber and Stoller.
"We're putting together a musical based on the life of Oscar Wilde. Mike and I have been working on it for years. Our title is 'Oscar.' At one point Gore Vidal wanted to work with us on it, but he had two other projects he was committed to. Listen."
I listened. The songs ranged from plummy Victorian ballads to bawdy music-hall numbers.
As they played, Leiber provided a running commentary on the story, talking and listening at the same time. In the midst of a song called "I Look Forward to You," he suddenly seized a pencil and scratched away on a small pad. He was tinkering with the lyric. It was done with all the ceremony of a guy adding an item to his shopping list.
The songs ran into one another. There was a clever musical lecture from the Marquis of Queensbury to his son on the pleasures of heterosexual manhood; a profane whore's-eye view of the male sex; and Leiber's favorite, the uncharacteristically sentimental "The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name," an ode to the relationship between Oscar and Queensbury's son.
These passions we deny are too wild to tame. . .
The song ended and Leiber turned to me. "Well?"
I wasn't sure how to react. I'd been hoping to hear some old-time Leiber and Stoller, but instead of "an ocean of calamine lotion," I'd been dunked in Victorian bathos. I felt under-equipped to render an opinion on "Oscar." "What do you think Jimmy Witherspoon would have said about it?" I asked.
Leiber smiled. "Jimmy? He'd say, 'Man, that's pretty music.' "
The next day, I met Jed Leiber and Peter Stoller at Jed's studio in the Sunset Marquis Hotel. Mike was there when I arrived, sitting in front of a giant mixing board, working on "Mirrors."
Jed and Peter are both professional musicians and highly advanced techies. They played a phrase over and over, listening with the intense concentration of hunting dogs.
"That note on the third verse, after the cymbal, let's hear that again," Mike said.
"The music might be crowding the voice there," Jed said.
"You were astute to catch it," Peter said.
Mike Stoller smiled benignly. When we adjourned to a poolside lunch, he stayed in the studio. Stoller wanted to get as much done as he could before leaving for vacation in Italy. Besides, he didn't want to intrude on a conversation that would be about him.
Jed Leiber and Peter Stoller have lived lives that parallel their fathers'.
Like the senior Leiber and Stoller, they are the same age, and they began writing and playing music together in their teens. The big difference is that Jerry and Mike didn't have Jerry and Mike to contend with.
"I remember one time Peter and I played some of our songs for Peter's mother," Jed said. "She said, 'Those are very nice, but remember, there's only one Leiber and Stoller.' That stayed with me for about 20 years."
"Really?" Peter said. "I don't even remember it. Ouch." He looked genuinely pained. The two have lived through their fathers' days of glory and their time of retreat.
"When I was a teenager, my dad was so off of rock 'n' roll he didn't even want to hear the stereo at home," Jed recalled.
Peter nodded. "Jed and I finish each other's sentences. It's a natural chemistry. Jed and his brother, Oliver, are my brothers."
"We have total trust in each other," said Jed. "Musically and personally."
That trust was being tried by the tricky project they'd embarked upon: restoring their fathers' shattered "Mirrors." Said Peter: "When the album didn't succeed it surprised them. Those are the best songs they ever wrote. It's a mature statement about the 20th century."
I didn't disagree. Sons are allowed to be biased when it comes to their fathers.
"They've reached a point when they're looking at their legacy," Peter added. " 'Is That All There Is?' was a huge hit as a single. That's what they wanted 'Mirrors' to be."
Unspoken was the thought that it still might.
I was ready to leave it at that.
I had seen the 55-year collaboration up close. I had felt its power over two generations of Leibers and Stollers. And I had come to understand that a great artistic partnership can be based on something as simple as mutual respect.
I had heard the new songs too, and if they weren't what I'd hoped for, well, Jerry and Mike had grown up a long time ago, and what was I waiting for?
About a week passed when I called Leiber to check some facts. As usual, each question elicited an anecdote. He was in the middle of a funny story about a recording artist from the prehistoric era of rock 'n' roll named Garland the Great when he suddenly swerved back to the present.
"Bette Midler called me the other day," he said. "She asked me about Peggy Lee's version of 'I'm a Woman.' Bette said she might want to record it. (She went on to release the song last October on the album "Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook.")
"I had to tell her that Peggy's version isn't right. We wrote that song for a black woman, and Peggy never sang it that way.
"Bette said to me, 'Can you send me a demo of the right way to sing it?' So I sat down and made her one."
"With who singing?"
"Me," said Leiber. "My voice is shot, but I've still got enough for that." Suddenly he began singing the lyric he had written more than 40 years ago. "I'm a woman, W-O-M-A-N, say it again..."
His voice was lowdown and muddy, straight from the alley. There was some of Mike Stoller's three-fingered syncopation in there, a hint of Big Mama Thornton's growl and a touch of Manya Leiber too.
I sat there with the receiver glued to my ear, grinning, hearing at last what I had started out to hear.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Leiber & Stoller: A Hit Parade
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written more than 200 songs. Here are their No. 1 hits, which span genres and generations.
*--* Year Title Artist Genre 1953 Hound Dog Willie Mae "Big Mama" R&B; Thornton 1956 Hound Dog Elvis Presley Pop, Country, R&B; 1957 Jailhouse Rock Elvis Presley Pop, Country, R&B; 1957 Searchin' The Coasters R&B; 1957 Young Blood The Coasters R&B; 1958 Don't Elvis Presley Pop 1958 Yakety Yak The Coasters Pop R&B; 1959 Kansas City Wilbert Harrison Pop, R&B; 1959 Poison Ivy The Coasters R&B; 1959 There Goes My The Drifters R&B; Baby 1961 Stand by Me Ben E. King R&B; 1969 Is That All Peggy Lee Adult Contemporary There Is? 1971 Spanish Harlem* Aretha Franklin R&B; 1975 Ruby Baby Billy "Crash" Craddock Country 1980 Stand by Me Mickey Gilley Country
*Written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector
1985 Induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame
1987 Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
1996 Grammy, best musical show album, Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
1999 Grammy Trustees Award
Most Recent Release
"Peggy Lee Sings Leiber & Stoller"
Released by Hip-O Select December 2005