‘Hound Dog’ songwriter is guest of honor at Elvis Festival in Garden Grove
If songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog” hold a special place in your heart then warm up those hips and head down to historic Main Street Garden Grove this Sunday for a huge surprise.
Mike Stoller, who wrote both of those rock ‘n’ roll gems (and countless more) with partner Jerry Leiber, will be there — in the flesh — the guest of honor at the 21st annual Elvis Festival.
Stoller, now 88, will be serenaded by a gang of Elvis Presley tribute artists, who will take turns performing two dozen of the hits that he and Leiber (who died in 2011) wrote for the King back in the day.
Elvis tribute artist Martin Anthony, who is co-hosting the event, said he can’t believe he’s going to be singing the Elvis songs that he’s been covering for 30 years to the very legend who actually wrote them.
“I’m just really nervous, excited, you know just really giddy to be in the presence of true rock ‘n’ roll royalty,” Anthony says.
The Stoller-Leiber-Elvis partnership all began with “Hound Dog.” What many fans don’t know is that, Stoller and Leiber originally wrote the song (in a car in 12 minutes) for R&B singer Big Mama Thornton.
But it was Elvis who, after hearing the song, recorded it in 1956 with his own style, giving it a whole new sound that is widely considered to have helped spark the rock ‘n’ roll revolution.
Stoller says he didn’t even like Elvis’ version of “Hound Dog” because he fiddled with the lyrics. The song they wrote for Big Mama was about a woman scolding her free-loadin’ man. Elvis was singing about a dog that couldn’t catch a rabbit.
“I was disappointed the first time I heard it, but after it sold about 7 million singles I began to see some merit in it,” Stoller says, laughing.
Elvis began telling everyone that the young songsmiths (they were 23 at the time, two years older than Elvis) were his good luck charms, according to Stoller. Elvis even asked them to be in the studio when he recorded, lighthearted sessions fueled by peanut butter sandwiches and orange pop.
“Elvis was completely open and never acted like a diva,” Stoller says in his and Leiber’s autobiography “Hound Dog.”
One of Stoller’s favorite Elvis memories dates back to ‘57. The boys, then living in L.A., were flown to Manhattan so they could write some songs for the King’s latest film vehicle “Jailhouse Rock.”
A piano was pushed into their hotel suite so they could work, but Stoller and Leiber had trouble staying put with all the action right outside their window. There were Broadway shows — and boozy jazz clubs where cats named Miles Davis, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk were blowing minds.
At the end of the week Elvis’ producer knocked on their hotel door asking for their songs.
“Don’t worry you’ll get them,” the duo assured him, a little nervously.
“Oh, I’m not worried,” came the reply. “Because I’m not leaving until I get them.”
He then pushed a sofa against the door, sat down on it and fell asleep.
Stoller recounts what happened next.
“Jerry and I lit some cigarettes — cigarette smoking was a mandatory part of our writing process,” he wrote in “Hound Dog.” Then they flipped through the movie script. Stoller sat down at the piano and Leiber started tossing out lyrics. By 6 p.m. they had four songs, including the iconic “Jailhouse Rock.”
Stoller says they were in the studio the day Elvis recorded the hit.
On Sunday, Anthony will sing “Jailhouse Rock” to Stoller. Six other Elvis impersonators will serenade him with other hits he wrote for the King, including “Hound Dog” and “Treat Me Nice.”
The 40-minute tribute is set for 1 p.m. and will end with “Stand By Me,” another song Stoller and Leiber wrote with soul singer Ben E. King.
In all, Leiber and Stoller wrote (and often arranged and produced) over 70 Billboard Chart hits, including pop classics like “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown” for the Coasters and “I’m a Woman” for Peggy Lee.
“I’m proud of all of my songs,” says Stoller. “They’re like children.”
Asked where the tunes come from, how the magic happens, Stoller (who fell in love with boogie woogie at an integrated sleep-away camp in New Jersey in 1941) says he still doesn’t know. But sometimes he awakens in the dead of night, humming tunes “and then I can’t wait to get up in the morning and finish them.”
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He is still writing, by the way. He works most days (currently on a musical with Iris Rainer Dart, author of the novel-turned-movie “Beaches”) in his Hollywood Hills home, which is filled with art, harps and pianos. The harps belong to his wife Corky Hale, a star musician in her own right. Hale, now 85, played jazz piano for Billie Holiday and harp for Tony Bennett and Liberace.
Stoller says that if he ever gets writer’s block he looks up at his Songwriters Hall of Fame certificate and tells himself: “Hell, if I did it before, I can do it again.”
The craziest thing is that most of this story would have never happened had Stoller gone down with the Andrea Doria ocean liner in 1956.
He was returning from Paris (where he had just seen Edith Piaf sing a French twist of the Leiber and Stoller song “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”) on the ship when it sank.
Forming a human chain with other passengers he managed to drop into a lifeboat and was rescued by a freighter. Twelve hours later he sailed into New York Harbor to find Leiber running toward him with the news that their song “Hound Dog” was a smash hit.
By Big Mama Thornton? Stoller asked.
“No,” said Leiber. “Some white kid named Elvis Presley.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The 21st annual Elvis Festival is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday Oct. 10 on Historic Main Street in Garden Grove.
Lori Basheda is a contributor to TimesOC.
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