Jerry Leiber died on Monday at the age of 78. As a teenager, Leiber recruited Mike Stoller to compose the music for Leiber’s inventive lyrics. At the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, they injected their passion for rhythm & blues into the music. Leiber brought his own playful wit and fractured view of the universe to the stories he set to Stoller’s tunes.
Among their earliest productions was “Hound Dog,” a song they wrote for Big Mama Thornton and which Elvis turned into their first number one hit a few years later. Their partnership produced many classic songs, recalled in worthy obituaries by William Grimes (New York Times), Marc Myers (Wall Street Journal), and Claudia Luther (Los Angeles Times).
The obits don’t go deeply into the Elvis angle, but it is one that illuminates Leiber’s work with Stoller. Leiber and Stoller wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” for example, the best song in Elvis’s best movie (video above). The year is 1957; Peter Guralnick tells the story in Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, the first volume of his biography of Elvis:
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had been commissioned, more or less, to write the score. Just two years older than Elvis, but with a string of r&b hits (including “Hound Dog”) going back into their teens, they had not exactly leapt at the opportunity. In fact, Jean Aberbach had practically had to lock them into their New York hotel room the month before just to get them to settle down long enough to write four songs (the other two had been farmed out). As hipsters of long standing and deep-seated belief, their attitude, simply stated, was: who was this lame ofay moving in on their territory? They had hated the job he had done on “Hound Dog”; “Love Me,” the second story song they gave him, was their idea of a joke; and they hadn’t been particularly impressed by the two songs of theirs that he had recorded for Loving You either. They were scarcely prepared, then, for the person they actually met at Radio Recorders [studio], where Big Mama Thornton’s original version of “Hound Dog” had been cut four years earlier, with the same songwriters and the same recordist, Thorne Nogar, engineering.
“We thought we were the only two white kids who knew anything about the blues,” said Mike Stoller, but he knew all kinds of stuff.” “We thought he was like an idiot savant,” echoed Jerry Lieber, but he listened a lot. He knew all of our records. He knew Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson. He loved Ray Charles’ early records. And he was a workhorse in the studio — he didn’t pull any diva numbers.” They fenced warily for a while, trading enthusiasms, and Elvis and Mike sat down at the piano to play some four-hand blues. Afterward, Jerry and Mike ran through the title song they had written for the new picture, and Elvis smiled approvingly at Leiber’s hoarse, knowing vocal and said, “Okay, let’s make it.”
Looking back on the sessions for the film, Guralnick adds:
[T]hey had recorded a typically witty, specially commissioned, more than slightly cynical set of songs “mostly by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,” as the film credits would declare, a set of self-contained “playlets” of the tongue-in-cheek variety (listen to “Jailhouse Rock” sometime if you doubt the satiric intent) that Leiber and Stoller had pioneered with the Coasters….