PASADENA, Calif.—You don’t expect that some of the world’s most definitive rock `n’ roll music would come from a couple of white Jewish boys who met when they were just 17. But Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber have proved an extraordinary exception.
Authors of such rock `n’ roll greats as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakity Yak,” “Kansas City” and Peggy Lee’s “Is that All There Is?,” Leiber and Stoller have worked together 57 years.
The secret to their success, they say, is “arguments.” “This is the oldest running argument in the history of the music business,” says Leiber, the lyricist, seated next to his partner here.
“Out of that has come work that is probably better than it would’ve been without the arguments, even though some of them have been brutal,” adds Stoller, the composer of the duo.
Some of the most brutal days were their years at Atlantic Records when they worked for Ahmet Ertegun, serving as the nation’s first independent producers who not only wrote the music and lyrics but oversaw every facet of the production.
PBS will examine that creative period when it offers Atlantic Records: the House that Ahmet Built on American Masters, airing May 2 (check local listings).
Leiber was still in high school when he began jotting down song lyrics with a partner who had to quit to help support his family. He told Leiber about a “pretty good” piano player he’d met.
Leiber recalls his first meeting with Stoller. “I called him up and said, `Are you Mike Stoller?’ He said, `Yes.’ I said, `Do you play the piano?’ He said, `Yes.’ I said, `Do you write music?’ He said, `Yes.’ I said, `Can you write notes down on pages?’ And he said, `Ye-e-s.’ he halted for a minute. I’ll never forget that, I thought he was going to say no. It was a very studied, `Yes,’ like, `What kind of jerk am I talking to? Do you write notes down on paper? Duh.’ I said, `Would you like to write songs?’ He said, `No.’ I couldn’t believe my ears ... I said, `Why not?’”
“I remember what I said,” interjects Stoller. “`I don’t like songs.’ But I was thinking I was talking to a young man named Jerome Leiber and I thought he’d be writing songs I would consider terrible. Because most of the popular tunes of that day I found to be totally uninteresting. There were great songs I respected like those of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, but most of the stuff I was hearing was, `floating down the river on a Sunday afternoon.’
“I also loved jazz. I loved Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. I loved be-bop and also loved to listen to Stravinsky and Bartok. And I was also being very pretentious when he asked me what I liked and I told him all these things.”
Leiber insisted they meet and finally Stoller invited him over. “I was standing in a little apartment downtown on Columbia Avenue where I lived with my mom and dad and as I recall I was hanging up the phone and I seem to remember the doorbell rang. And there he was. My mother was in the kitchen and said, `Aren’t you going to invite your friend in?’”
Stoller, at first struck by Leiber’s one brown eye and one blue eye, reluctantly took the spiral school pad from Leiber and glanced at the lyrics he’d scribbled on the blue lines.
“I saw a line of lyrics, a line of ditto marks and a line that rhymed with the first line. I said, `These are not the songs I thought you meant. These are blues, these are 12-bar blues. I love the blues!”
“He realized they were blues,” says Leiber, “and I didn’t. I wrote them automatically.”
“He was right, they WERE songs,” says Stoller, who grew up in New York. “To me this was a very elevated kind of song. This was the blues. For me it was an art form. I sat down and started to play and Jerry started to sing along and we shook hands and said, `Let’s be partners.’ That mode we worked in was spontaneous combustion.”
“And it stayed that way for years,” says Leiber. “Most writers did not write that way at all. Usually the composer would write a tune to a lyric. Sometimes it could go the other way. I’ve done that with Mike often, like he wrote, `I Breathe Out, You Breathe In,’ he wrote that tune first. Then I wrote a lyric.”
“Or Jerry would write a stanza of lyric and I would set it to music. Then we’d more often than not repeat that form and we’d each search for a way to form a bridge and go back to the original lyrical metric structure,” adds Stoller.
Leiber had absorbed the sound of black music when he lived in Baltimore as a kid. Stoller first heard it when he attended an interracial summer camp at 7.
“I studied when I was about 10, took about four or five lessons from (slide pianist) James P. Johnson because somebody heard me playing boogie-woogie when I was about 8 or 9,” says Stoller.
One of their most famous tunes is “Stand by Me.” Ben E. King, who first sang the hit, was writing a song inspired by music he’d heard in church. He asked the songwriting pair to help him.
He sang about four bars and Stoller went to the piano and began to lay down a rhythm bass for the tune.
“We knew it was a smash,” says Leiber, recalling the doo-doo-doo, cha, doo-doo-doo, cha rhythm of the song. “Now that’s not a tune, it’s a bass pattern but you can characterize it as a melody of some sort. It can be contrapuntal, it can be a lead line, it can be partly rhythm and have note value.”
“The whole treatment of this song the three of us created then by adding the orchestra and using the bass pattern with more and more instruments, including strings and then creating a whole record with additional percussion and different sounds,” says Stoller.
“That was the fulfillment of the skeleton that the three of us created in that little office.”
Some lucky person will win the chance to trace his or her roots through DNA and genealogical research via the program African-American Lives 2, coming to PBS. The show will be hosted by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. “What we find in doing this research is that even a regular person has extraordinary stories within his or her family,” says Professor Gates. “In African-American Lives 2, we’ll work with one such person to show that the technology and resources for discovering these stories are available to all Americans, especially those of African descent.”
Candidates may apply by going to www.pbs.org/aalives. Deadline is May 4.
Agent Muldur has finally sniffed his way into a new gig. Starting in June, David Duchovny will begin filming a new comedy series for Showtime called Californication. Duchovny, so famous as the determined agent on The X-Files, plays a novelist and father of a 13-year-old, who has “issues” with wine, women and the occasional mind-altering substance.
Production has begun in London on Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, with Frances McDormand in the role of the nanny who finds herself thrown into the heady world of show biz and high society. In real life McDormand claims she’s far more lackluster. “I was a very good girl, a very easy kid. Not until I left home that I basically had a list of everything I wanted to try and I went about trying them, checking off everything I wanted. That exploration led to the lifestyle I have now, which is very different from the one I grew up in, from my parents and the rest of my family. But comparatively speaking I lead a very conventional life, really.”