The Music Plays On For Mike Stoller

In an exclusive interview, legendary songwriter reveals his current musical projects and remembers his late musical partner Jerry Leiber
  • Photo: Jesse Grant/
    Mike Stoller
October 01, 2012 -- 5:42 pm PDT
By J. Poet /

When Mike Stoller met Jerry Leiber in 1950, rock and roll hadn't been invented yet. The duo — pianist Stoller and lyricist Leiber — wanted to write songs for blues artists they admired. After a few small hits, including "Hound Dog" by Big Mama Thornton and "Black Denim Trousers And Motorcycle Boots" by the Cheers, their fortunes changed dramatically. In 1956 Elvis Presley covered "Hound Dog" and took it to the top of the pop charts. The King subsequently covered such Leiber/Stoller songs as "Love Me," "Loving You," "Jailhouse Rock," and "Don't," cementing the duo's status as hit makers.

Leiber and Stoller's entire résumé is astounding. The duo co-wrote classic sides such as Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," the Clovers' "Love Potion #9," and the Coasters' "Searchin'," "Poison Ivy," and "Charlie Brown," among others. In 1969 they wrote and produced "Is That All There Is?" for Peggy Lee, which earned her a GRAMMY for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. In 1975 they reunited with Lee for Mirrors, a dark collection of cabaret songs they wrote and produced. Their classic '50s hits formed the basis of the 1995 Broadway musical "Smoky Joe's Caf." The original cast recording, Smokey Joe's Cafe — The Songs Of Leiber & Stoller, won the pair a GRAMMY for Best Musical Show Album. The duo received a Recording Academy Trustees Award in 1999.

After a long battle with physical ailments, Leiber died from cardiopulmonary failure in August 2011. In a brand-new interview, Stoller, who will be 80 next March, discussed his current projects, including an Oscar Wilde musical, his first lyric, and how he has adjusted to life without his lifelong friend and collaborator.

You recently wrote "Charlotte" for the city of Charlotte, N.C., which has been recorded by GRAMMY winner Steve Tyrell. How did you connect?
When I was finished, I thought of Steve Tyrell. I left a message on his cell. He called back and said he was just thinking about doing a Leiber/Stoller album. I told him about the song, sent him a demo and he recorded it. I loved it and sent it to [Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx] and he loved it.

How long did it take to write? Is this your first lyric?
The melody came rather quickly. I write a melody and then change it and change it until I get it the way I like it. The lyric came pretty fast, maybe in an afternoon or three. This is my first complete lyric. I used to give Jerry my ideas about his lyrics. He'd accept them if he liked them or make a face if he didn't. He'd make suggestions about my melodies too.

Jerry and I wrote "Kansas City" in 1952 and the first time we were there was in 1986 and we got the key to the city. Hopefully, I can get to Charlotte before 2040.

Can you tell us about the Oscar Wilde musical you're working on?
Jerry and I started on it years ago. My wife Corky saw a film called The Trials Of Oscar Wilde, directed by Ken Hughes, and was excited about it. She thought it would be a good idea for a musical. Years later, we got a phone call from Ken Hughes. He said he was writing a musical and he'd just heard [Peggy Lee's] Mirrors album. He said he must have me write the music for his show; he had the book and lyrics and needed a composer. When we met, I convinced him that Jerry should write the lyrics. [Jerry] agreed, but passed away before we finished, so it was put on hold.

When I met Michael Bywater, we began talking about Oscar Wilde. Michael is a Wilde scholar, a journalist, a contributing editor at [British humor magazine] Punch, musical director of the Wells Dance Theater, and recorded with Procol Harum. We had a number of meetings, including one we scheduled for the night Jerry passed away.

We've been working on [the musical] since [Jerry passed,] but it's a complex project. The songs we created for Ken's book fit into Michael's creation. We've demoed songs with an orchestra and Judith Owen, the Welsh singer and songwriter who's married to Harry Shearer, Tim Curry and Julian Holloway, the son of Stanley Holloway. We still haven't decided if the show's going to happen, but an album might lead to the show getting done. Webber and Rice did Jesus Christ Superstar as an album first, so it's something to consider.

Are you currently working on any other projects?
Otis Sallid, the choreographer who worked with us on Smokey Joe's Cafe, is interested in a ballet Jerry and I started a number of years ago. It takes place in a shop window with the mannequins coming to life and dancing. It's a musical with no dialogue and Otis said he'd love to direct and choreograph it, so we're revisiting it over the telephone.

You initially aspired to play jazz piano. Did you ever take lessons? Did the songwriting overshadow your jazz ambitions?
At a certain age, I knew my taste was better than my ability in that department, so I married Corky. She is a jazz pianist and plays the harp as a bonus. When she was younger she played with Billie Holliday and has played harp for Tony Bennett and [Barbra] Streisand. She has a lot of credits.

When you met Jerry he was at Fairfax High School. Was there an immediate spark?
I had just started at Los Angeles City College. I was a bit older than [Jerry.] He got my phone number from a piano player I knew and gave me a call. I wanted to be a songwriter and Jerry was writing 12-bar blues songs. We shook hands and said we'd be partners, and we were, for 61 years. Our mutual love for boogie-woogie and the blues brought us together. We'd both grown up with a lot of black friends who loved the music we loved. We loved other kinds of music too, but all we wanted to do was write for blues singers.

Phil Spector got his start working on Leiber/Stoller productions, true?
Phil wanted to move to New York, where we'd relocated. We had a mentor named Lester Sill, a sales manager for an R&B record company, who later became a major figure in music publishing. Lester told us about Phil and we sent him a ticket to come to New York. He didn't last very long with us, but we gave him a lot of session work to keep him in pocket money. We used four guitars on sessions; while he was around, he was the fifth guitar player.

You worked with Jerry for a lifetime. Is it hard to adjust to his passing?
[While he was sick] I worked on a Broadway show, "The People In The Picture." I wrote the music and invited Artie Butler in to help me. The lyrics were by Iris Rainer Dart, who wrote the novel Beaches. She's very good and I'd be happy to write another show with her, but Jerry was the best. He was special and I miss him.

He was sick for a long time and his passing was expected, but it was still a shock. There are still occasions, when I have an idea or hear good news, that I find myself reaching for the phone to call him. 

(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)

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