Oldies But Goodies

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Hours after escaping the wreck of the Andrea Doria, 22-year-old composer Mike Stoller peered from the deck of a rescue ship as it entered New York harbor to see his lyricist partner Jerry Leiber, also 22, lounging on the pier, holding an Italian silk suit--in case Mike needed dry clothes. "We have a hit!" Leiber cried. "Hound Dog...recorded by some kid named Elvis."

That was July 1956. And while lots of folks will tell you that when they heard Elvis shout "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog!" it changed music forever, the revolution was already well under way. In fact, you could say it began in 1950, when a pair of 17-year-old white kids named Leiber and Stoller teamed up to write for black rhythm-and-blues performers like Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Mama Thornton--for whom they yelled and banged out Hound Dog in 10 inspired minutes.

This month Leiber and Stoller, now Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, celebrate their half-century mark as partners and accept the Johnny Mercer Award from the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters' Hall of Fame. As songwriters, record producers, record-company owners and music publishers, they are legends in the business, having written and produced scores of hits--from the rhythm and blues of Kansas City to witty pop ditties like Yakety Yak and Poison Ivy and soul classics like Stand by Me.

Fifty years after they penned their first song, their exuberant music is still everywhere, blasting out of the radio on old records and new CDs, jiving up TV commercials and lending grit to movie sound tracks. Their song collection, Smokey Joe's Cafe, became the longest-running revue in Broadway history, toured Europe and Japan, and is now playing Las Vegas and Seoul.

Their collaboration began in Los Angeles, when Leiber, then in high school and boasting a copybook scrawled with song lyrics, called up Stoller, a friend of a friend who he'd heard wrote music. Stoller, a Long Island, N.Y., native, had fallen in love with boogie-woogie piano at an interracial summer camp. Leiber had breathed it in from the black households in Baltimore to which he had delivered kerosene and coal from his mom's grocery store. They bonded over 12-bar blues and had almost immediate success writing for black artists. "These were called 'race records,'" Stoller recalls, "meaning they were played only on stations that catered to a black audience." It was the young songwriters' destiny to become a major conduit of black music to white audiences.

When Elvis' version of Hound Dog exploded on the scene, their fortunes soared. Asked by Elvis' producers for more songs, they wrote more than 20, including Love Me, Treat Me Nice, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock. "We became his lucky charm," Stoller says of Elvis, then laughs and adds, "until we got bored."

"We wrote to amuse ourselves," Leiber says. It shows in the manic energy and irrepressible good humor of their music. It's still hard not to laugh at the comic turns they wrote for the Coasters, such as Charlie Brown and Love Potion No. 9. Such story songs as Along Came Jones and Young Blood were inspired by Leiber's love of radio series like The Shadow. Their subjects ranged from knife fights and no-accounts to class clowns and the clap. That last can be found in what Leiber calls the "snide innuendo" of their hilarious Poison Ivy.

In the late '50s, the pair began working with other writers and producing records for such artists as the Drifters and Ben E. King. Stoller recalls the creation of There Goes My Baby and the birth of soul. "I started playing a counterline on the piano that was like a Rimsky-Korsakov melody. Jerry said, 'That sounds like strings,' and I said, 'Why not? Let's do it.'" So came the first R.-and-B. record with strings. With Spanish Harlem, they added Brazilian and African percussion.

Then came the restlessness. "It was the era of the girl groups," Stoller says. "The focus of songs was getting younger and younger. We decided to try to write in a different vein." Is That All There Is?, recorded by Peggy Lee in 1969, was the kind of arty cabaret song they meant. They wrote for the theater but weren't taken seriously. After the runaway success of Smokey Joe's, they're reworking two book musicals they wrote at that time.

Their classic songs have been recorded by artists as varied as the Beatles, John Mellencamp, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand. Kansas City alone, Stoller guesses, has had about 500 versions. Not long ago, the two were invited to the White House. President Clinton was excited to meet them, Stoller recalls fondly: "He broke out singing, 'The neon lights are bright on Broadway...'"

Did they ever think when they began that someday the President of the U.S. would croon one of their songs to them? Stoller laughs. "We thought if we were really lucky they might last six months."