Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller formed one of the best and most prolific songwriting teams of the 50's and 60's in addition to their work as record producers. Their formula was to take their love of R&B music and transform it into songs that appealed to a wide audience through their unforgettable melodies, well-conceived lyrics, and meticulous methods of producing records.
Jerry Leiber was born in Baltimore in 1933 and Mike Stoller was born less than three weeks later in Belle Harbor, New York. Following World War II the families of both moved to the West Coast. They met each other in Los Angeles in 1950 and soon found out that they had a lot in common. Both were serious fans of R&B music although both lived in predominantly white neighborhoods.
They began to write songs together, and their early efforts were recorded by artists such as Amos Milburn, Floyd "Skeet" Dixon, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Their first taste of national recognition came with a song that they wrote titled Hard Times which was recorded by Charles Brown. They were not yet out of their teens.
They formed an alliance with Johnny Otis, a Los Angeles based R&B artist/songwriter/promoter who, among other things, would have a top ten pop song of his own with Willie And The Hand Jive later in the 50's. Otis promoted a number of R&B acts including Big Mama Thornton, and through this connection Leiber & Stoller wrote something for her that would become a legendary song, Hound Dog. Thornton's recording of the song topped the R&B charts for seven weeks in 1953.
Leiber and Stoller formed the Spark label that year along with West Coast music promoter Lester Sill. They continued to write songs, with Stoller preferring more serious music and Leiber more inclined toward writing sometimes humorous lyrics. They developed a style of telling stories in their songs using these humorous lyrics, which they termed "playlets." Otis had promoted singer Little Esther who was backed on many of her R&B records by a group known as the Robins. Leiber and Stoller turned to this group to record some of the songs they had written for their label, resulting in such hits as Smoky Joe's Cafe, Riot In Cell Block 9, and Framed. As a result of this success early in their careers, their label was purchased by Atlantic, and this led to the Robins being renamed the Coasters [because they were from the West Coast] and Leiber and Stoller being hired by Atlantic to serve as independent producers, a practice that was uncommon in the record business at that time. Leiber and Stoller would go on to write nearly all of the Coasters hit songs, including Searchin', Yakety Yak, Charlie Brown, Poison Ivy, Along Came Jones, and Little Egypt [Ying-Yang]. One thing led to another, and the songwriting team found themselves working with the likes of established performers such as Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, and Ruth Brown. Leiber and Stoller moved to New York City and set up an office in what was known as the Brill Building, which was actually a group of buildings along Broadway that served as the epicenter of the pop music business in the 50's and 60's.
Their earlier composition of Hound Dog was recorded by Elvis Presley and released along with Don't Be Cruel on its flip side. It was a megahit and helped to establish Presley as a star, remaining at number one on the pop charts for an incredible eleven weeks in 1956. No record has held the number one spot for that length of time since then. Money began to pour in and Johnny Otis filed suit, claiming that he was entitled to some of the profits as co-writer of Hound Dog; the court ruling went against Otis.
The reputation of Leiber and Stoller as hit makers was by this time well established. They continued to produce records in the Brill Building studios. Each production was conceived and planned with careful attention to detail, with recording sessions sometimes resulting in 50 or more takes. New concepts in pop music production were introduced, such as the use of strings and Latin rhythms. The results were edited and re-edited until the desired effect had been achieved. Around this time their former partner, Lester Sill, sent a young record producer with whom he had begun working on the West Coast to New York and put him in touch with Leiber and Stoller. His name was Phil Spector, and when he arrived initially he moved into their office and slept on a couch there at night. Spector studied their meticulous production techniques diligently and would later adjust them to suit his own preferences; he went on to a career that would one day land him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Leiber and Stoller soon grew tired of Spector and it was not long before he struck out on his own.
Atlantic Records had another group, the Drifters, and Leiber and Stoller began to produce songs for them using the same formula that had worked so well for the Coasters. They had at their disposal in the Brill Building some of the finest artists, musicians, songwriters and recording engineers in the entire music business. The result was hits such as Save The Last Dance For Me, On Broadway, and Up On The Roof.
Elvis Presley was looking for good material and his agent, Colonel Tom Parker, negotiated with the prolific songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. One song that they had written, Love Me, was interpreted in an entirely different way than the songwriters had intended when Presley recorded it. They were astonished at how well he had done with it. They wrote the score for Presley's feature films Love Me Tender and Jailhouse Rock.
Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman formed another pair of prolific Brill Building songwriters, with such hits as Elvis' Little Sister, Dion and the Belmonts' A Teenager In Love and Fabian's Turn Me Loose. The two duos collaborated on some projects. Through some combination of Schuman, Pomus, Leiber, and Stoller, there resulted such gems as the Coasters' Young Blood, some of the songs done by Ben E. King after he left the Drifters, and some of Elvis' hits such as She's Not You.
Leiber and Stoller eventually ended their association with Atlantic and formed their own label in 1964, naming it Red Bird. One of the first hits for Red Bird came when singer/producer Joe Jones drove three girls to the Brill Building from their home in New Orleans. [Joe Jones had been a pianist and valet to B.B. King, and had his own top ten hit with You Talk Too Much on the Roulette label in 1960.] Through a rather circuitous series of events, the girls recorded a song that had been written by another veteran Brill Building songwriting team, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and it was released just before Phil Spector could record the same song with his group the Ronettes. The result was the number one song Chapel Of Love for the girls, who were named the Dixie Cups. Later that year Red Bird would release Remember [Walkin' In The Sand] by a group of girls from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, the Shangri-Las. This group went on to have a number of hits, including the number one Leader Of The Pack, all of them on Leiber and Stoller's Red Bird label. In 1966 Jerry and Mike sold their interest in Red Bird to their partner, George Goldner. Leiber and Stoller once again began working with the Coasters, but with little success.
They were doing less and less songwriting but continued to work as freelance record producers in the 70's, promoting such acts as Peggy Lee, Stealers Wheel, Procol Harum, and T-Bone Walker. Many of their songs were still being recorded by other artists.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller left a lasting impression on the pop music business through their work in the 50's and 60's. In 1988 their early composition that had been such a huge success, Hound Dog, earned a Grammy Hall Of Fame Award. In the 90's a Broadway musical that is based on their work, Smoky Joe's Cafe, was touring the country. Jerry Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure in Los Angeles in 2011; Mike is still around and occasionally appears in the mainstream media.
Leiber and Stoller, who claimed that "we don't write songs, we write records," were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987.
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