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Leiber and Stoller write it all down

The hit songwriters look back on their 50-year partnership in 'Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography.'

June 17, 2009|RJ Smith

They met cute.

Jerry Leiber was an animated teenage tunesmith. Because he lacked the skill of putting notes on paper, however, a friend told him to call a piano player named Mike.

Jerry dialed the number he'd been given.

"Hi, my name is Jerome Leiber. Are you Mike Stoller?"

"Yup."

"Did you play a dance in East L.A. last week?"

"Yup."

"Can you write music?"

"Yup."

"Can you write music on paper?"

"Yup."

"Would you like to write songs with me?"

"Nope."

"How come?"

"I don't like songs."

That exchange appears early in "Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography," in which one of the greatest songwriting teams in pop history -- they composed "Jailhouse Rock," "Is That All There Is?," "Yakety Yak," "On Broadway" and a lot more -- finally tells its story, with the help of David Ritz.

Eventually, Stoller came around to liking songs and Leiber got past his brusqueness. They hit it off. Leiber noticed Stoller's self-contained swagger. "Mike," he says over the phone from his Venice Beach home, "dressed like a pachuco and always had a suntan so he looked like he was part Mexican."

They were two hepcats who understood each other immediately on the fundamental level of style. "Jerry always dressed really well," says Stoller, also by phone. (He is at a meeting in New York.) He remembers Leiber once trading a good car on a whim to a Fairfax shop owner for a pair of alligator shoes. He pauses, then chuckles. "Jerry always had rather nice clothes, but what I remember most of all was that he had wool slacks and they itched him so much he would sometimes wear pajamas under his clothes because they were too itchy."

Two guys, joined at the hip.

"I brought heat and he brought cool," Leiber writes. "I saw that as a good combination."

They found they had a gift for collaboration, which is different from a gift for getting along. Sitting together beside a piano, with a cloud of cigarette smoke curling overhead, they quarreled and disagreed.

The creative process has been, says Leiber, "a 50-year ongoing war with no winner." This might explain the shape of "Hound Dog" -- the book moves back and forth between Leiber and Stoller's voices, in passages that read like casual conversation taken down and massaged into print.

Their narratives veer off in different directions, they don't sound anything alike, but together they come up with one of the more breezily entertaining music books in years.

Leiber and Stoller learned their trade in L.A. high schools and from hanging out on Central Avenue; they met Elvis and Ahmet Ertegun. (Also, James Dean, Cecil B. DeMille and Norman Mailer.) They spent quality time in the famed beehive of songwriters, New York's Brill Building.

They claim to have invented the job title of record producer. They made millions, lost them, found themselves in business briefly with the mob. Late in life, the cream of their songs became the basis of a smash-hit Broadway show.

It all got going in Los Angeles. Both arrived in the late 1940s. Stoller was a kid from Queens who had studied with pianist James P. Johnson, and Leiber came on the Greyhound from Baltimore with his mother. He was bussing tables at Clifton's Cafeteria when he heard DJ Hunter Hancock play L.A. blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon's "Ain't Nobody's Business" on the radio.

All these years later, the song still transfixes Leiber. "I'm three times seven / it makes twenty one / And it ain't nobody's business what I'll do . . ." he sings through the receiver. The moment had a wrenched-out-of-time power to Leiber.

He and Stoller started writing songs, selling them to Witherspoon and others they saw in nightclubs and after-hours spots. Los Angeles gave them a connection to an urban blues that was morphing into R&B and, eventually, rock 'n' roll. Their craft took its contour in this city, where they learned from folks like Maxwell Davis, a terrific saxophone player who made his mark assembling bands and writing sharp arrangements. They taught "Kansas City" to singer Little Willie Littlefield at Davis' house and learned much from watching him work.

"I wasn't a songwriter until I moved to Los Angeles," Stoller says. "I'd never written a song until I got a phone call from Jerry. So living in Los Angeles did a lot for me."

"Hound Dog" flows like a 45 -- it's fast and funny, studded with memorable encounters. Perhaps most memorable was their experience in the early 1960s with a rising songwriter and producer named Phil Spector. A mentor urged them to work with the eccentric hotshot, and reluctantly they agreed.

"He had an offensive aura about him," says Leiber. "He was less than convivial, not somebody you'd feel good about sitting down and having a drink with."

Still, they gave it a shot. Leiber and Spector wrote "Spanish Harlem" together, and the team says they signed Spector to a contract giving their fledgling publishing company rights to his songs. Soon, however, Spector had signed a different deal with Atlantic Records.

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