LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had not become two of the most influential songwriters in pop music, they could have earned a decent living as a stand-up comedy duo.
Almost 60 years after an awkward first meeting that set them on the road to vast fame and fortune through such tunes as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me” and “Poison Ivy,” the pair have developed a finely honed routine.
Stoller supplies the anecdotes, and Leiber, the lyricist, injects the spicy wit. The system worked well for their new memoir, “Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography,” in which the boogie-woogie boys trade old war stories.
In a recent conversation with Reuters, the 76-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees were asked if the project exposed divergent, Rashomon-style memories of the same event.
“Constantly, all the time,” said Stoller. “That’s because I have a very good memory. And he doesn’t.”
“But I have a very fertile imagination,” countered Leiber.
“You bet,” replied Stoller.
“And that makes up for what I cannot remember,” Leiber concluded.
The back-and-forth goes on for 300 pages in their book, with collaborator David Ritz playing referee.
“They’re like Catskill comics. I didn’t have to do much,” said Ritz, who has previously co-authored memoirs for the likes of Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. “They’re used to arguing, so I got in there and began arguing with them. The arguments, for the most part, were positive.”
The sparks that have flown between Leiber and Stoller also ignited the career of the Coasters, for whom they wrote and produced all of the doo-wop act’s hits, including “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and “Along Came Jones.”
Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Ben E. King and Peggy Lee were also among their many satisfied clients. Their 200-plus tunes have also been covered by everyone from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Joni Mitchell and Liza Minnelli.
Raised on the East Coast, Leiber and Stoller came to Los Angeles with their families during the 1940s. They met in 1950 when they were 17. Leiber phoned Stoller and suggested they work together. Stoller was reluctant, but was inadvertently mesmerized when Leiber showed up at his doorstep.
“He had one blue eye and one brown eye,” Stoller said. “I’d never seen that before ... I forgot to say anything for a long time. I was just staring at him.”
“I said to myself, he’s one of those,” joked Leiber.
“Hound Dog” was their breakthrough, originally recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1952. It came together when Leiber started beating a jungle rhythm on the roof of Stoller’s ‘37 Plymouth with his right hand and tapped on the dashboard with his left.
“I kinda liked the beat and it felt good,” Leiber recalled. “I started yelling, ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog!’ Mike said, ‘I like that.’”
They sped to Stoller’s house, and made a beeline for the upright piano where Stoller pounded out a groove.
Presley released a defanged version in 1956, and eventually recorded more than 20 Leiber and Stoller songs, including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Loving You” and “Trouble.” But “Hound Dog” is probably their least favorite Presley song, Stoller said.
“It’s a woman’s song and she’s singing about a freeloader, a gigolo. And Elvis is singing to a dog,” he said. “After it sold 7 or 8 million the first week, we began to see some merit in it.”
Leiber and Stoller have fond memories of Presley, who shared the duo’s passion for African-American culture.
“He was two years younger than we were and he addressed us as ‘sir,’” Stoller said. “We finally got him to call us by our names, but it took a while.”
“Stand By Me,” a No. 4 hit for former Drifters singer Ben E. King in 1961, was covered by John Lennon in 1975, and resurfaced in the 1986 movie of the same name. Leiber, Stoller and King share credit, although King has said it was largely written before the duo got on board. The book glosses over that issue, earning a rebuke in a recent New York Times review.
“We all worked on it,” Stoller said. “Benny and Jerry were writing the lyrics when I walked in, and Benny started singing it and I started playing it, harmonizing it. Then I came up with the bass pattern to be known as the song.” (King has 50 percent of the writer’s share, while Leiber and Stoller have 25 percent each.)
These days, Leiber and Stoller are keeping busy with various collaborations, including a musical about Oscar Wilde for which they are seeking an English playwright.
“It’s an endless argument,” Stoller said of their winning formula. “It’s still going on. It’s been going on for almost 60 years, and out of all that something good happens. So we’ve managed to stay together, waiting for the next thing that’s good that happens.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte