It was a partnership that lasted 60 years and the song-writing duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller got its start in 1950, when they were both aged just 17. By the time they’d turned 20, their songs were being recorded by some of the biggest artists of the decade.
Leiber and Stoller’s first hit composition was ‘Hard Times’, recorded by Charles Brown, which was a rhythm and blues hit in 1952. ‘Kansas City’ – first recorded in 1952 as ‘K.C. Lovin” by R&B singer Little Willie Littlefield – became a number one pop hit in 1959 for Wilbert Harrison. In 1952, the partners wrote ‘Hound Dog’ for blues singer Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, which became a hit for her in 1953.
Along with their mentor Lester Sill, Leiber and Stoller set up Spark Records. The label was later bought by Atlantic Records and Leiber and Stoller were signed to an independent production deal, which forever changed the course of the record industry.
When Elvis Presley re-recorded a rock ‘n’ roll version of the song ‘Hound Dog’ in 1956 the song was an even bigger hit. They would go on to write more hits for Presley, including the title songs for three of his movies – Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole – as well as the rock ‘n’ roll Christmas song, ‘Santa Claus Is Back in Town’, for Presley’s first Christmas album.
The following year The Coasters double-sided million selling hit ‘Searchin’’ (later revived by The Hollies) and ‘Young Blood’ establishes the group and gives Leiber and Stoller enough money to move to New York where they set up in the Brill Building, the nerve centre of the music business.
The Coasters then had 3 million sellers in a row, the masterpiece ‘Yakety Yak’ in 1958; ‘Charlie Brown’ and ‘Poison Ivy’ in 1959. ‘Poison Ivy’ was an Australian chart topper in 1964 for Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, and was also recorded by The Searchers and The Rolling Stones among many others.
In 1959, Leiber and Stoller were called in to produce The Drifters, a group reformed around a new singer Ben E. King. The string arrangement they put on ‘There Goes My Baby’ was unheard of on R&B records, but the record becomes one of the year’s best sellers. They then experimented with a Latin rhythm for The Drifters on ‘Under The Boardwalk’ (another song revived by The Rolling Stones in 1964), and with the help of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil they produced ‘On Broadway’ for The Drifters, later recorded by George Benson.
In 1960, when Ben E. King embarked on a solo career he offered a ballad he had written to his old band The Drifters, who turned it down, so with the help of Leiber and Stoller he records ‘Stand By Me’ himself, the result was another million seller worldwide. With a little help from the new comer Phil Spector Leiber and Stoller then created the celebrated ‘Spanish Harlem’ for Ben E. King.
After leaving Atlantic Records, Leiber and Stoller produced a series of records for United Artists Records, including hits by Jay and the Americans (‘She Cried’), The Exciters (‘Tell Him’), and The Clovers (‘Love Potion #9′, also written by Leiber and Stoller).
Leiber and Stoller founded and briefly owned Red Bird Records in the 1960s, which had The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of the Pack’ and The Dixie Cups’ ‘Chapel of Love’.
When they sold Red Bird, Leiber and Stoller continued working as independent producers and songwriters. Their best known song from this period is ‘Is That All There Is?’ recorded by Peggy Lee in 1969; it earned her a Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy. Earlier in the decade, they had had a hit with Lee with ‘I’m a Woman’ (1962).
Their last major hit production was ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel, taken from the band’s 1972 debut album, which the duo produced.
Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1985) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987) and have had their songs recorded by nearly every famous performer in the business, among them the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Barbra Streisand, Buddy Holly, B.B. King, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Jones, Edith Piaf and more than a thousand others.
Though Leiber died in 2011, Stoller continues to write and has been actively involved in a number of projects, including Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, a hit musical featuring more than 40 of the duo’s songs.