Songwriter hard at work a year after Leiber's death
When seminal rock and roll lyricist Jerry Leiber died in August of last year, it put an end to a songwriting partnership with Mike Stoller that had spanned 61 years, one long-running Broadway revue, and a plethora of indelible standards ranging from “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog” to “Stand By Me” and “On Broadway.”
Yet for anyone assuming that the “Leiber and Stoller” name has appeared on the music sheet for the last time, or that Stoller is keen to rest on his substantial laurels, well, that’s hardly all there is.
Still spry at 79, Stoller explained that preparations are rolling full-steam ahead on the duo’s long-gestating musical based on the life of Oscar Wilde. At least 10 full Leiber and Stoller compositions are in the can for the project, with more requiring collaborative assistance to finish. Stoller intriguingly describes the existing material, which has been likened to the cabaret work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, as having “a very Victorian feeling, but not necessarily Victorian-sounding music.”
If the notion of the songsmiths who wrote “Yakety Yak” taking on such highbrow material seems odd, it shouldn’t — though their metier was firmly in the three-minute pop song format, Leiber and Stoller’s innate sophistication was a hallmark of their production work. Furthermore, the pair had long had eyes on musical theater beyond the jukeboxer. Stoller himself picked up a 2011 Drama Desk nomination for his music in tuner “The People in the Picture,” and was most recently commissioned to compose a theme song for the city of Charlotte, in honor of the ongoing Democratic National Convention taking place in the city (the composition, titled simply “Charlotte,” is Stoller’s first as both lyricist and music writer).
“I have to write the songs before I become too enamored with my own melodies,” Stoller said, by way of excusing his recent burst of productivity.
In addition, Stoller also revealed he’s in the early stages of another musical theater project that he and Leiber hatched, this one centering around Leiber’s idea of a shop window with mannequins that come to life, though Stoller is coy on further details.
As Stoller recalled, it wasn’t until he and Leiber reached Broadway, with the launch of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” that they really began to take the measure of their own successes.
“I was never conscious of the fact that people even knew who we were, because we were behind the scenes guys. It wasn’t until ‘Smokey Joe’s’ came out that I actually got to step out from behind the curtain and meet our ‘fans,'” he said, putting the last word in self-deprecating air-quotes.
Of course, Stoller had certainly stepped out from behind the curtain before, memorably playing piano on film in “Jailhouse Rock,” though he never saw the songwriter-producer role as a stepping stone to stardom.
“Jerry would have loved to have been a blues singer, but I was a lot more reticent to get out in front,” Stoller remembered. “We wrote the songs, we taught them to the performer, and that was it, we were done. I was always very leery of my piano playing. As a young kid, I wanted to be a jazz musician, but my taste was far greater than my ability.”
Stoller confesses he’s “bad at this” when asked to name contemporary songwriters he admires, though he mentions that R&B star Usher had caught his ear over the past few years. But lest that be taken as a dismissal of modern day pop music, Stoller offers a comforting note of encouragement.
“Early on, Jerry and I always felt that we were lucky to have a hit on the radio for a few weeks,” Stoller said. “After six months, the song would be over, and then we’d have to write new ones. We never thought we were writing for posterity, because at the time everyone assumed that all the great standards had already been written by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein… The songs we were writing were supposed to be temporary things, of the period, like comicbooks.”
Then, after a pause, he continued: “Which is funny, because Stan Lee is my neighbor now.”