Songwriter's Corner|

By Chris Willman, Yahoo News | If there were an award to bestow for the most accomplished living American pop songwriter who never doubled as a recording artist, the frontrunner would almost definitely be Mike Stoller, 89, half of one of the most famous writing duos of all time, Leiber & Stoller. Even if the memory of Elvis Presley were completely wiped away, like the Beatles’ in that “Yesterday” movie, this pairing would still be in the history books and collective consciousness for “Stand by Me,” “On Broadway,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Young Blood,” “Kansas City,” “Love Potion #9,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “I’m a Woman,” “Ruby Baby,” “Is That All There Is?” and other numbers deeply embedded in pop culture from the mid-‘50s forward.

But we do remember Elvis — and are remembering him more universally than we have since his 1977 death, thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s new “Elvis” biopic. So it’s a perfect chance to catch up with Stoller, who wrote the music to Jerry Leiber’s lyrics on two dozen Presley songs, including the classics “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Trouble,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Love Me,” “Loving You,” “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” “Bossa Nova Baby” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” No other writers are so closely associated with the King, even if their run of collaborations with Elvis was ultimately cut short by… want to hazard a guess? Yes, it was manager Colonel Tom Parker who had his reasons for finally cutting Leiber and Stoller out of Presley’s creative camp after 1963, none of them good.

Leiber died in 2011 but, creeping up on 90, Stoller remains active — still showing up to collect the few accolades he hasn’t already received, like the Icon award BMI bestowed upon him at its annual ceremony in May, and also working on a stage musical he doesn’t want to say much about at the moment. Variety met with him at the home he shares in the Hollywood hills with his wife, fellow musician Corky Hale. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member (class of 1987) told us about everything from why he never much liked Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” — Big Mama Thornton was a hard act to follow — to how he realized a Broadway musical rooted in the duo’s songs, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” could be a smash if they just dispensed with a storyline and script.

First of all, have you seen the “Elvis” movie?

Yes, Priscilla invited us to a private screening, and she and Jerry Schilling were there. It’s a very strong film; I really like the movie. The kid who plays Elvis, Austin Butler, is a knockout as an actor, a dancer and a singer, and I have a feeling he’ll be nominated for sure for best actor. And I was very happy with the way my songs were used. There’s about three different uses of “Hound Dog,” including the original Big Mama Thornton version, and of course there’s some “Jailhouse Rock” in there. I thought the way they used the song “Trouble” was very effective.

The Colonel would’ve made a movie like this — you know, without Baz Luhrmann’s ability or chops. Baz Luhrmann is much like Colonel Parker. [Laughs.] He sells!
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The film has a big focus on Elvis’ manager Colonel Parker, of course. You had your share of contact with him during the years you were writing for Elvis. Didn’t he ask to become the manager of Leiber and Stoller, too… and, as the story goes, he presented you with a completely blank contract?

Yeah. It had a line for our signatures. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll fill it in later!” [Laughs.] “Don’t worry about it.” I think Jerry said, “You can’t, we’re unmanageable.” Which was somewhat true.
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