You might not know the names Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber — but you’ll definitely know the music they made with Elvis. We’re talking massive hits such as “Jailhouse Rock,” “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” “Hound Dog,” and another 20 classics on top of that. So if anybody knows what the King of Rock and Roll was really like behind the scenes, it’s Leiber and Stoller. And luckily for us, Stoller has revealed everything there is to know about Elvis — including what happened to them when they got on the wrong side of Colonel Tom Parker.
Let the good times roll
The songwriting duo of Leiber and Stoller were on something of a roll in the 1950s and ’60s. Outside of their work with Elvis, the pair produced masterpieces such as “Stand by Me” and “Is That All There Is?” So it’s perhaps not surprising that The King would want to work with men who were putting out banger after banger. But what is truly surprising is what Stoller had to say about their behind-the-scenes relationship.
Stoller was well on the way to being 90 years old when he spoke to Variety magazine in July 2022 — but his memory of his time with Elvis was still strong. The only real shame is that his long-time writing partner, Leiber, had passed away in 2011 and so couldn’t add his own recollections of the King. Stoller, though, had plenty to get off his chest.
Name in lights
The reason Variety had got in touch with Stoller is that Elvis, a new movie about The King, was just hitting theaters. And that became the natural starting point for a wide-ranging conversation about Leiber and Stoller’s time with Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. In fact, the first tidbit Stoller confirmed was about the colonel.
It turned out that Colonel Parker had once tried to hoodwink Leiber and Stoller into letting him manage them. He did this by offering the guys a contract — with nothing on it. “[Parker] said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll fill it in later!’” Stoller revealed. He then laughed before disclosing the pair’s response, which went, “I think Jerry said, ‘You can’t: we’re unmanageable,’ which was somewhat true.”
Too savvy for the colonel — at first
The boys had the wherewithal to say that to Colonel Parker because this wasn’t their first time at the rodeo. “We’d had [the wool] pulled over [our eyes] already, a few times,” Stoller said. “So we developed some protective mechanisms.” In fact, by the time they started working with Elvis, Stoller and Leiber had already started making waves in the industry.
In the mid-1950s, for example, the songwriting pair had used their muscle to change the way songs were credited. “What happened at Atlantic Records was, we said, ‘You know, we’re making these records. How about a credit?’” Stoller explained. And even though the higher-ups were initially annoyed, they eventually agreed to give Leiber and Stoller producing credits on their tracks. The rest, as they say, is history.
One of the most famous songs to come out of this period was “Hound Dog” — although not, at first, for Elvis. Leiber and Stoller actually wrote the track — “in about ten or 15 minutes” — for Big Mama Thornton. Her “growled” version hit the number-one spot in 1953; it seems that Stoller actually prefers the original to the Elvis cover.
Elvis makes it his own
“It became a different song [with Elvis],” Stoller said, somewhat diplomatically. He also insisted that he didn’t know who added the lyric, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.” But then, he hasn’t got complete disdain for Elvis’ take. “After it sold 7 million singles, I began to see some merit in it,” the songwriter joked. Plus, the song meant they would eventually get to know The King.
Meeting of minds
Stoller initially had no idea who Elvis was, mind you. The King had scored a hit with “Hound Dog” while Stoller had been traveling Europe. And it wasn’t until his return home that Leiber told Stoller that “some white kid named Elvis Presley” had taken their song to new heights. “I got to really appreciate Elvis,” Stoller told Variety. “He was a fabulous singer, fabulous performer, and very special.” But that appreciation would only come a little later.
A partnership is born
After “Hound Dog,” Elvis covered Leiber and Stoller’s “Love Me” to further success. Then the songwriting pair wrote music for The King’s film Loving You — including that all-important title track. But it was only when Elvis heard what the duo had come up with for Jailhouse Rock that the singer actually wanted to meet the pair. And even then, there was one more obstacle to overcome.
Passing muster with the colonel
“First, we had to pass muster with the colonel,” said Stoller. This meant attending a dinner with Colonel Parker and two other music publishers. “We had to laugh at his jokes, and then I guess we passed muster, so it was all right,” Stoller revealed. The pair were then allowed to meet with Elvis — and that was the start of a beautiful friendship. To begin with, at least.
Strike up the band
“We hit it off with Elvis, very easily,” Stoller revealed. Part of the reason for this was that all three men shared the same musical passions. “We found that a lot of the blues singers that we knew, he knew them also, which was a surprise to us,” Stoller said. “We thought we were the only white kids who knew all that stuff!” The colonel apparently didn’t like this much, though.
Cranking out the hits
There was no trouble at first, though — perhaps because Leiber and Stoller were so good and so fast. Just think about Loving You again. That movie had initially been given titles such as Lonesome Cowboy and Running Wild. But then Leiber and Stoller wrote the song “Loving You” for the flick — and suddenly the producers had their film title. And that wasn’t the only time this happened.
Early titles for Jailhouse Rock included Ghost of a Chance and The Hard Way. But Stoller told Variety that the name changed “as soon as [the filmmakers] heard the initial recording [of “Jailhouse Rock”.]” Yet it wasn’t a total one-way street. After all, one publisher had given Stoller and Leiber the, shall we say, “proper motivation” to write the track in the first place.
Truth in the legend
The trouble was that Leiber and Stoller had had trouble concentrating on the movie musical. “At the beginning of ’57, we’d taken a trip to New York and rented a suite and even rented a piano to put in there. But we were having too much of a ball, going to jazz clubs and going to the theater, and hanging out with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler,” Stoller told Variety. But that quickly changed when a higher-up stepped in.
That higher-up was Jean Aberbach, one of the music publishers for Elvis. And it seems that he wasn’t too happy with what he was seeing. “Aberbach came in and said, ‘Boys, where are the songs?’” Stoller explained. “And I think Jerry said, ‘Don’t worry, Jean, you’ll get ’em.’” But that apparently wasn’t enough for the powers that be. And Aberbach’s response was… unusual to say the least.
Makin’ magic happen
“[Aberbach] said, ‘I know I will get them. I’m not leaving without them,’” revealed Stoller. “And he pushed this big chair in front of the door.” This propelled Leiber and Stoller to get down to brass tacks. And while we would never recommend locking your musicians in a hotel suite for hours on end, the results speak for themselves. After all, “Jailhouse Rock” wasn’t the only hit born in that forced session.
Sticking to the script
“We picked up the script, which we hadn’t looked at yet,” said Stoller of the process. “One of the first things that we saw was the kid [in the script] was in prison. So we wrote “Jailhouse Rock,” and then we wrote the others.” But what he modestly called “the others” is actually a trifecta of classics: “Treat Me Nice,” “I Want to Be Free” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” One of these songs has a special place in Stoller’s heart, too.
I Want to Be Free
“‘I Want to Be Free’ had a kind of special meaning, because we wanted to get out of the [darn] hotel room!” Stoller quipped. But he didn’t seem to hold any grudges against the music publisher. “I must say, Jean Aberbach was instrumental in us doing that, just by saying, ‘You’re not leaving till I have them,’” he admitted. It wasn’t the last time the pair wrote a classic Elvis track in a pinch, though.
Santa Claus Is Back in Town
Stoller admitted that the classic Elvis Christmas song, “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” was actually only written in “about 15 minutes.” “We did that in a hurry,” he said. “[Elvis] was doing a Christmas album, and we wrote it in another room during the recording session.” But the reactions from Elvis and the colonel apparently couldn’t have been more different — and you can probably guess who was displeased.
Not a fan
According to Stoller, the only thing the colonel asked the pair after hearing the song was, “What took you so long?” It’s unclear what Stoller and Leiber said to this — but they probably didn’t have to fight back too much. After all, there apparently was a fan of the song in the room, and he just happened to be the biggest star on the radio.
Raw Christmas treat
“Elvis loved it,” said Stoller. “Because it was typical of blues, of rhythm and blues songs of that period, or even an earlier period.” The song was recorded, of course, and it has since gone down in Christmas-song history. But the apparent disagreement between the colonel, Elvis, and Stoller and Leiber seemed to typify the growing tensions in the group.
Beautiful friendship — but not with everyone
Stoller explained to Variety that the songwriters “had a great relationship” with Elvis. “We used to have to say to him, ‘This is Jerry, and I’m Mike. Don’t call us ‘sir.’ After all, we were all of two years older than he was! But he was being very respectful and polite,” Stoller said. The same was not true of Colonel Parker, it seems.
Trouble in paradise
“We had a few run-ins with the colonel,” Stoller admitted. And part of the problem seems to have been that they did have such a good relationship with Elvis. “The colonel was upset with us because we got friendly with Elvis, and he didn’t like that,” said Stoller. That apparently meant it wasn’t long before Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the wrong side of the impresario.
Revenge of the colonel
The story, as Stoller tells it, is a strange one. It all began when Stoller nabbed himself a role as the piano player in Jailhouse Rock. “So Elvis asked me, ‘Write me a real pretty ballad,’” Stoller said. “That was on a Friday. I called Jerry the next morning and said, ‘Hey, he wants a song.’ So we wrote him a ballad and made a demo of it on Sunday, and I brought it in to him on Monday.” This, as it turned out, was a bad idea.
Not so tender
Stoller said that this one song “caused a big to-do because [the publishers] didn’t want anybody presenting [Elvis] with a song that they might not own the publishing rights to.” This seems odd considering that Elvis had apparently requested the song himself… But still. “That started a little bit of discomfort on the part of the colonel,” said Stoller. And it didn’t end there.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
There was one particular event that spelled the end of Stoller and Leiber’s relationship with The King. The way Stoller tells it, though, the pair started the ball rolling with the best of intentions. “Jerry went to a party in New York and met a producer, Charlie Feldman, who was going to do a movie of a novel by Nelson Algren called A Walk on the Wild Side,” Stoller told Variety. It could have been an exciting opportunity.
A golden goose
“[Feldman] had [Elia] Kazan to direct, Budd Schulberg to write the thing, and James Wong Howe to do the cinematography,” Stoller explained. “He wanted us to write the score for it, and for us to help get Elvis to play the lead.” This apparently sounded incredible to Stoller and Leiber. After all, the filmmakers mentioned here were at the top of their game — and it seemed to Stoller that Elvis would have been interested.
“We were blown away, and we even had some meetings with Schulberg,” said Stoller. “We told the music publishers, who were our contact with the colonel, about this exciting opportunity not only for us, but for Elvis, who wanted to be Marlon Brando or James Dean.” From the sounds of it, then, Stoller and Leiber couldn’t see any downsides to this deal. But that wasn’t the way the colonel would see it.
Hurry up and wait
“Jean Aberbach said, ‘Well, fellas, let me speak to the colonel. Why don’t you wait outside?’” Stoller explained. “So we waited, trying to imagine how we were going to be rewarded for bringing this great plum.” But as you can probably guess, the pair were not to be given any kind of reward. In fact, they were going to get the exact opposite.
Crime and punishment
When the songwriters were eventually called back into Aberbach’s office, they were told Colonel Parker’s response — and it was not kind. He apparently said, “If you ever dare try to interfere in the career of Elvis Presley, you will never work anywhere again — New York, London, Hollywood… nowhere.” And while the pair certainly did continue to work, one thing about that statement did ring true.
The end of an era
“I don’t think we ever wrote anything more for [Elvis],” said Stoller. But the kicker for Stoller actually came three decades later. “In the ’90s, we all went on a trip to Graceland and were given a private tour by Georgie Klein, who was one of Elvis’ ‘Memphis Mafia’ guys,” Stoller began. And Klein had a revealing insight into this tricky situation.
What dreams are made of
“[Klein] said, ‘Elvis would have given his left arm to be in a movie like that with those people. Are you kidding? He dreamed about that,’” said Stoller. But the thing was, Elvis had had no idea that the offer had even been on the table. “It was the colonel just wanting to do more low-budget stuff and crank it out,” reckoned Stoller.
But even though Colonel Parker apparently put an end to his collaboration with The King, Stoller still thought there were good things the colonel had brought to the table. This is probably not a widespread opinion — and certainly not the way that popular history has painted Elvis’ manager. In fact, the movie Elvis basically positions the colonel as the main villain of the piece.
The ultimate huckster
At one point in the movie, for example, Colonel Parker (as played by Tom Hanks) says, “Without me, there would be no Elvis Presley.” It also depicts the promoter as doing absolutely anything and everything to ensure that Elvis carries on performing — and carries on making money. But this is perhaps a point of view that Stoller is not quick to share.
The making of The King
Stoller even insisted that Colonel Parker had “made” Elvis Presley. “I mean, he took him away from Sam Phillips, which was not nice, but proved to be an amazing boon to his career and popularity,” said Stoller. Sam Phillips was the Sun Records studio boss who’d first discovered Elvis and set him on the road to stardom. But Stoller wasn’t done praising the colonel.
The move to movies
Stoller said, “The movies… I mean, naturally, I liked Jailhouse Rock, but I don’t think it was a great movie. But I thought the next one was pretty good, King Creole. It was a better script, better story.” And while Stoller didn’t have much else to say about Colonel Parker’s character, there is some agreement out there that the colonel isn’t all that bad.
Giving him his due
Alanna Nash wrote a biography of Colonel Parker in 2010 called The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. And she told Variety in 2022, “The colonel is a complicated character, and while he always took too much of Presley’s money, he made some very sound decisions for him. [The Elvis movie] hasn’t really given him his due by a long shot.”
Sing the blues
But Stoller doesn’t seem bitter about the split from Elvis. He even singled out the ballad “Don’t” as an underappreciated Elvis collaboration that he still values to this day. And, arguably, splitting from the Elvis camp in 1963 meant that Stoller and Leiber have only good memories of working with The King. At least he didn’t have to be around for the tumultuous later years of Elvis’ life.