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Leiber and Stoller meet Elvis

Sun Apr 03, 2005 3:05 pm

I was reading some Leiber and Stoller interviews where they once again recounted that initial meeting with Elvis and the excellent recording sessions that followed. Reading the history it struck me that it never has been explained why L&S were granted an access to Elvis. Ernst in his book says it was Jean Aberbach's suggestion but there is no suggestion as to why. Granted, it was an inspired decision. Elvis and L&S were kindred spirits and ideas started pouring out on both ends almost as soon as they hooked up. In addition to the work on the "Jailhouse Rock" sessions, both "Don't" and "Santa Claus is Back in Town" were born from the singer's interaction with the writers.

However, as we all know Elvis' management team could give a rat's behind about music. We also know that in general they liked to keep Elvis away from first hand interaction with songwriters. Not only did they want to keep him sheltered from the real business but they also didn't want Elvis to commit to any songs before they acquired the publishing rights.

To make the meeting even stranger, unlike Doc Pomus who never got to meet Elvis and who in 1957 was already a huge Elvis fan, Leiber and Stoller were not anxious at all to meet Elvis. It was only after working with him that they came to appreciate Elvis and his work. (And it's not a lukewarm appreciation. Leiber called Elvis rock's ultimate ballad singer.)

According to Mike Stoller, he and Leiber penned the "Jailhouse Rock" score in New York before production of the movie started. There was no practical reason for them to be at the sessions at least in the eyes of the Presley organization.

It seems strange given the blowups that accompanied "Don't" and the "Walk on the Wild Side" idea, that the management team would bring in L&S to colloborate with Elvis and then get upset when they actually do it.

Maybe it was Elvis' suggestion. He was certainly feeling his oats at this time. This was when he walked out of a session when MGM told him to cut his gospel warmups. Commanding an audience with his two top writers would not seem out of the picture. However, at this time Elvis had recorded only a handful of L&S's songs and he practically rewrote the biggest of these hits. Maybe Jean Aberbach simply wasn't thinking.

Sadly, this is again one of the areas where Elvis' management team was hopelessly shortsighted. The Elvis-L&S team was on the verge of God knows what sort of breaktroughs when the Col. and his flunkies cut it down. "We could have made f*ing history," Leiber told Peter Guralnick. "And those a**holes only wanted to make another nickel the same way."

It also demonstrates the way the management team protected itself and was generally unconcerned with Elvis' best interests. Elvis truly loved meeting songwriters. It invigorated he was a natural collaborator. He would have benefitted by being around songwriters all the time. It could have a been direct line of hits and personal expression. Great songs like "Don't" could have blossomed just from the give and take.

If you read the interviews with Robertson, L&S you find that Elvis was very interested in songs and what they had to say and very interested in discussing it. By keeping Elvis so isolated he seldom got the chance. The notable exception is those glorious few weeks in 1957.

Sun Apr 03, 2005 3:12 pm

I think it was Elvis' suggestion. I don't know if that relates to the first time they met or another, but I'm sure I've read that Elvis insisted they come to the studio.

If that's true that must be one of the first times Parker nearly swallowed his cigar at a show of independance from Elvis, and not towing the Parker sleigh through the Snowy Leagues.

Sun Apr 03, 2005 3:26 pm

ltb -

Good post.

And so true !

That Parker did more harm than good with his management style.

One correction:

However, at this time Elvis had recorded only a handful of L&S's songs and he practically rewrote the biggest of these hits.


If you mean Hound Dog then the sentence would be more accurate if it read:

"However, at this time Elvis had recorded only a handful of L&S's songs & the biggest of these was virtually a re-written version"

Elvis' recording kept pretty much to the 1955 Freddie Bell & the Bell Boys' single.

So the 're-write' wasn't down to Elvis.

Mon Apr 04, 2005 3:07 am

Actually I would differ on that Colin. The Elvis record is a world removed from the Bell record, which is kind of Louis Jordan jump blues. The lyric changes are his but the rest is Elvis. Perhaps the songwriter credit on Elvis' record should have read Leiber, Stoller, Bell, Presley.

Just out of curiousity, was Johnny Otis ever listed as one of the composers? I have head he was and L&S had to contest it in court.

Mon Apr 04, 2005 3:28 am

The decision to keep Elvis away from songwriters was hurtful to not only Elvis but also the songwriters. Not only did it devalue their role in the record making process but many of them genuinely wanted to meet and interact with perhaps the best interpreter their songs ever had.

Goldmine did an interview with Doc Pomus in the late 1980s and in it you could sense his disappointment at never having met Elvis although he did speak to him once on the phone. In 1972, Pomus tried to meet Elvis during his press conference at the Hilton Hotel in NYC but Parker blocked it. "I was pretty much heartbroken."

Later that day Pomus bumped into Vernon who was finally going to make the introduction but Elvis had already left for the show.

This makes me sad because Pomus was a guy who really appreciated what Elvis. Pomus told interviewer Mojo Nixon: "I have always told people, the one thing about getting Elvis Presley (to) record (one of my songs), that always mean that you were gonna hear the songs plus, because he always put something in the son that maybe you never heard. You know what I'm saying? He always put himself in them and he always the song plus. So I always wildly anticipated the Presley records because you get something in that song you never dreamed of. And you know that's why it was such a wild experience for me to finally get Elvis to record a song of mine, because I had admired his work for so long." Yeah we wouldn't want Elvis to meet a guy who thinks like this.

Mort Shuman's was equally dispirited at not getting to meet and work with Elvis. "I would have at least liked to have shaken his hand. As it was, he bought Cadillacs for total strangers and I never got a Christmas card."

Despite their frustrations, L&S were pretty lucky.

Mon Apr 04, 2005 3:55 am

ltb -

You wrote:
Just out of curiousity, was Johnny Otis ever listed as one of the composers? I have head he was and L&S had to contest it in court.


In the only court case I can remember in this connection, some guy [Otis ?] went to court claiming the Hound Dog song was a rip off of his 'You Ain't Nothing But a Bear Cat' song.

I think he lost.

As for the composing credits, as Elvis didn't change the lyrics or the melody [just the arrangement] perhaps he shouldn't be listed.

Bell, perhaps so.

Mon Apr 04, 2005 4:05 am

I didn't think it was Freddies record of Hound Dog that influenced Elvis' version so much but their live performance of it that he heard ?

I might be barking up the wrong tree.

Mon Apr 04, 2005 4:35 am

ColinB wrote:In the only court case I can remember in this connection, some guy [Otis ?] went to court claiming the Hound Dog song was a rip off of his 'You Ain't Nothing But a Bear Cat' song.

I think he lost.


Hi Colin. I believe it was the opposite - with Bear Cat being the copy of Hound Dog:

http://www.memphismagazine.com/backissu ... story3.htm

The first, "Bear Cat" by WDIA disc jockey Rufus Thomas, was evidence of far-reaching changes in American popular music. Early in 1953, a Texas blues shouter named Willie Mae Thornton had had a hit with a song called "Hound Dog." It had been written for a black singer and aimed at a black audience but the authors were two young whites, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Within a few years they would be writing rock-and-roll hits for black groups like the Coasters and for Elvis Presley. But Sam Phillips had no way of knowing that when he concocted "Bear Cat" as an answer record to "Hound Dog." "I should have known better, though," Sam says ruefully. "The melody was exactly the same as theirs, and we claimed credit for writing the damn thing." The result was a lawsuit. It was settled out of court and the record sold much more than any of Sun's previous efforts, but the whole incident left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

Eileen

Mon Apr 04, 2005 2:30 pm

Steve -

You wrote:
I didn't think it was Freddies record of Hound Dog that influenced Elvis' version so much but their live performance of it that he heard ?


Well, yeah, but i assume their live show presented it pretty much as it is heard on their single.

Or perhaps he got Charlie to rush out & get a copy !

RE: Leiber & Stoller

Tue Apr 05, 2005 3:14 am

L&S were interviewed at the NFT after a showing of the documentary "Words & Music by Leiber & Stoller" in 2001. A transcription of the section concerning Elvis can be found here http://www.bfi.org.uk/showing/nft/inter ... elvis.html

Johnny Otis' name was attached to early releases of "Hound Dog" but was removed after the song began selling and it was discovered that as L&S were still below legal age to sign contracts, their agreement with Otis was void. IMHO I reckon Otis probably did deserve some credit for "Hound Dog", as legend has it that Jerry Leiber's original lyrics were both racially and sexually offensive and Otis had to edit them and rewrite them for commercial consumption.

Freddie Bell's version of "Hound Dog" (Teen Records 1954) was quite far removed from Big Mama Thornton's original, and if he had changed the title to something else, he could have probably gotten away with a songwriter credit. For instance, it was Bell who penned and sang the "never caught a rabbit" payoff (as opposed to L&S' "wag your tail but I ain't gonna feed you no more" original). Elvis' version, lyrically, is identical to Bell's; the music may be stylistically different, but you can't copyright a new arrangement until the original composer's copyright has expired.

Tue Apr 05, 2005 12:07 pm

Eileen -

Hi Colin. I believe it was the opposite - with Bear Cat being the copy of Hound Dog:


Thanks for the correction - it was all a long time ago !

Re: RE: Leiber & Stoller

Tue Apr 05, 2005 9:02 pm

davepenny wrote:...but you can't copyright a new arrangement until the original composer's copyright has expired.


"You can't copyright an arrrangement, sonny."

"You're a theif and liar. Crawl back under your rock, you snake!" SMACK SMACK.

Thu Apr 07, 2005 3:29 am

John -

You wrote:
there was no Charlie at that stage.


Well whoever.

Thu Apr 07, 2005 3:44 am

When you hear EP"s version of hound dog...it has nothing to do with the version of BIG MAMA THORTON.

Worlds a part.