|LEIBER, STOLLER, ELVIS & THE COLONEL
Taken from 'Hound Dog - The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography'
By Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller with David Ritz
This new book by song writing legends Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller looks to be an interesting read, but
here are some excerpts from the book about how the Colonel controlled Elvis' life.
Stoller I guess it must have been in April of '57 that we met Colonel Parker for the first time. It happened
over dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Jean Aberbach was the conduit.
"The Colonel wants to see you in person before you meet Elvis," said Jean.
"Is this an audition?" I asked.
"The Colonel is very careful about who he lets into Elvis's circle."
"I'm very careful about who I have dinner with," said Jerry.
Jean didn't laugh. "Just be on your best behavior," he told us both.
Leiber: Of course, the Colonel wasn't really a colonel. He was Thomas A. Parker, whose former job as a
carnival barker defined his personality. He had a definite shtick ("Pick a number from one to ten").
He told dozens of canned jokes. I can't remember any of them except that they weren't funny. But it didn't matter that we didn't laugh,
because the Colonel wasn't really conscious of us. Of course, he knew we were the songwriters of "Hound Dog" and the new songs for
Jailhouse Rock. He knew more hit songs for Elvis meant more money for him. Beyond that, though, he was more interested in putting on
his own show than getting to know us.
He had his long cigar and his confected Southern accent. He was fat and smart and a nonstop talker whose ego was always on parade.
He told us in great detail all he had done for Elvis — and all he intended to do.
"Elvis," he said, "is going to be bigger than the president, bigger than the pope." Naturally we agreed.
Stoller: The Colonel had the kind of energy that sucked all the air out of the room, even the dining room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I had
little interest in the man. Elvis was the guy we were eager to meet. The session was due to start later that week.
Leiber: My heterosexual credits have long been established, so I can comfortably say that the first thing that hit me when I walked into
the recording studio and found myself standing next to Elvis Presley was his physical beauty. Far more than his pictures, his actual
presence was riveting. He had a shy smile and quiet manner that were disarming.
All this happened at Radio Recorders Annex, the same studio where Big Mama had recorded "Hound Dog" back in August of 1952. Elvis
wanted us there to produce the songs for the soundtrack we'd written for him.
Stoller: It's important to remember that on the day we met Elvis, he was twenty-two and we were twenty-four. We were contemporaries.
Remember, too, that Jerry and I shared the uppity view that he and I were among the few white guys who knew about the blues. In the first
five minutes of conversation with Elvis, we learned we were dead wrong.
Elvis knew the blues. He was a Ray Charles fanatic and even knew that Ray had sung our song "The Snow Is Falling." In fact, he knew
virtually all of our songs. There wasn't any R&B he didn't know. He could quote from Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, B.B. King, and Big Bill
Leiber: When it came to the blues, Elvis knew his stuff. He may not have been conversant about politics or world history, but his blues
knowledge was almost encyclopedic. Mike and I were blown away. In fact, the conversation got so enthusiastic that Mike and Elvis sat
down at the piano and started playing four-handed blues. He definitely felt our passion for the real roots material and shared that passion
with all his heart. Just like that, we fell in love with the guy.
Stoller: Elvis was completely open and never acted like a diva. When it was time to do the actual recording, Jerry was in the control booth
and I stayed on the floor. I played piano on one cut, and Jerry, with his unique style of body language, conducted Elvis' vocals.
One day he [Elvis] approached me as we were leaving the set. "Mike," he said, "I want you to write me a real pretty ballad."
"I'll get right on it." That was on a Friday.
Saturday morning, Jerry and I got together and wrote "Don't." On Sunday, we got Young Jessie of the Flairs to sing the demo in an Elvis-
like mode. (Jessie had recently substituted for Leon Hughes on the Coasters' recordings of "Searchin'" and "Young Blood.")
I brought "Don't" to Elvis on the set that Monday. He liked it, recorded it, and by January of the following year — 1958 — it hit #1, only
three months after "Jailhouse Rock" had also gone to the top. You'd think we'd be heroes. But in the court of the King, it didn't work that
Leiber: I get a call from Freddy Bienstock. "What is your partner doing giving a song to Elvis Presley?" he asks. Freddy sounds enraged.
"Has Elvis decided to stop singing?" I ask.........."No, that's not the point." Now Freddy's yelling.
"Freddy," I say, "what's the problem, man? Did Elvis hate the song?".............."No, the problem is that he likes it."
"That's a problem?" I ask........"It is when we don't have a contract. Nothing's written down. You just don't hand a song to Elvis without a
contract. In fact, you don't hand a song to Elvis at all. You hand a song to me or to Jean Aberbach. Then we get the business straight
"Well, when Mike and I wrote the song, we presumed the business would be the same as all business with Elvis. The Colonel is going to
demand that Elvis and the Aberbachs own the publishing rights, right?"................."Right.".................."And we'll give them the publishing
rights, just like before. So again I ask the question: what's the problem?"
"The Colonel hates it when anyone goes behind his back."................."Mike didn't go behind his back. Mike 's a straight shooter.
Mike 's the original straight shooter. Elvis asked him to write a ballad for him and we did. Beginning and end of story."
"You still don't get it." Said Freddy.
"Maybe I don't want to get it, Freddy. But it really doesn't matter because Elvis has the ballad he asked for. And he'll have another hit.
And all's well that ends well.".............."If only it were that easy."................"It is, man," I say. "Believe me, it is."
Stoller: Another critical Colonel moment came during the shooting of Jailhouse Rock. After a long day on the soundstage, Elvis invited
me back to the Beverly Wilshire, where he was staying. He'd had a pool table set up in his suite.
"Wanna shoot a game?" Elvis asked me................."Sure," I said.
This was after he'd recorded our four songs for the soundtrack and after I'd given him "Don't." At this point Elvis was a big Leiber and
Stoller fan and was telling everyone we were his "good luck charms."
"Whenever I record," he said, "I want you guys in the studio. You're the guys who make the magic."
Music to my ears.
Elvis' companions, the Memphis Mafia, were all there. They were drinking Cokes and waiting for their turn at the pool table. On the radio,
the DJ was playing "Ruby Baby," a song we'd written for the Drifters. Elvis was actually singing along with the record:
I've got a gal and Ruby is her name
Ruby Ruby Ruby Baby
She don't love me, but I love her just the same
Ruby Ruby Ruby Baby
Ruby Ruby how I want ya
Like a ghost I'm gonna haunt ya
Ruby Ruby, when will you be mine
"Hey, Mike," said Elvis, "how do you guys write all these great songs?"
"Well, Elvis," I said, "we just kinda sit down and jam."
"It's amazing to me. I guess I just ain't much of a writer."
"You don't have to write songs. You're Elvis."
With that, Elvis gave me one of those gosh-darn expressions. At that point in his career, he was still humble.
As our game went on, I was taking careful aim at the nine ball, trying to sink it and not scratch. I looked up for a second and suddenly
there was no one in the room but me. Where the hell had everyone gone?
A couple of minutes went by. When Elvis returned, his head was down and his demeanor totally changed.
"I'm really sorry, Mike," he said, "but you're gonna have to leave. The Colonel came in and he doesn't want anyone here but me and the
"Okay," I said, not wanting to make any more trouble. And with that, I left. The next day at the shoot I mentioned the incident to one of
Elvis' Memphis buddies.
"Don't take it personally, Mike," he said. "It's just that the Colonel doesn't want Elvis to develop a friendship with anyone but us."
Leiber: A couple of months after Jailhouse Rock wrapped, Mike and I were still living in LA when we got a frantic call from Freddy
"Elvis is cutting a Christmas album," he said, "and they're a song short. He wants you guys to write something for him."
Next thing I know, Mike and I are driving over to Radio Recorders on Santa Monica Boulevard. When we walk in, Elvis is all smiles.
"My good luck charms are back!" He 's beaming.
The Colonel is scowling..............................."You got the song?" the Colonel wants to know.
"We just got the call," I say.
"Write me something good," says Elvis.
"Write it right now," says the Colonel.
Mike and I go into a mixing room where there 's an upright piano in the corner.
"You know what, Mike," I say. "Let's not screw around with anything overly inventive. Let's write this guy a straight-up, no-nonsense twelve-
bar blues with a Christmas lyric. What do you say?"
"Okay by me."
I start singing:
Hang up your pretty stockings
And turn off the light
'Cause Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight
It takes us about fifteen minutes. When we come back into the studio, I say, "Okay, we got it."
"What took you so long?" the Colonel asks.
"Writer's block," I say.
The Colonel doesn't laugh and the Colonel doesn't smile when we run down the song for Elvis.
The Colonel thinks it's too bluesy and too black, but just before he can say anything, the King speaks out.
"Now that's what I call a goddamn great Christmas song!" he tells the Colonel. "I told you these guys would come through."
And with that, Elvis proceeds to sing the [expletive] out of it.
He does it in just a couple of takes. When he's through, he puts his arms around me and Mike and says, "Whenever I record, you guys
are gonna be with me."
For me, "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" lives on as one of Elvis's great blues performances. It took him back to his Beale Street roots, a
place where he was always comfortable.
Stoller Given Elvis's enthusiasm for our work, I wasn't surprised that we got a call from Jean Aberbach inviting us to his LA office, which
was housed in a big home on Hollywood Boulevard.
"The Colonel wants to manage you," he said.
"We 're unmanageable," Jerry was quick to retort. "Everyone knows that."
"This isn't a joke," Aberbach insisted.
"I wasn't joking," said Jerry. "We don't need management."
"Is that how you feel, Mike?" asked Aberbach.
"The Colonel feels he can do great things for your career," said Aberbach, "and he'd like you to sign these contracts." He handed us
blank pieces of paper with only a signature line.
"Are you kidding?" we asked.
"No," Jean answered. "The Colonel said we can fill it in later, but basically it's a matter of mutual trust."
The Colonel got over our rejection of his offer. We knew that because we got a call late in 1957 that Elvis wanted more Leiber and Stoller
songs. By then Jerry and I had made a permanent move to New York — more on that shortly — and went back to the Coast for a series of
Elvis wanted us to write songs for his new movie, King Creole. It was based on Harold Robbins's novel A Stone for Danny Fisher, and the
screenplay suggested some real substance. We submitted four songs — "King Creole," "Trouble," "Steadfast, Loyal and True," and "Dirty
Dirty Feeling." Elvis liked all four. ("Dirty Dirty Feeling" was dropped from the score, but two years later, when Elvis got out of the army, he
remembered the tune and recorded it.)
We worked in the studio with Elvis and, just like the Jailhouse Rock sessions, the rapport was good and the atmosphere relaxed.
Excerpted from Hound Dog by Jerry Leiber Mike Stoller David Ritz Copyright © 2009 by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
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