Elvis songwriter Mike Stoller looks back on his hits Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber wrote hit songs for Elvis, along with a whos-who of other artists including Big Mama Thornton, Ben E. King, and more.

Elvis songwriter Mike Stoller looks back on his hits

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Elvis Presley may have been the king, but his court included composers. And many of his biggest hits - several are in the new Elvis biopic - were written by one songwriting duo. Tim Greiving has that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHAT'S MY LINE?")

JOHN DALY: Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber have collaborated with songwriters for, I guess, about seven years.

DOROTHY KILGALLEN: Go ahead. Give us the titles.

DALY: "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." And I think your big new hit is "Don't." Is that right?

MIKE STOLLER: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Don't. Don't.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Mike Stoller was 17 and playing piano around LA when a total stranger, Jerry Lieber, called him out of the blue.

STOLLER: And we had this funny conversation on the phone where he asked me if I would like to write songs with him, and I said no. And he said, well, why not? I said, I don't like the songs I hear on the radio. And he said this word that has stayed with me because it changed my life. He said, well, nevertheless, I think we ought to meet.

GREIVING: They did meet, hit it off, and these two Jewish white boys quickly carved a niche by writing rhythm and blues music for Black artists. One of their earliest hits was for Big Mama Thornton, a belter from Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog. Been snooping on the door.

GREIVING: Four years later, Stoller went on an ocean trip to Europe with his wife. And on his voyage home, the ship sank.

STOLLER: When I arrived on a freighter that picked us up, Jerry was at the dock. First thing he said to me was, Mike, we got a smash hit (laughter). I said, you're kidding. He said, no, "Hound Dog." I said, Big Mama Thornton? He said no, some white kid named Elvis Presley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, they said you was high class. Well, that was just a lie. Yeah, they said you was high class. Well, that was just a lie.

STOLLER: The music publishers who controlled Elvis Presley music asked if we had anything else that might be good for Elvis. And Jerry thought of this kind of blues ballad we had written called "Love Me" - you know, treat me like a fool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Treat me mean and cruel, but love me.

STOLLER: And he loved it, and he recorded it, and it became a hit. And then they kept asking for more songs.

GREIVING: Stoller and Leiber became Elvis's good luck charms. The duo wrote a parade of hits for the King, including...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVING YOU")

PRESLEY: (Singing) I will spend my whole life through loving you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAILHOUSE ROCK")

PRESLEY: (Singing) The warden threw a party in the county jail. The prison band was there, and they began to wail.

GREIVING: Of course, Elvis wasn't the only interpreter of Stoller and Lieber songs. They also wrote the hits "On Broadway," "Yakety Yak," and "Love Potion No. 9." Maybe their most enduring song, though, was one they wrote with Ben E. King in 1961.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

BEN E KING: (Singing) When the night has come and the land is dark...

GREIVING: Mike Stoller wagers "Stand By Me" has been covered a thousand times. A few years ago, it serenaded a real-life prince and princess at the royal wedding for Harry and Meghan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) So darling, darling, stand by me. Oh, stand by me. Stand by me. Stand by me. Stand by me.

KAREN GIBSON: What I think this arrangement did was it opened up the song in a completely different way to people.

GREIVING: Karen Gibson is conductor of the Kingdom Choir, who gave that performance. At the royal couple's request, Gibson and her choir paired the song down to its simplest elements.

GIBSON: You'd have thought that you couldn't sing the song without that bassline - (vocalizing) - that everybody knew - so, so familiar, so accessible. But this arrangement shows that the song is strong in itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) So darling, darling, stand by me.

GREIVING: When the songwriter, Mike Stoller, heard it...

STOLLER: I loved it. I was so moved by it, also.

GREIVING: Through Big Mama Thornton to Elvis, to the Kingdom Choir, Mike Stoller has been keeping us company for 70 years. And he's still writing songs. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Stand by me. Stand by me. Stand by me. Stand by me. Stand by me.

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