Celebrated Elvis hitmaker writing musical theatre score in Calgary

The 91-year-old composer is here working on Beaches The Musical, which will have its international premiere May 18 at Theatre Calgary

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Mike Stoller first heard the name Elvis Presley in 1956. It was less than 24 hours after the composer had convinced himself he was going to die.

It’s a suitably epic story that involves an infamous nautical disaster, Stoller’s near-death experience and the iconic song Hound Dog, which he had co-written with his long-term musical partner Jerry Leiber years before. Hound Dog was initially recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952.

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Four years later, Stoller went on a three-month trip to Europe after receiving a royalty cheque for $5,000 – a princely sum back then – for another co-write called Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots. Recorded by the Cheers, it reached No. 6 on the Billboard charts. Married the year before, Stoller decided to celebrate both things with a European jaunt. After spending months in England, Ireland, Wales, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Italy, they boarded the Andrea Doria In Genoa for a nine-day trip to New York. On June 25, the ship collided with the SS Stockholm off the coast of Nantucket and began to sink into the Atlantic Ocean.

“I literally thought for a long time, hanging onto a rail for three or four hours, that this is it … I’m going to die,” Stoller said in an interview with Postmedia earlier this week at Arts Commons. “Fortunately, going down to the low side of the ship, some guys were holding a Jacob’s ladder and we went down (it) into a broken lifeboat. I won’t bore you with all the details but, eventually, we were picked up by a freighter. I sent a wire to Atlantic Records because we were supposed to meet Jerry and a few other people.”

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Stoller docked in the Big Apple, where he was met by an excited Leiber as he walked down the gangplank.

“He ran up to me and said ‘Mike, we have a smash hit!’” Stoller says with a laugh. “It was the first thing he said to me. I said ‘You’re kidding?’ He said ‘No, Hound Dog.’ I said ‘Big Mama Thornton?’ He said ‘No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.’ So I went, within 24 hours, from feeling I was going to die to finding out I had a big smash hit.”

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Stoller is all smiles on this particular day in Calgary. The 91-year-old composer is here working on Beaches The Musical, which will have its international premiere May 18 at Theatre Calgary. Stoller was enlisted to compose original music by Iris Rainer Dart, who wrote the original Beaches novel and is writing the script and lyrics for this new production. Not long before he spoke to Postmedia, he heard the production’s 10-piece band play his music for the first time and couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.  “I’m feeling wonderful,” he says.

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“To hear the band … it’s a thrill,” Stoller says. “I heard it at the piano and it was thrilling, but this is over the top for me.”

Theatre Calgary Beaches the Musical cast

Stoller has been working with Dart, the musicians, the cast and crew on Beaches at Arts Commons for weeks. More than one person involved with the production told Postmedia that working with the friendly, down-to-earth composer, or simply being in the same room as him, has been a thrill. After all, his contributions to popular music cannot be overstated. With Leiber, a lyricist and his musical partner of 61 years, Stoller created a mind-boggling canon of iconic songs. Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and Treat Me Nice were all turned into hits by Presley but are just the tip of the iceberg. They wrote Yakety Yak, Charlie Brown, Searchin,’ Young Blood and Poison Ivy for the Coasters. They wrote Is That All There Is?, which became a hit for Peggy Lee. They co-wrote Stand By Me with Ben E. King. They penned Love Potion No. 9, originally for the Clovers but it later became a big hit for The Searchers. Stoller and Leiber were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Leiber died in 2011.

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When asked if he ever gets tired of talking about Presley, Stoller laughs and says “A little … but keep going.”

After Hound Dog became a hit for Presley, Stoller and Leiber were asked for more songs. They gave him Love Me, which they had already written, and he turned it into a hit later that year. They then wrote four songs in one afternoon in New York for a film that was later titled Jailhouse Rock.

Eventually, Presley – and his manager Colonel Tom Parker – wanted to meet.

“Easy, really easy,” Stoller says when asked what it was like working with Presley in the studio. “The first time we were invited to go and see him because he requested that we be there. Colonel Parker wanted to meet us and his publisher, Jean Aberbach of Hill and Range Songs, arranged a dinner in L.A. with him and the Colonel and Jerry and me. We sat through the dinner, had a laugh at the Colonel’s jokes and then I guess we passed muster and we went and met Elvis. Steve Sholes, who was the head of RCA Victor at that time, was running the session. He was just calling out the title and a catalogue number and ‘take 1.’ That’s all. So we started to take over and he finally just left and didn’t come back so we were running the sessions. We were what later became known as ‘producers.’”

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Those 1957 sessions produced Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care and I Want to Be Free.

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While working with Presley was easy, working with Colonel Parker was not. Leiber and Stoller had a falling out with the notoriously controlling manager after the songwriters were asked to write the score for a film. A producer had acquired the rights to author Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side. At the time, On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan was set to direct and Bud Schulberg was going to write the screenplay. The producer not only wanted Leiber and Stoller to write the score but also use their connections to convince Presley to star in the film.

“We were thrilled with that idea,” Stoller says. “We were trying to figure out how they were going to reward us for this plum.”

Elvis Presley Jailhouse
This is a photo from the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock in which Elvis Presley plays a convict who becomes a rock star. Associated Press

Instead, the Colonel was furious and sent notice that they were to stay out of Presley’s affairs. The film was eventually made in 1962 with director Edward Dmytryk and actor Laurence Harvey.

“The Colonel said ‘If you ever dare try to interfere in the career of Elvis Presley, you’ll never work again in London, New York, Hollywood or anywhere in the world,’” Stoller says. “That really put an end to it. People who were close to Elvis found out about it later after Elvis passed. Elvis never knew that there was this opportunity. Elvis wanted to do something like Marlon Brando, whose big hit On the Waterfront was with all these people like Kazan, Bud Schulberg. He never had the opportunity. I think it was a pity because I think Elvis had the ability to transcend the kind of movies that he was getting. They were kind of schlocky. The Colonel kept wanting to grind out the same.”

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Stoller and Leiber formed their partnership in Los Angeles when both were still teenagers. They connected through a mutual friend. Leiber called up Stoller and asked if he would write songs with him. Stoller initially declined, telling his future partner that he didn’t really like the songs on the radio at the time. Leiber asked who he liked.

“I said ‘I like Bartok, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk,’” Stoller says. “And he said a famous word in my history, he said ‘nevertheless … ‘ I said ‘OK, we’ll meet.’”

They bonded over a love of blues and R&B music – Stoller had been a devoted boogie-woogie piano player since the age of 10 – and the rest is history.

As it turns out, Stoller also declined Dart’s initial offer to participate in Beaches The Musical. Before the pandemic, Stoller and Dart were working together on another project called The People in the Picture when she asked him to get involved in Beaches. So he read the novel.

“Although I teared up a number of times, I said ‘I don’t know if I can really relate to young women,’” he says. “At that time, I was more interested in the main characters on this other show. Then she called me during the pandemic and said ‘Mike I’m going to ask you again’ and I said ‘Yes.’ First of all, I remembered some of the scenes that I had teared up upon reading the novel and maybe I felt more able to deal with that. And also, it was the pandemic. What the hell else was I doing?’”

Leiber and Stoller
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Herald Archives. cal

Beaches has a built-in fanbase from both the novel and the popular 1988 film adaptation starring Bette Midler. and Barbara Hershey. The musical will feature Midler’s famous ballad, The Wind Beneath My Wings, which Stoller had no part in writing and was included at the producers’ insistence. Stoller admits he prefers it not to be in the score. Still, he has high hopes for the musical.

“Of course, I hope it will get to Broadway and travel and get overseas,” he says.

Theatre Calgary’s Beaches the Musical runs at The Max Bell Theatre from May 18 to June 16.

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