Special Reports

Mike Stoller Plays Favorites: The Composer Reveals His 5 Most Important Songs

The ”Smokey Joe’s Cafe” composer is responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the 1950s and ’60s.

Mike Stoller, the composer of songs including "Hound Dog" and "Stand By Me."
Mike Stoller, the composer of songs including "Hound Dog" and "Stand By Me."
(© Tristan Fuge)

If you know anything about American popular music, you've encountered the work of Mike Stoller. With his longtime writing partner, the late Jerry Lieber, Stoller composed the music for hundreds of enduring classics that even the current generation knows, such as "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog," "On Broadway," and "Stand by Me," among loads of others.

In 1995, Lieber and Stoller conquered Broadway with Smokey Joe's Cafe, the long-running revue of their music that played more than 2,000 performances and earned a Grammy. Now, Smokey Joe's Cafe is back, running at Stage 42 under the direction of Joshua Bergasse.

With that in mind, we posed Stoller a question that allowed him to look back on his entire career: "If a professor was putting together a Lieber and Stoller survey course, what songs would have to be included?"

1. "Kansas City"

"We wrote 'Kansas City' in 1952. The owner of the record company, who also held the publishing rights, decided after the song was recorded that he would give it a hipper title, and called it 'K.C. Loving.' It sold pretty well in a couple of cities. Seven years later, Wilbert Harrison remembered the song and recorded it, and it became No. 1 on the pop and R&B charts. The first time we actually got to Kansas City was in 1986, and we got the key to the city. The song is now the city's anthem."

2. "Hound Dog"

"'Hound Dog' was also written in 1952, when Jerry and I were 19. We had been invited to Johnny Otis's studio, and Big Mama Thornton was working with Johnny's band. She really knocked us out and inspired the kind of song that it is. We went into the studio, and it wasn't happening the way it did in rehearsal, so we insisted that Johnny had to play the drums, and that we would run the session. It was the first time we ran a recording session. The first take was fantastic, and the second take was better.

"The record came out in 1953. In 1956, I went to Europe for about four months. On the way, back I was on a lovely Italian ship called the Andrea Doria, which collided with a ship called the Stockholm. It ultimately sank, and I got off in a broken lifeboat and was eventually picked up by a freighter.

"I sent a wire from the freighter to Atlantic Records, because I knew Jerry was going to be in New York at the time and we were planning to meet. When I came down the gangplank, Jerry ran up to me and said, 'Mike, we have a smash hit, "Hound Dog."' I said, 'Big Mama Thornton?' And he said, 'No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.' That was a remarkable day. In less than 24 hours, I went from thinking I was going to die to having the No. 1 hit song."

3. "Loving You"

"'Loving You' is important to me. My wife, Corky Hale, performs that song. She's a wonderful jazz harpist and pianist and vocalist. We wrote it for Elvis, but she sings it beautifully, as a lovely ballad. In Smokey Joe's Cafe, 'Loving You' is very different than the way my wife does it, but I like them both."

4. "Is That All There Is?"

"I'm very fond of 'Is That All There Is?' Jerry wrote the spoken words first, and I set them to music. We played it for Georgia Brown, and she said, 'It's lovely, but it needs something to sing.' I called Jerry the next day and said I had the music, and he said, 'Come over, but I don't want you to play it for me until you hear the words. I don't want you to change them for some tune you wrote.' I played him the tune, and he said, 'Play it again,' and he sang the lyrics he had written and it fit perfectly. He didn't have to change one syllable. That never happened to us before. When we recorded it with Peggy Lee, we used Randy Newman as the orchestrator, and he added a tremendous amount."

5. "Stand by Me"

"This is a song that we wrote with Ben E. King. We produced the record in 1961. Some 25 years later, Rob Reiner called me and said, "I have this movie and I can't use the title. It's called The Body, and it's based on a story by Stephen King, and people will think of it as a horror film, but I think of it as a coming-of-age film. I want to call it Stand by Me.' I said, 'Be my guest.' They used the original record, and to our delight, it became as big of a hit — or a bigger hit — 25 years later. The same exact record we produced with Ben.

"About six weeks ago, during the royal wedding, I was up in Maine at the opening night of Smokey Joe's Cafe at the Ogunquit Playhouse. I woke up with hundreds of emails, including one that my son sent me, of the royal-wedding ceremony. I heard it and it knocked me out. It was so beautiful."