Songwriter Stoller to Share Stories Behind Elvis Hits -- 'Hound Dog' First of Many

By Lollar, Michael | The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), August 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

Songwriter Stoller to Share Stories Behind Elvis Hits -- 'Hound Dog' First of Many


Lollar, Michael, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)


It was his first major songwriting success, but it came with some calamity. Mike Stoller was on his way home to New York from Europe aboard the cruise ship Andrea Doria when it was struck in the side by another ship in a heavy fog.

Stoller managed to climb onto a lifeboat. While the Andrea Doria was slowly sinking off the coast of Nantucket, Stoller was suddenly surfacing as one of the most famous composers in rock music history. When he arrived in New York aboard a rescue freighter, it was to the sound of his songwriting partner, Jerry Leiber, yelling from the dock: We've got a smash hit.

It was 1956, and 21-year-old Elvis Presley had just recorded his adaptation of Hound Dog, the song Leiber and Stoller had written in 1952 for blues singer Big Mama Thornton. Elvis had heard a rock- and-roll version of the song by a Las Vegas lounge act, Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. He revised it into the growling, snarly version that helped turn him into the world's first rock star.

It is one of the stories Stoller will tell Saturday when he takes part in a new Elvis Songwriters Showcase, a blend of storytelling and music as part of the 35th Anniversary Elvis Week. It will be held on the Elvis Week Main Stage, an air-conditioned 1,200-seat tent on the parking lot behind the Elvis airplanes in the Graceland Plaza complex in Whitehaven.

Stoller, 79, who was inducted with Leiber into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, owes part of his success to Hound Dog, which propelled Elvis onto national TV where he famously sang the song to a tuxedo-clad Bassett hound on The Steve Allen Show. The hoopla was a surprise to Stoller. It didn't compare in my mind to Big Mama's record. It didn't have the same insinuating rhythm, says Stoller, the composer of the songwriting duo.

His original version had a rumba beat. When Elvis sang it, it sounded like he was singing it to a dog, but it had the same kind of animosity in it, which is what I think sold it. At first, he said, I was a little disappointed, but when it sold 7 million singles, I began to see some merit in it.

Stoller said Elvis' managers soon asked if he and Leiber had other songs Elvis might do. They gave him a ballad, Love Me.

He did a beautiful performance on it, says Stoller. It was followed by Loving You for a movie with Elvis and Lizabeth Scott. The next project, Jailhouse Rock, included four songs Leiber and Stoller wrote while held captive in a New York hotel.

The songwriters had been living in Los Angeles, and Stoller said they rented a New York hotel suite with a piano and were given a script for the movie. We kind of tossed it in the corner. We were having a ball in New York, going to jazz clubs, cabaret, going to the theater and hanging out. …

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