Songwriters reflect on collaboration, good times with Elvis during weeklong celebration

by George Jared ([email protected]) 2,776 views 

Songwriters Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber had written several hit songs during the mid-1950s, and Stoller decided to take a vacation in Europe. He traveled home from Europe on the Andrea Doria and was on the ship on the night of July 25, 1956 when it sank off the coast of Nantucket.

He survived the crash and when he arrived at the docks in New York City, his songwriting partner was there. He didn’t ask him a single question about the ordeal; he only had one thing he wanted to tell him.

“Mike we have a smash hit … ‘Hound Dog,’” Leiber said.

The duo had written the song for Big Mama Thornton, an R&B artist in 1952.

“Mama Thornton has the number one song in the country?” Stoller replied.

“No. Some white guy from Tennessee named Elvis is singing it now,” Leiber said.

Stoller recalled the story of when he first heard about Elvis singing “Hound Dog” during the weeklong Elvis Week celebration in Memphis at Graceland. Stoller, 89, and Leiber, who died at the age of 78 in 2011, wrote songs sung by the Drifters, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, and many others.

After the success of “Hound Dog,” the songwriters met up with Elvis and Col. Tom Parker. There was an immediate uneasiness between the duo and Parker, but they warmed quickly to Elvis.

“We hit it off immediately,” Stoller said.

Stoller and Leiber went on to write several songs for the “The King of Rock-n-Roll” including “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me,” “Don’t,” and “King Creole” among others.

Despite their successful collaboration, Parker grew weary of the influence Stoller and Leiber had on Elvis, Stoller said. During the early 1960s the two tried to talk the musician into taking more serious roles in his acting career and when Parker found out, he ended the relationship.

“It was sad that we had a falling out with Col. Parker … we never worked with Elvis again,” Stoller said.

Another musician and songwriter from Memphis during the 1950s had a connection to Elvis long before they met but it was a competitive one. Dickey Lee’s song “Dream Boy” rapidly rose in the charts, but there was only one problem. It was consistently beat by “All Shook Up,” he said.

“He kept me from being number one,” the 85-year-old Lee said with a laugh.

Lee continues to perform to this day, but he made a major mark in the music industry as a songwriter. He wrote the song “Memphis Beat” which is considered the most popular song ever written that includes the city of Memphis. The most popular version was sung by Jerry Lee Lewis. Lee and Lewis are the only two musicians who recorded at the famed Sun Studios that are still alive, Lee said.

Lee would go on to write smash hits such as “The Keeper of the Stars,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” and “Let’s Fall to Pieces Together.” Elvis wanted to meet Lee after the success of “Dream Boy.”

“He invited me out to Graceland … He said ‘I really like your album,’” Lee said. “And of course, I said ‘I like your albums.’”

The one thing he remembered about the first trip to Graceland was that Elvis wanted to make him a vanilla milkshake.

“Elvis could make a milkshake,” Lee said.

Another songwriter tied to Elvis who spoke during the Elvis Week celebration was Billy Swan. Born in Cape Girardeau, Mo., he moved to Memphis in the 1960s as a 19-year-old. A chance conversation with Elvis’s uncle, Travis Smith, led Swan to rent a room from Smith.

Later in his career, he would write hit songs such as “I Can Help,” “Polk Salad Annie” and play with musicians such as Kris Kristofferson, but he struggled early to find work in the industry in Memphis.

That was offset by the few occasions that he got to hang out with Elvis. Once, he rented out a skating rink and invited Swan to skate. During these skating rink sessions, Elvis and his friends liked to rough house and knock each other down.

As Swan came around the rink, a man readied to knock him down, but Swan surprised him and knocked him down. Within moments, Swan realized that Elvis was lurking behind him. The King rushed Swan and he hit the floor.

When Swan stood up, he realized his pants were torn at the crotch. Elvis was sitting in the stands with his wife Priscilla when Swan approached.

“Elvis, do I have to leave? I tore the crotch of my pants out,” he said.

“Are you wearing underwear?” he asked. Swan replied. “Yes. Boxers.”

“Then you can stay,” Elvis said laughing at the young man.

For all the success Stoller went on to achieve, he said he will never forget when he arrived at the dock and learned about Elvis singing “Hound Dog.” What might surprise some fans is that he actually prefers the Big Mama Thornton version, he said.

The song is meant to be sung by a woman to a man. But, the Elvis version did eventually grow on him.

“After it sold 8 million copies, it started to grow on me,” he said.