Paul Shaffer “can hardly wait” for 92Y’s “Lyrics & Lyricists Special Event,” namely, An 80th Birthday Celebration Of Songwriter Mike Stoller—With A Tribute To Jerry Leiber.
Shaffer is set to host the Dec. 9 event, to be directed by A Night With Janis Joplin Broadway director/writer Randy Johnson and feature performances by Karen Akers, Brenda Braxton, Dee Dee Bridgewater, The Coasters, Mary Bridget Davies (star of the Joplin musical), Corky Hale, Maria Elena Infantino, Chuck Jackson, Sally Kellerman, Ben E. King, Bettye LaVette, Melissa Manchester, Billy Stritch, Tommy Tune and Steve Tyrell.
Stoller, of course, partnered with the late Jerry Leiber in writing some of the biggest hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era, including “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” “Kansas City,“ “Ruby Baby,” “Love Potion #9” and “Stand By Me” (with Ben E. King).
“I can’t get enough of it!” says Shaffer, considering the Leiber & Stoller catalog. “I’m going to be getting together with him soon to hear any historical things he has that he can tell me about the songs–how he wrote them, what they meant at the time. Of course I know a lot of it already: We’ve studied it all our lives, but it’s all in the studying and restudying.”
Indeed, Shaffer likens the study of Leiber & Stoller to that of a complex religious text.
“Just as we study the Talmud, that’s how we gain new meaning from these things,” Shaffer says. “There will be a lot of wonderful performers singing tunes, and Mike himself will do a personal tribute to Jerry Leiber. So I can hardly wait for December 9!”
An architect (with Leiber) of New York’s famed 1960s “Brill Building Pop” songwriting style and sound, the Long Island-born Stoller, long a resident of Los Angeles, is “kind of excited myself,” he says.
“It’s the first time I’m 80,” he marvels, “though my birthday was March 13.”
Stoller has been busy helping with his celebration’s repertoire and performers, “rounding up the different charts for people to use, or having them remade,” he says.
Regarding the talent lineup, he’s particularly pleased that King was able to shuffle his overseas commitments in order to attend.
But “it’s an amazing and eclectic mix of performers,” he says. “Some, like Chuck Jackson, originally recorded our songs—he did ‘I Keep Forgettin’. Others are newer people who didn’t record them originally, but I’m thrilled about all of the performers: To be involved in this is such an honor for me.”
For their help, he singles out Shaffer and Johnson and associate director/co-writer Tyler Rhodes (Joplin’s associate director), along with his old pal Russ Titelman, the music producer and songwriter. With all the Leiber-Stoller song classics and performances, of course, much help was needed.
“Part of it is choosing the songs,” says Stoller, noting how The Coasters, for example, recorded so many Leiber-Stoller songs—not to mention that all of the original members are gone. They’ve enlisted Akers to sing “Selective Memory,” which Donna Murphy sang in Stoller’s 2011 Broadway musical The People In The Picture (music co-written with Artie Butler to book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart).
Braxton sang in the original 1995 Broadway production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs Of Leiber And Stoller; Maria Elena Infantino, who did an internationally acclaimed one-woman tribute to Edith Piaf, will perform Leiber-Stoller’s “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” the 1955 hit for The Cheers that Piaf famously covered as “L’ Homme à la Moto.”
Also noteworthy are Stoller’s wife, the jazz harpist/pianist Corky Hale, set to perform “Loving You,” which he and Leiber supplied for Elvis Presley; Davies, who will perform Presley’s “Hound Dog,” originally recorded by blues queen Big Mama Thornton; and Tyrell, another close friend of Stoller’s, whose band is the house band.
But besides his close involvement in his 92Y 80th Birthday Celebration, Stoller has been busy with other projects.
“Jerry and I started a musical a long time ago and never quite finished it, because among other things, there were problems with the book we were working with,” he says. “We started meeting with a fellow from England, [author/columnist] Michael Bywater, but Jerry passed away [in 2011] before we could finish it. I’m working with him now to resurrect the project, because it has some of the best stuff Jerry and I had ever written. Hopefully we’ll get it done.”
More recently, “a very strange thing occurred,” Stoller relates.
“Jerry and I had written songs for a musical version in Alberta of [Canadian author] Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. It ran for a while there, and that was about it. Then we recently got a call from the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal asking for our songs! Now this was 30 years ago, so I’ve been scrounging around to get the material together. The strange thing is, they have the rights to Mordecai’s book for the musical and they want to do it in Yiddish—translate the book and Jerry’s lyrics–and I don’t have to do any translation!”
And Stoller, whose work with Leiber is regarded as a link between blues, R&B and mainstream rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and early ‘60s, continues to write songs.
“I haven’t slowed down at 80,” he says. “Jerry and I, when we started out, wrote four or five songs a day, and then we’d go home and call each other, each with two more. We did four songs, including ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ in five hours in a hotel room under duress, so we could write fast.”
Stoller does concede that he’s not quite as fast without Leiber, and that he doesn’t pay much attention to contemporary pop songwriting.
“For me to attempt to write hip-hop or rap would be totally wrong!” he says. “Not that I feel limited to writing R&B or rock ‘n’ roll, but I think it would have been wrong for Richard Rodgers to try and write rock ‘n’ roll.”
“But I’ll give myself a pass for bridging the gap from rock ‘n’ roll to musical theater,” Stoller adds.
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