Leiber And Stoller Lead The Rock Riot

Sep 13, 2011

Memphis, TN – The two East Coast born California dwellers for whom Elvis Presley had earned thousands of dollars, but whom Elvis had never met, were waiting. The waiting room was the studio at Radio Recorders in Hollywood where "Big Mama" Thornton had recorded their song Hound Dog. The occasion on that Tuesday, April 30, 1957 was the initial recording session for the movie Jailhouse Rock, for which the reluctant songwriters had been commissioned to create musical magic.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were no great Elvis fans; they did not feel he was on their intellectual level. They did not particularly like his interpretations of their songs so far, and they really resented having to give up publishing money to get him to record them. Although the cultural icon did not exist at that time, I believe what they expected to walk through the studio door would have resembled Jethro Bodine.

Instead, they met Elvis Presley. Not only was Elvis a walking encyclopedia of the Leiber-Stoller repertoire, but for every obscure R&B artist they could name drop, Elvis could trump them with another. For every extra take they needed to get the songs recorded right, Elvis wanted more. When Stoller riffed the blues on piano, Elvis scooted in at the other end of the bench and turned it into blues-for-two.

Leiber and Stoller actually came into the project with a (dare we say) "prior record" when it came to using prison as a song setting, having scored an R&B hit in 1954 with The Robins' Riot In Cell Block #9. The writers took charge in the Elvis sessions, and found a willing artist thirsting for actual constructive input into his process.

One enduring (and endearing) snapshot from the sessions occurred when bassist Bill Black stomped out in frustration. The song You're So Square (Baby I Don t Care) called for Black to switch from his customary stand-up instrument over to an electric bass, and he just was not getting the hang of the opening pattern. Elvis simply walked over, picked up the Fender bass, and fell right in. When you hear the song today, you hear the recorded debut of Elvis on bass.

For the stop-and-start kickoff to the new movie's title song, drummer DJ Fontana and Black on bass drew inspiration from Verdi's Il Trovatore, specifically the Anvil Chorus, as interpreted by maestro Glenn Miller (turning this, into this).

The Leiber-Stoller song Treat Me Nice was started, but a definitive version not achieved in the spring sessions. In September of 1957, recording resumed in Hollywood with the twin goals of cleaning up that song for use as the B-side to Jailhouse Rock and filling out the sides of a Christmas album. A new voice was introduced into the Elvis sound, that of Nashville soprano Millie Kirkham. You will know that voice as soon as you hear it, three seconds into Blue Christmas.

Meanwhile back at the movie, challenge number one was the Jailhouse Rock dance sequence. Choreographer Alex Romero had it all worked out, but in the initial run-through realized some adjustments were needed. He had Elvis demonstrate some of his real-life stage moves, and rebuilt the sequence based on his observations. From that point on, Elvis was spot-on. The scene was physically demanding; in practice, Elvis aspirated a tooth-cap.

Jailhouse Rock was the number one single for seven weeks. It was the first song to ever enter the UK charts at number one. The soundtrack EP hit number one. Sha-Na-Na brought it to the stage at Woodstock, and the song closed out the movies The Blues Brothers and Lilo And Stitch. The theme of prison dance as an allegory for prison riot was given a post-Attica, tongue-in-cheek treatment for 10cc's first UK number one single, Rubber Bullets.