Music News & Reviews

Composer Mike Stoller on origin of 'Kansas City' & Meghan Markle using 'Stand By Me'

Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller, penned such rock 'n' roll standards as "Stand By Me," "Hound Dog"  and "Kansas City."  Stoller will be honored on June 2 with a bronze medallion embedded in the sidewalk of 18th Street as part of the American Jazz Walk of Fame.
Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller, penned such rock 'n' roll standards as "Stand By Me," "Hound Dog" and "Kansas City." Stoller will be honored on June 2 with a bronze medallion embedded in the sidewalk of 18th Street as part of the American Jazz Walk of Fame.

Mike Stoller composed the music to "Kansas City" without ever actually stepping foot in the town. In fact, it would take him another two decades before he did.

And yet, the R&B tune — whether through recordings by Wilbert Harrison, Peggy Lee or The Beatles — has become inextricably bonded to this city of his youthful imagination.

In 2005, “Kansas City” was named the official song of KCMO.

“In our minds, it was a wonderful place to go — with 'a crazy way of loving,'" says Stoller, winking at the lyrics. "You know, we were teenagers when we wrote it."

Now, Stoller — part of the iconic songwriting team Leiber and Stoller — is returning to KC to be honored with a bronze medallion embedded in the sidewalk of 18th Street as part of the American Jazz Walk of Fame.

Mike Stoller - Press Headshot.jpg
Mike Stoller Submitted

The ceremony begins at 6:30 p.m. Saturday outside the American Jazz Museum. A concert at the Gem Theater featuring David Sanborn, Marilyn Maye and Ruben Studdard follows at 7 p.m.

Stoller and his partner, lyricist Jerry Leiber (who died in 2011), were first approached in 1952 by Federal Records owner Ralph Bass to write a song about the Midwestern metropolis.

"Jerry and I both knew about Kansas City. We knew Charlie Parker and Jay McShann were from there — with Count Basie and all those great blues and jazz players,” recalls the 85-year-old Stoller. "We had never been there, but it was kind of a magical place to us."

The teen songwriters went to the home of producer Maxwell Davis (a native of Independence, Kansas) and taught the song to boogie-woogie performer Little Willie Littlefield. Then they headed into the studio and recorded a version that Stoller says "we really liked."

Unfortunately, Bass decided to change the title when he released the record. He called it "K.C. Lovin'."

Despite some regional success, the song failed to chart.

"We didn’t like that title," Stoller says. "As luck would have it, seven years later Wilbert Harrison remembered the song and went in and recorded it as 'Kansas City.' Then, boom. A number-one hit."

The song became one of Leiber and Stoller’s most-recorded efforts, earning some 300 renditions.

"There are a number of wonderful versions of the song, but my favorite is by Joe Williams," he says of the 1964 track by the big band singer. "That’s the way I heard the song in my head."

But "Kansas City" is hardly the most-renowned of the duo’s collaborations. Other songs by the Grammy-winning team include "Jailhouse Rock," "Poison Ivy," "Charlie Brown," "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion No. 9" and "Is That All There Is?"

Perhaps their best-known tune is “Stand By Me," arguably one of the most famous songs in American pop culture.

It was the theme song to the 1986 coming-of-age movie of the same name starring Wil Wheaton and Corey Feldman. More recently, a gospel choir performed it across the pond at the May 19 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

"That was unbelievable," says Stoller, speaking from his home in West Hollywood. "I got word it was going to be used with a number of other songs at the event, but the way it was used was beautiful. It kept the flavor of the original record, which Jerry and I produced with Ben E. King. But it was solemn nevertheless. I love the fact Miss Markle selected the song for that purpose."

Stoller claims he was sent dozens of congratulatory notes from people all over the world.

"The first one I received was from Sir Tim Rice," he says of the "Jesus Christ Superstar" lyricist.

Songwriting is an occasionally misunderstood occupation, explains the Long Island native.

"Sometimes people actually ask, ‘Which comes first, the words or the lyrics?,'" he says, laughing. "A lot of people have a fantasy in their minds of how songwriters write something, how they create, what they’re thinking of. All of their thoughts on how a songwriter writes something are true to some degree and untrue to some degree."

Stoller says the most recent song he wrote was a month ago. But he doesn’t like to discuss a composition — not even its working title — until he’s made a demo of it.

Leiber and Stoller are the only songwriters honored at this year’s Walk of Fame ceremony. St. Louis saxophonist David Sanborn, Kansas City vocalist Marilyn Maye and KC guitarist Sonny Kenner round out the inductees.

"The writing team of Leiber and Stoller met the American Jazz Walk of Fame selection criteria based upon their body of work, which reflects musical excellence, influence in the jazz genre and influence on other artists," says Suzetta Parks, a producer of the event, which is presented by the Jazz District Renaissance Corporation.

Parks emphasizes that "Kansas City" has always closed their concerts because "it has come to be used as an anthem for the city."

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Forging a 61-year partnership that began when Stoller was a freshman at Los Angeles City College and Leiber was still a senior in high school, it took a few years before the pair saw any concrete returns from their collaboration.

But in 1956, Stoller earned a royalty check for $5,000 — "the most money I’d ever seen," he says. Together with his first wife, Meryl, they used the money to travel Europe for four months.

"Then we came back on a beautiful ocean liner called the Andrea Doria," remembers Stoller, who’s been remarried to jazz musician Corky Hale since 1970. They didn’t make it to back to the states quite as planned.

The Andrea Doria collided with a Swedish ship, sinking their vessel and leading to the death of 46 fellow passengers. It remains the worst maritime disaster to take place in U.S. waters in the last 100 years.

"Fortunately, we got off in a broken lifeboat and were picked up by a freighter. I was supposed to meet Jerry in New York. I sent a note to Atlantic Records, which is where I knew he would be. When we finally arrived in New York on the freighter, Jerry ran up to me and said, 'Mike, we have a smash hit: 'Hound Dog.'"

"I said, 'Big Mama Thornton?' He said, 'No. Some white kid named Elvis Presley.'"

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of "The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All."

Saturday

American Jazz Walk of Fame induction ceremony with David Sanborn, Marilyn Maye and Ruben Studdard. 6:30 p.m. $50. 18th and Vine. www.americanjazzwalkoffame.com.

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