Seven years ago, I was at a political event in Los Angeles, when someone's nametag jumped out. Mike Stoller, it said. Though I usually let public figures go without interruption, this was different. This was Mike Stoller, so I made my way over.
Now, I know that for many, Mike Stoller's name is unfamiliar. But to those who do recognize it, it's an "Ohmygod" moment.
Mike Stoller and his writing partner Jerry Leiber are a songwriting team for which the description "legendary" was coined. All by themselves, they're the soundtrack of generations. Even if their names are not familiar to you, you've heard their music.
But even for those reclusive few who don't actually know their songs, their influence has impacted American cultural life. Leiber and Stoller took rhythm & blues, mixed it with rock 'n roll, and merged the sounds of black and white music into something that erupted onto America.
Here's just a mixed-tape sampler. You'll understand. And even if some of the titles aren't known, the songs would be once you heard them.
"Stand By Me"
"Love Potion #9"
"There Goes My Baby"
"Is That All There Is?"
"I'm a Woman (W-O-M-A-N)"
"Fools Fall in Love"
"I (Who Have Nothing)"
There are more. Hundreds. Search YouTube for "Leiber and Stoller." Be prepared to say, "Ohhhhhh. That's what that is."
So, back to walking over to Mike Stoller.
After thanking him for his work, we chatted a bit before I could finally get out what was my main reason for coming by.. It was a presumptuous question, I noted, but had been on my mind, "...Has anyone ever discussed with you about receiving a Kennedy Center Honor?"
It was not immodesty, but honesty when he answered that the subject had, indeed, come up. But he said it was not likely to happen for the time being. Artistic craftsmanship is the hallmark of the Kennedy Center tributes, but there nonetheless is a certain political aspect to a national honor presented at the White House. "We're pretty outspoken Democrats," he said, and with a Republican administration then in office, it seemed that other officials might be doing the critical jockeying.
To be clear, Stoller wasn't suggesting that decisions were made based on politics. There was no sour grapes in his response, no sense of feeling overlooked. Just a polite attempt to honestly answer my question that in the foreseeable future he didn't think I should hold my breath.
Taking his admonition, although I did write a Huffington Post piece on the team a few years back, it was done breath-holding free. However with a new administration in office, it occurred to me that it was an appropriate time to bring the matter up again.
Such tributes are all wildly subjective, of course. But what has made the Kennedy Center Honors unique is that they're given out by the nation, and have held a high standard for being iconic in American culture. For transforming art forms into becoming ingrained in the national consciousness.
The Kennedy Center Honors have been admirable in honoring renowned names along with those virtually unknown to the general public. The one thread connecting these artists is that they transcended their time and deeply enriched American culture, even beyond entertaining it. That's what has made the tribute culturally valuable, and far more substantive than other industry awards.
Which is why Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have been deserving of national tribute for far too long. What I wrote before therefore bears repeating:
The thing about Leiber & Stoller is that their worth isn't just about culture-changing songwriting alone, but their larger influence on the popular culture.
The two met in Los Angeles in 1950, when Leiber was still at Fairfax High School and Stoller was at L.A. City College - and had their first single that same year.
Eventually they moved to NY and the famed Brill Building, the heart of American popular music. But the two didn't just write the songs: they arranged them, picked the musicians and produced the records. Soon, they did the unprecedented: formed their own label, Red Bird in 1964, and their influence grew even further. The company was home for many of the most popular girl groups of the era, like the Shangri-La's ("Leader of the Pack") and Dixie Cups ("Chapel of Love"). Leiber and Stoller hired other songwriters, notably Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who themselves added to the Great American Songbook, with classics like "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Be My Baby" and "Doo Wah Diddy". They hired a young Phil Spector, who went on to become one the most famous record producers in recording history. [Update: And later, infamous.]
Leiber (lyrics) and Stoller (the music) wrote well over 20 songs for Elvis Presley, and had hits with artists ranging from the Coasters to Peggy Lee and blues legends Big Mama Thornton and Jimmy Witherspoon.
Their work spanned styles, emotions and generations, lasting over 50 years to the present day in new recordings, movies and commercials. In 1987, they were elected to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, and had a Broadway show "Smokey Joe's Café" of their music.
And both men are still around. Still friends. Still working.
And it's about time they received the Kennedy Center Honor.