A few years ago, I wrote an article for The Huffington Post explaining why I thought that legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller should be Kennedy Center Honorees. A few days later, my phone rang and the voice on the other said, "Hi, is Robert there? This is Mike Stoller." It was a joyful conversation, and he said that he and Jerry Leiber were having a book signing for their new, joint-autobiography that very night in Venice, California, only about 20 minutes from where I live, and he'd love to have me come. (Oh, thank you kismet!) I've stayed in touch with Mike Stoller since, on-and-off, and he's stayed as gracious as that phone call.
I’ve written about Mike Stoller a couple times, always with his longtime partner Jerry Leiber of 60 years. When I say "legendary," and one of the great songwriting teams in music history, that is not hyperbole. Their songs include “Hound Dog,” “Stand by Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” “On Broadway,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “I’m a Woman,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Is That All There Is?” and…oh, a few hundred more. The team is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, their show Smokey Joe’s Café is the longest-running revue in Broadway history, and they really should have received the Kennedy Center Honors long ago, most especially before Jerry Leiber passed away in 2011. They were the soundtrack of a generation. As I wrote, “What they did with songs helped changed the culture. 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.”
This piece here today, however, is about Mike Stoller alone. Well, actually, not really. It’s also about his wife of 43 years, Corky Hale Stoller, one of the great jazz harpist, pianist and singers. That’s not hyperbole either. Among the artists she’s worked with include Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Nat “King” Cole, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, even Björk, and George Michael, and…oh, a whole lot more. She’s performed at the White House with Tony Bennett, at Carnegie Hall, London’s Royal Albert Hall, and...well, you get the idea.
There’s a point to all this. It begins with understanding what a remarkable couple this is, one of the most little-known as far as legends go. And also, honestly, sometimes I just like to say nice things behind peoples’ backs. When people do good things in their life, it shouldn’t be taken for granted. And if people get an impressive recognition, that shouldn’t go without notice, as well. Especially when they just naturally tend to fly under the wire by choice.
More than music icons, you see, the Stollers have long been cultural civic leaders in Los Angeles.
Three years ago, the historic Pasadena Playhouse hit hard times. Founded in 1917, the Playhouse was part of the heartbeat of the Southern California cultural life, but its financial struggles were so deep that the bankrupt company was set to close its doors for good, after 93 years. Fortunately, the theater received a huge infusion of cash (an anonymous $1 million gift, which spurred significant matching donations), and got a second life, and has thrived since. Four months ago, the Pasadena Playhouse decided it didn’t want to keep the secret any longer. It announced that that anonymous gift had been from Corky and Mike Stoller.
Their involvement in the arts transcends that. She was one of the financial backers of the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America – Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. He recently co-wrote the Tony-nominated Broadway musical, The People in the Picture. She’s produced numerous stageplays and musicals.
More than the arts, though, the couple has long been outspoken in civic and political life of the country. The Mike Stoller and Corky Hale Stoller Foundation has been involved for many years in impacting human rights, public health, and beyond. They’ve helped build the state-of-the-art Dorothy Hecht Health Center in Los Angeles (and another center is in the process of development). They serve on the board of The National Coalition to Ban Gun Violence, and are active advocates of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Corky Hale serves on the national advisory boards of Planned Parenthood and NARAL. Last year, in fact, as a result of their donation and personal involvement, Planned Parenthood named their new facility in Los Angeles the Stoller-Filer Health Center.
But it was last week when someone actually decided to return the favor and do something especially nice for the Stollers.
Montgomery, Alabama, will forever be identified as one of the hearts of the Civil Rights movement, with the bus boycott there lead by Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s also the home of the renowned Southern Poverty Law Center, founded by Morris Dees, which has been at the center of fighting intolerance since 1971. Montgomery takes its Civil Right very seriously. Their Civil Rights Memorial (designed by Maya Lin, who created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.) honors the names of those who died in the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. The Wall of Tolerance digitally displays the names of over 500,000 people who have pledged to fight injustice on behalf of tolerance. A “Wheel of Water” has the biblical admonition “let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.”
And in the midst of all this now, standing with them, is the Mike Stoller and Corky Hale Stoller Memorial Center Theater. They had nothing to do with this honor -- the Southern Poverty Law Center decided that it wanted to make this dedication, and did so as a surprise only weeks ago.
It was no small occasion, just cut a ribbon, have some cake and that’s it. The Chairman Emeritus of the NAACP Julian Bond opened the festivities. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi turned down attending the recent White House Correspondents Dinner with the President of the United States and instead flew to Montgomery to be there. The United States Congressional Record even took note of the event.
“It is appropriate that the theater is named for Mike and Corky because of their ongoing commitment to the civil rights movement,” it stated. “They are tireless in their work. They are idealistic and compassionate, dedicated and determined. They know what they believe and recognize what's needed to follow through and get the job done. Thanks to their boundless energy, their beautiful relationship with one another, and their friendship with so many others, they have made a difference in advancing the cause of civil rights.”
After a lifetime of doing for others and bringing so much pleasure to people and the culture, sometimes it’s nice to get a little in return.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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