09 July 2008

Mike Stoller on the SS Andrea Doria

Last week, updating my page on Poison Ivy, I wanted to write the briefest possible summary of The Coasters and their songwriter-producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It ended up being a mere three paragraphs with a bunch of links for further reading, but I ended up reading a whole book about The Coasters along the way.

The Coasters, by British music journalist Bill Millar, was published in 1974 and it's probably still the best starting point. It's much more than a fan's bio of The Coasters: it's a history of a cultural and social revolution, a story that starts with the rise of marginalised, even improvised, R&B record labels in the 1940s and ends up with major labels on the mainstream charts by the end of the 50s. Bill Millar is a fastidious researcher but he's an enthusiast as well: an irresistible combination.

(Back then, Bill liked to chase up groups performing under famous names that didn't live up to their corporate branding. There's a photo in another of his books,
The Drifters (1971), that shows him bailing up some members of a "New Drifters" group: he looks like a chap who's not going to give up till he nails the matter, no matter how discomfited his subjects may be.)

One night last week, when I'd only just started reading The Coasters, I was flipping around the vast wasteland of pay-tv and saw part of a documentary about an ocean collision off Massachusetts in 1956. On a foggy night a Swedish ship, the Stockholm, ran into the Andrea Doria, an Italian passenger liner heading for New York. I flipped away again when they were picking up the survivors (1660 out of about 1700 on board the Andrea Doria survived).

That turned out to be quite a co-incidence. Next day, I read Bill Millar's account of Leiber and Stoller's deal with Atlantic Records in New York, when they wound up their Los Angeles label Spark and started recording for Atlantic.

Here's how Bill Millar tells about the first time Mike Stoller met his new associates in New York:
With the royalties which had accrued from The Cheers' Black Denim Trousers 1, Stoller had taken a vacation in Europe and after a stay of three months, he and one thousand others embarked for the USA on the Andrea Doria. Fifty-four passengers never arrived. On 25 July 1956 the Andrea Doria collided with a Swedish steamer, the Stockholm, near Nantucket island and sank during the early hours of the morning.

Survivors, including Stoller, were picked up by the Cape Ann, a fruit freighter from Bremerhaven, which headed for New York: "Jerry was in New York for a convention and he was waiting on the dock with the whole Atlantic crew. it was the first time I had met Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Herb Abramson because Jerry and Lester [Sills] had fixed the Spark deal while I stayed in LA. Anyhow I was OK because I'd been taken off the Andrea Doria by a lifeboat. So we talked and then we went back to California to record
The Coasters."
(The Coasters, pp. 73-74)
Two members of The Robins, a vocal group who recorded on the Spark label, had decided to stick with Leiber and Stoller in their deal between West Coast and East Coast, and they formed the core of The Coasters (get it?). At this time they were still recording in LA for these early sessions which yielded their first two hits, Searchin' (#3 USA) and Young Blood (#8).

So it is that Mike Stoller, 23 years, appears with his first wife Meryl in many accounts of the Andrea Doria disaster: see, for example, this passenger list at AndreaDoria.0rg.

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1. Peter Stoller (VP at Leiber/Stoller Productions) points out that the Stollers' European trip was in fact funded by royalties from another Cheers recording, Bazoom (I Need Your Lovin’) (1954). While in Paris, the Stollers heard Édith Piaf perform L'Homme à la Moto, her hit French version of Black Denim Trousers.


Bill Millar,
The Drifters, London, November Books, 1971 [Amazon]
Bill Millar,
The Coasters, London, W.H. Allen, 1974 [Amazon]

Further reading:
Interview with Mike Stoller by Goldmine's Ken Sharp.
Pages linked from my Poison Ivy page.

SS Andrea Doria at Wikipedia.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thought you might be interested in seeing this rare footage of the Andrea Doria on her maiden voyage back to Genoa in 1953: http://wp.me/pnveI-2h

Steve Hamilton
Co-owner, Memories To DVD