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Legends: Mike Stoller. On the left and right photos we can see him receiving the Life Achievement Award, on 15/10/2005.


The roll call is staggering - Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, John Lennon, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Sinatra are just some of the artists who have recorded songs written by the golden team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They boast a rich catalog of songs that will live forever. Among the luminous jewels framing the Leiber And Stoller songbook include standards such as Stand By Me, Love Potion Number Nine, On Broadway, There Goes My Baby, Yakety Yak, Poison Ivy and numerous others.


Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees, Leiber And Stoller created a wondrous array of timeless and eminently tuneful rock 'n' roll classics that endure generation after generation. Graced with Stoller's sublime and inventive melodic contours and Leiber's evocative and sophisticated wordplay, the duo are rightly acknowledged among popular music's most important and groundbreaking songwriters of the past century.


Goldmine had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Stoller in Beverly Hills to reminisce about his work writing the music behind many of Presley's most quintessential recordings. Most recently, four Leiber/Stoller songs (Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Don't and She's Not You) have taken their proud place on the new smash Presley compilation, Elvis 30 #1 Hits.


Initially you didn't even know who Elvis Presley was.

The first time I got a sizable royalty check was in 1956, and it was $5,000. I thought I'd never see that much money at the same time again. And I went to Europe for three months and came back in style 'cause $5,000 took you a long way in those days, especially in Europe. My first wife and I came back on an Italian ocean liner, the Andrea Doria. We almost made it to New York. The Stockholm ran into the Andrea Doria. There were a lot of people killed, nor as many as there could have been, fortunately. But there were over 50 people who were killed. The boat sank. We climbed down a Jacob's ladder swinging wildly over a broken lifeboat, which we got into. We couldn't steer the boat because the rudder was broken. We were ultimately picked up by the Cape Ann, a freighter standing by. From the Cape Ann, I sent a telegram to Atlantic Records. I was supposed to have met Jerry and Lester Sill at Atlantic's offices. Until that time, all of our productions for Atlantic had been done in Los Angeles, so I hadn't really met anybody at the label except for Nesuhi Ertegun. Anyway when the Cape Ann pulled into New York harbor, Jerry was waiting for me [laughs]. He said, "Hey you're alive!" I said, "I guess so." "Great to see ya, man!" He said, "Listen, we have a smash hit!" I said, "You're kidding!" And he said, "No, Hound Dog." And I said, "Big Mama Thornton's record?" And he said, "No, some white kid named Elvis Presley." I said, "Elvis who?"


What was your first impression of Presley's version of Hound Dog?

It sounded kind of stiff and a bit too fast - a little nervous. It didn't have that insinuating groove like on Big Mama's record.


Did you grow to like it?

After it sold seven million copies it began to sound better, yeah [laughs].


Who pitched Hound Dog to Presley?

Elvis knew Big Mama's record, but Big Mama's version of Hound Dog was written for a woman. And so Elvis couldn't perform it that way. There was a group, Freddie Bell & The Bell Boys, working in the lounge in Vegas who had recorded it. They had altered the lyrics - the altered lyrics don't really mean terribly much. They made it sound like the song was written about a dog. Big Mama's record had the original lyrics, which were written about a freeloading gigolo. After that, Elvis' music publishers, the Aberbach brothers, Jean and Julian, contacted us. We had known them out in L.A. They used to have a home and office out here on Hollywood Boulevard, just west of La Brea. We had talked to them a number of times about other matters. They called and asked if we had any other songs that we thought might be good for Elvis. Jerry thought of this ballad that we'd recorded called Love Me. It was a song we had recorded with Willie & Ruth on our own label, Spark Records. They were two members of a gospel vocal quintet.


How does their version differ from Elvis'?

The song is the same, but first of all Willie & Ruth were a duet who sang in harmony. Their record featured piano triplets. It was a strong performance, but Elvis' is a really special performance. The odd thing is Elvis' version of Love Me became a big hit on the charts and was never released as a single. It was part of an EP. To be honest, when we first wrote Love Me we were thinking of it as sort of a takeoff, a Homer & Jethro type of thing. It's got all these masochistic lyrics. [recites lyrics] "Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel but love me." It could have been a joke, but Elvis' performance makes it genuinely touching.


 Legends: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with Elvis (1957); and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, working on the studio.


Next, Elvis recorded your Hot Dog and Loving You.

Loving You was a love ballad. It was our attempt to write a song as simple and direct as an Irving Berlin song.


Did you read the movie script before coming up with the song?

I think we took a glance at it. Was that the script that was originally called Lonesome Cowboy? Elvis liked Loving You and recorded it. Subsequently the studio changed the name of the film to Loving You.


What was the idea behind Hot Dog?

It was a song we had which we rewrote for Elvis to do in the film. We had originally recorded a different version of that song with a guy named Young Jessie. His real name was Obie Jessie - very good singer and good all-around musician. He had been with a rhythm-and-blues group called The Flairs. Later he subbed on The Coasters' dates for Searchin' and Young Blood, when one of the fellas was unavailable. We submitted Hot Dog and Loving You through the proper channels, which meant Freddy Bienstock, who worked for his cousins, the Aberbach brothers. That was the system that had been established. No one was supposed to approach Elvis directly.


Tell me about how you and Jerry came to write many of the hey songs for the Jailhouse Rock film.

Jailhouse Rock is the title of a song which we wrote for the film. Later, the producers decided it should be the title of the movie as well. Jerry and I came to New York - it must have been around March of '57. We came in for an undetermined amount of time - two, three weeks, maybe a month at most. We had already started producing records for Atlantic. We also wanted to see what else was happening in New York. We were considering the possibility of moving there. We took a suite at the Gorham Hotel. It had a living room and two bedrooms. Because we were going to be there for a while, we moved a rented upright piano into the living room. Jean Aberbach had given us a script, and we kind of threw it in the corner with some magazines. We were having a great time in New York, really having a ball. We were going out to cabarets and jazz clubs and the theater.


So writing those songs for Elvis was not at the top of your list of priorities?

No, hardly. And as I recall, I think it was on a Saturday morning, there was a knock at our door and Jean Aberbach walked in. He said, "Well, boys, where are my songs?" We said, "Don't worry. You're gonna get 'em." And he said "I know, because you're not going to leave this room until I get them." And then he pushed a big overstuffed chair in front of the door, the only way out. He said, "I'm going to take a nap.” He literally went to sleep, and we couldn't get out. So we thumbed through the script and wrote four songs in about four or five hours. (Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, I Want To Be Free and [You're So Square] Baby I Don't Care.) I can't say that the songs were overworked. We didn't have time to overwork them. We were in too much of a hurry to get out of that hotel room.


Tell me about writing Jailhouse Rock.

The script indicated that Elvis was in prison and there was an amateur show among the prisoners. That's where the idea for the song came from. We wrote it quickly. Jerry's very fast and very funny. That song was a vehicle that Presley could really work. When we recorded it we knew we had it by take nine. But Elvis went on into the 20s saying, "I can do it better!" He loved to sing. He really felt comfortable in a recording studio. We were recording at Radio Recorders Annex in Hollywood.


Treat Me Nice has a great groove.

I like the track. Actually I'm playing piano on that record. I don't know that I played that well, but it seemed to work. [laugh]


I Want To Be Free ?

I remember that Jean Aberbach said, "I love that image of a bird in a tree in the lyrics." Good track. The other song was [You're So Square] Baby I Don't Care. It was just a fun song. But it worked. It was a good record for him.


I enjoy the scene in Jailhouse Rock where Elvis performs the song by a pool and you're part of his band playing piano.

In our Hawaiian shirts. That was the only costume which the studio supplied. The rest of it was our own clothes. They were really saving money. The studio and Tom Parker figured that they were gonna make a fortune on this film, so like, "Let's not waste money with costumes." [laughs] The movie was shot at MGM Studios in Culver City.


Recount the first time you and Jerry met Elvis.

Elvis had requested us to be at the Jailhouse Rock recording sessions. He knew of the records that we produced, so he requested that we be there. That's how we met him. He was very easygoing and very easy to be with.  I was showing him some figures on the piano, and he joined in the upper registers. And we were doing some freehand boogie-woogie. The studio was like his living room. He also had his pals with him who had become hired companions. These were his high-school buddies and local guys from Memphis and cousins. We'd show Elvis the way we thought the songs should go. I think Elvis had heard demos, but I don't remember making them. There must have been because he had approved the songs.


Did Elvis know intuitively when a take was a keeper?

Yeah, I think so. He was very astute in that sense, but as I said before he always tried to make something better. He worked very hard in the studio. It was hard work, but it appeared to be effortless for him because he loved what he was doing. If he liked a song he would just keep going, "Yeah, I can do it better. Wait a minute, let me try this. Give me one more shot!" As I said, we were up to take 27 or something on Jailhouse Rock when he finally said, "OK, let me hear that take that you think is the one." And he came back in and listened and said, "Yeah, you're right. That's the one."


You and Jerry acted as unofficial producers of those sessions.

At that point, I don't think the title of producer had come into being for recordings. Had it been a film, the credit would not have been producer, it would have been director. Our role on those sessions evolved. Elvis trusted us, and nobody stopped us. Colonel Tom came in and out of the studio. When Steve Sholes was there, he would call out the take slates, like "RCA 39-4734, take three." When we took over we just started yelling, Jailhouse Rock take four, Jailhouse Rock take five!" Jerry worked from the booth, but he would come out on the floor too. I worked in there with the musicians. I played piano on just one track, Treat Me Nice. Dudley Brooks played on the other sides. He was a good piano player. Scotty Moore, Bill Black, D.J. Fontana, and The Jordanaires were also on the sessions. Jerry and I worked together with Elvis very well. But on the last day of recording, some of the guys from the film studio came over and they approached Jerry and said, "Listen, we're gonna start filming on such-and-such a date. You should come over and play the piano player in the film." He said, "But I'm not a piano player." They said, "That's all right, you look like one." [laughs] The day that Jerry was supposed to report at MGM for wardrobe he had this horrible toothache. He said, "Man, I can't make it. You better go in my place." I said, "But they wanted you." He said, "They won't know the difference." So I went and the only thing they said to me is, "You better shave your beard off 'cause it's a scene stealer." [laughs] It was done over a number of weeks. I wasn't allowed to say anything in the film [laughs] 'cause then you've got to get paid. Elvis' musicians and I were covered under a Musicians Union contract. They had a scale payment for something called 'sidelining,' which meant that whether you played on the original recording or somebody else did, you went through the motions of playing for the camera. I think we got 36 bucks a week for that.


Were you actually playing piano along with the music during the scene where Elvis sang?

Yeah, but it didn't matter. The piano had no strings inside. It had keys, but there was nothing inside, so you couldn't hear anything.


Did you hang out with Elvis much on the set?

I hung out with Elvis and his band on the set. Elvis was normally kept at a distance, but on one occasion he invited me up to his penthouse suite. The Presley entourage had the whole top floor of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. So I went up with all the guys. There was a pool table there, and Elvis and I were shooting pool. I looked up at one point and nobody else was there. Elvis came back into the room and he said "Aw Mike, I feel real bad, but the Colonel's here and he don't want nobody else here. So I guess you gotta go."


When did you recognize Elvis was a little more special than you and Jerry initially felt he was?

In the beginning we were kind of curious about this guy who was such a big hit, a white guy singing R&B mixed with country. But he was very knowledgeable, and we found that out when we hung out with him at Radio Recorders. We would talk about blues records, and he knew a lot about blues. He surprised us. He also knew all of our stuff. And of course, in addition to that, he knew all the country stuff and gospel. While we were working on the Jailhouse Rock recording sessions, we realized he was a very special talent.


One of the most beautiful songs you ever wrote for Elvis and one of his own personal favourites is the # 1 smash, Don't.

Don't was written for him by request. One afternoon, it was a Friday, while we were doing the filming, a lot of which is "hurry up and wait," he said, "Hey Mike, why don't you write me a real pretty ballad?" I said, "I will. I'll call Jerry, and we'll get to work." I called Jerry that evening and we got together on Saturday and wrote Don't. I thought it was a good song for Elvis. I like the song and I like what he did with it. As I recall, it's 12 bars long, but it's not a blues [song]. On Sunday, we booked a studio to do a demo and we called Young Jessie to sing. I gave the demo to Elvis on Monday and he loved it. Then there was a big to-do with Colonel Parker and the Aberbachs because I hadn't gone through the proper channels. They were afraid, because when Elvis fell in love with a song, he really fell in love with it and he might insist upon recording it. Although so many aspects of his career were handled by other people, the one thing that he handled himself was picking the songs he sang. He would not sing a song he didn't like, at least not until much later. They had this fear he might record something and they might not own the publishing. I'm referring to Tom Parker and the Aberbachs.



Legends: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

That was a crucial mistake on the Colonel's part to not allow Elvis to record quality songs just because they didn't own the publishing rights.

Yes, I agree with you. And certainly it would have been better for Elvis' career, but it wouldn't have satisfied Tom Parker. He wanted Elvis to grind out the same thing over and over. He didn't want to take any chances. You stretch a little bit artistically and it's a wonderful thing. Look what happened with The Beatles. They stretched. It was wonderful. It was exciting. I think Elvis had the ability to do that, but the Colonel wasn't willing to chance anything with his golden goose.


What's your take on the Colonel today? Do you think overall that the Colonel was the right person to be guiding Elvis' career?

He certainly helped to make Elvis a superstar. But ultimately he wouldn't have been the best person to guide the career of somebody with an innate talent like Elvis - and not just a talent but a supreme talent. At one point, Jerry was invited to a very elegant New York cocktail party and was approached by an agent and producer, Charles Feldman. He said, "I'm so happy to meet you because I've just optioned a novel by Nelson Algren called A Walk on the Wild Side." He said, "Here's what I want to happen. I have already gotten the following people involved: Elia Kazan to produce, Bud Schulberg to write the script. I have James Wong Howe to do cinematography. And I want you and your partner to write the score, and I want Elvis Presley to play the lead." Jerry called me up and told me this, and we were thrilled. We were so excited. We thought, "Wow, we're gonna be able to bring this exciting plum to Jean and Julian and The Colonel and Elvis." We went up to the Hill & Range office 'cause Elvis Presley's music was co-owned by Elvis and the Aberbachs. Jean was there, and Julian came in. The Colonel was somewhere else. The whole thing was laid out for them. They said, "We will have to speak to The Colonel. Can you wait outside?" So we waited outside and we figured The Colonel would be over the moon about this. We waited a long time, and we were summoned in by Jean and he said [adopts Viennese accent], "The Colonel says if you ever dare try and interfere in the career of Elvis Presley again you will never work in New York, Hollywood, London or anywhere else in the world." That was it. We virtually stopped writing for Elvis after that. After King Creole, the only songs we submitted to Elvis were songs that we'd already written or recorded before.


Wasn't Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello written for Elvis?

No, it wasn't. As a matter of fact, with one exception, we stopped writing for him altogether and only submitted previously written and already recorded songs. As for Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello, we had a demo that was considerably different than the way Elvis did it. It had a very different feel, less country, more Latin.


The one exception was She's Not You.

Right. Doc Pomus called us up one day. We were all in the Brill Building. Doc was an old friend, and we had produced lots of Doc and Morty's [Shuman] songs with The Drifters. Mort had either gone off to Japan or moved to Paris. Doc called us and said, "Come on up. Let's write a song for Elvis." So we wrote She's Not You with him, the three of us. That was written for Elvis at Doc's request.


The three songs you and Jerry wrote for King Creole have a distinctive New Orleans, Dixieland sound.

The inclusion of brass instruments in the arrangements was a departure from Elvis' usual quartet. Michael Curtiz, the director of King Creole, was at the sessions. That was probably the best movie that Elvis ever made. It had the best story, the best script and the best cast. We wrote three songs. One was King Creole. Unlike Loving You and Jailhouse Rock, which were written first and then became the title of the films they were in, King Creole was the title of the film before we wrote the song. Elvis did a great job on it. I especially liked Trouble, and I loved the way he did it in the comeback special.


What inspired you and Jerry to write a song such as Trouble?

We had written songs like that before - Riot In Cell Block #9, Framed, kind of talking blues things - and we knew Elvis could do that kind of stuff.


That track captured less of the happy-go-lucky Elvis. it carried a menacing undercurrent of sexuality and danger.

Yeah. It was braggadocio, like John Henry, Paul Bunyan - one of those bigger-than-life folk heroes. The other song, Steadfast, Loyal And True was a high-school alma mater-type of song. Just the other day I heard this acapella version of it. It's on that four-CD box that came out recently [Today, Tomorrow And Forever]. I thought it was charming. I really enjoyed it.


You and Jerry also oversaw those King Creole sessions.

Yes, we did, in so far as the songs that we wrote. I remember that the studio was very crowded. The Colonel was there, Michael Curtiz and Steve Sholes were there. There were lots of film studio executives in there. And of course Thorne Nogar, the great recording engineer, was there too.


Was there a formula you and Jerry followed when writing songs for Elvis Presley?

No. We didn't write from formula. I mean you're influenced by everything you've heard in your life when you write. But no, we had no formula. There are different types of songs. Love Me is quite different from Loving You, which is quite different from Don't. King Creole is quite different from Jailhouse Rock.


You and Jerry wrote a holiday song for Elvis, Santa Claus is Back in Town.

We were at the session. We wrote it in the hallway between takes on something else. [laughs] They needed another holiday song. It was spur of the moment.


It's one of the more pure blues songs Elvis recorded.

Yeah, and it's a little risqué. Obviously RCA Victor didn't catch on to the fact that "Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight" didn't really refer to a chimney. [laughs]


Many of the songs you and Jerry wrote have a delightful element of humour. Two songs Elvis recorded of yours fit that bill, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Little Egypt.

Girls! Girls! Girls!  and Little Egypt were both written for The Coasters, who were sort of our alter egos. We wrote funny songs for them. Jerry's the lyricist and I write the music, but we work closely with each other on everything. The Coasters were really our voice. Girls! Girls! Girls!  wasn't a big hit for The Coasters. So we said, "Well, maybe Elvis could do it," and be obviously liked it.


What was the procedure toward getting your songs to be considered by Elvis?

Same. You'd present it to Freddy Bienstock. I know Elvis did Little Egypt in the comeback special.


Little Egypt was also in Roustabout. There were songs you wrote specifically for Elvis. And then there other songs he recorded that were first done by other artists. Do you believe Elvis delivered a better performance of those songs you specifically wrote for him to sing?

That's hard to say. I think Elvis' performance of the songs that we wrote for him were generally better than those that were written for someone else. Love Me is an exception. It was a great performance. I like the original version of Bossa Nova Baby done by Tippie & the Clovers better than Elvis' version. It's got a Latin feel and it had certain elements of bossa nova, but it wasn't the real thing. The Clovers' version was much cooler than Elvis' version, which was in the film Fun In Acapulco.


Was Dirty, Dirty Feeling originally written for the film King Creole?

I think it might have been. It was written for him. It did come out on one of his albums [Elvis is Back].


Were you surprised by Elvis' versions of any Leiber And Stoller songs he recorded?

You mean songs that were done by other people first?


Yeah, there were some that were very different from the originals. Three Corn Patches. Somewhere along the line I lost the original acetate. It was recorded by O.C. Smith, but it never came out. The band was virtually the Count Basie Band with an arrangement by Frank Foster. It was cookin', but it was jazz. And Elvis' version is not jazz. lt's not cookin' that way. It's plodding by comparison.


Your impression of Elvis' rendition of Fools Fall In Love?

If I remember correctly, I thought it was in the wrong key I thought it was too high for him. It could have been that he learned it from the Drifters' records, and I think that as sung by Johnny Moore, who had a higher voice. That happened sometimes with Elvis. He'd learn something, and he'd want to do it in the same key that he learned it in. He covered another Drifters record also, If You Don't Come Back. Elvis didn't do a bad performance of that at all. Of course, I'm partial to the Drifters' because we produced it, and we got what we wanted out of the chart and evervthing else. If You Don't Come Back and Three Corn Patches were not on the Elvis Presley Sings Leiber and Stoller album for this reason.... At one point in Elvis' career, The Colonel wanted a pile of money and, since he took 50 percent of everything that Elvis got, they sold all of the artist royalties to RCA Victor. I believe it was for $5 million. However, they continued to record Elvis after that. Those two songs were not among the ones that Parker had sold. So the album actually contains only performances on which RCA owed no royalties to Elvis.


I'm curious about a song you and Jerry wrote, You're The Boss. It was recorded as a duet by Elvis and Ann-Margret for the film Viva Las Vegas.

That was a song that did modestly well in a version we produced as sung by La Vern Baker and Jimmy Ricks, the bass singer of the Ravens. After we stopped taking assignments to write for Elvis, we submitted You're The Boss for a Presley movie. When we didn't hear anything further about it, we assumed they didn't like it and didn't record it. Around 1980 when I was in London, I helped put together, an album for RCA Victor called Elvis Presley Sings Leiber And Stoller. Some 10 years later RCA decided to release it as a CD. They told me Thorne Nogar found this version of You're The Boss, and it was included on the CD. It was a major surprise for us [laughs] It was nice. I really liked that.


Speaking of La Vern Baker, Elvis recorded Saved, a song she first cut. He did an amazing vocal performance of that song.

Oh, it's great. I loved it. There's no need to compare them, but La Vern's record of Saved is one of our favourite productions. She was incredible. We did it in Atlantic's old studio, the top floor of an old brownstone, and the first time I heard Elvis do it was in the comeback special. Corky Hale, my second wife, had just moved in with me, and we had a party in our apartment. She cooked a meal, and we had about 30 people over. She had rented four or five television sets [laughs] and plugged them in all over the living room. So I remember that very well. I had no idea Elvis would perform Saved or Trouble on the show. He looked so great on that show. It was a knockout. That was the epitome of Elvis. His performances were great, and the way he looked was great. It was the way you would have hoped Elvis would have stayed.


Did you ever see Elvis live in the Vegas years?

Yes. I went to see him a few times. I introduced Corky to him. He was very polite. Sometimes I'd see the Colonel playing $100 chips at the roulette table.


Did he ever see you?

Oh yeah, he wasn't particularly interested. He was more interested in playing roulette with Elvis' money. [laugh]


What were your impressions of his live show?




Sad. He had become bloated. He was doing a caricature of himself. Yes, he still had a great voice, but he seemed to be making fun of himself. It's one thing to have a sense of humour about one's self but he really was like an Elvis impersonator, and it was sad.


Do you think Elvis knew how good he was?

I don't know. That's a hard question. And if he did - let's put it this way, in the early days, he was extremely confident in the studio. He was very confident, and if you read that as knowing how good he was, I suppose he did. On the other hand, when he went on the movie set, he was very insecure. I remember one incident in particular where a couple of actors were sitting around talking. They were talking about their wives or their cars, just family stuff, and they were laughing, and Elvis walked in and wheeled around and said, "You think you're so hot?" He thought they were laughing at him.


Are there any Leiber and Stoller songs that you feel Elvis would have done a great job with?

Yeah, I'm sure there are many that he could have done. Years later when he was working with Chips Moman, I was told that they had actually cut a track of Kansas City, but the voice never went on. I would have loved to have heard Elvis sing it.


Lastly, why do you think the songs you and Jerry wrote connected so well with Elvis personally and on a commercial level?

It's hard for me to say I know that he liked what we wrote. He respected us. We came to know what a great talent he was very quickly after starting to work with him. The other thing is there was a creative rapport, and we were told numerous times after Jailhouse Rock that he considered us his good luck charms. He always wanted us in the studio. That was one of the things also that we got into a hassle with the Colonel about. The Colonel said, "You have to come out to California." Jerry was ill and I wasn't gonna go out anyway I don't know what songs were done on those sessions 'cause we weren't there. Elvis wanted us to be in the studio with him, and they were willing to fly us anywhere in order to please him. Of course we'd been functioning as unpaid producers on the records of our songs [laughs]. Somewhere between five and 10 years ago, Jerry and I went to Memphis for the first time. Georgie Klein, a long time friend of Elvis' from Memphis, who we first met in the '50s, gave us a special tour of Graceland. While we were doing that he said, "You know what really killed Elvis? He really wanted to do something important as an actor. He wanted to do something like a Marlon Brando or a James Dean." And of course that's what we brought to them with A Walk on the Wild Side and the Colonel killed it.


Source: Goldmine magazine.

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