Mike Stoller felt certain he would die when the transatlantic liner Andrea Doria and the Swedish Stockholm collided in fog off the Massachusetts coast at 11.10pm on July 25, 1956, and sank 11 hours later, on July 26.
Saved by a freighter in what was called 'the greatest sea rescue in history', Mr Stoller arrived ashore in New York to discover from his songwriting partner, Jerry Leiber, that a new singer called Elvis had taken Hound Dog to the top of the charts.
'Jerry was at the dock in New York harbour. He was carrying a suit in case I had no clothes,' Mr Stoller recalled yesterday. 'He ran down the gangplank and said, 'Mike, you're OK'. I said, 'We're all right'. He said, 'We have a smash hit! Hound Dog'. I said, 'Big Mama Thornton?'
He said, 'No, some white kid named Elvis Presley'.
'When Jerry told me that, I did not even register because I was just happy to be on terra firma and to be alive,' he told The Times. 'A few days later, I realised that - at least for Jerry and me - it was quite momentous and Elvis Presley was this amazing phenomenon'.
Elvis went on to record almost two dozen songs by Leiber and Stoller, including King Creole and Jailhouse Rock. For a time, he even demanded that the duo sit in on recording sessions as his 'lucky charm'.
The luxury Italian liner Andrea Doria, listing heavily starboard in the final moments of her death throes
In all, the two are credited with more than a dozen No 1 hits, including the classic Stand by Me. Smokey Joe's Cafe, a 1995 Broadway musical based on their work, ran for more than 2,000 performances. But Mr Stoller almost never lived to enjoy that success. He says he knows that the Andrea Doria marked him profoundly. 'It's one of the couple of times in my life I thought I was going to die'.
SS Andrea Doria awaiting her impending fate the morning after the collision in the Atlantic Ocean
The 700ft flagship of the Italian Line was making the crossing from Genoa to New York when disaster struck about 45 miles off Nantucket Island. Mr Stoller, then 23, was returning from a three-month trip to Europe with his first wife, Meryl, paid for by a royalty cheque for a recording of Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots.
The MS Stockholm heads to New York after colliding with Andrea Doria. Note the severely damaged prow
After dancing in the ballroom, he ordered a glass of champagne and went to see if there was a poker game in the card room. Then he felt the collision and the ship pitched at a steep angle. 'Many people thought it was an iceberg, even though it was the middle of July and we were supposed to dock the next morning in New York,' he recalled. 'I did not know what was happening. I just knew the ship was sinking'.
'Unfortunately, communications on the ship were very poor, so we could feel the boat shifting and listing farther, and we had no word as to the possibility of getting off or if there were any other ships around. We did not even know we had been hit by another ship'.
A total of 1,660 passengers and crew were eventually saved from the stricken liner. Only 51 people, including five in a cabin in the bow of the Stockholm, were killed in the disaster.
The luckiest survivor was Linda Morgan, 14, the daughter of a noted radio commentator, who was thrown from her cabin on the Andrea Doria on to the Stockholm's deck unhurt.
Pierette Domenica Simpson, who survived the collision at the age of 9, blames the Stockholm for the collision in her new book Alive on the Andrea Doria! The Swedish ship, she says, was sailing into an oncoming shipping lane 20 miles north of its assigned course. The officer at the Stockholm's helm misread his radar and thought the Andrea Doria was farther away and to his port side. His vessel's reinforced ice-breaking bow rammed the Andrea Doria and ripped a 30ft hole in her side. Fortunately, at least 15 ships were close enough to respond to the SOS. Mr Stoller was taken ashore by the freighter Cape Ann.
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