Time-honored tunes

They’re the men behind the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, having penned more than 20 songs for Elvis as well as Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me,” Aretha Franklin’s “Spanish Harlem” and The Drifters’ “On Broadway.”

Before there were Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Gamble and Huff, or Lennon and McCartney, there were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, whose songwriting is grandly commemorated in the touring musical revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller. In recorded form, the show won a Grammy for Best Musical in 1996.

“I grew up to some of these tunes,” says the show’s conductor/musical director, 30-year-old Darren Lael. “Radio and oldies stations played this prolific stuff, like “On Broadway” and, of course, all the widely known Elvis tunes — “Treat Me Nice,” “Hound Dog,” “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Rock.” It’s an incredible amount of work they put out. I didn’t even know that Leiber and Stoller had all this material in common.”

Leiber was born in Baltimore in 1933, Stoller less than three weeks after him in Belle Harbor (Queens), N.Y. The songwriters met in Los Angeles in 1950, and soon discovered a shared passion for boogie-woogie and the blues. One of their early hits was the first version of “Hound Dog,” recorded by “Big Mama” Thornton in 1953. By age 20, the two had already written tunes recorded by Jimmy Witherspoon, Little Esther, Amos Milburn, Charles Brown, Little Willie Littlefield, Bull Moose Jackson, Linda Hopkins and Ray Charles, among others. Some claim that Leiber and Stoller’s heavy use of romantic string sections and Latin percussion — together with the stripped-down rhythm & blues — helped usher in the era of soul music. The duo wrote and produced many hits for the Coasters, such as “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Poison Ivy,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “Riot In Cell Block #9” (not to mention The Clovers’ “Love Potion #9,” Chuck Jackson’s “I Keep Forgettin’,” and Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City”).

Audience reaction at performances of Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a sure sign that the songs of Leiber and Stoller have become part of the American subconscious, a sort of running soundtrack to “The Wonder Years.”

“When our understudies sit out in the audience to observe the show, they comment that a lot of people do really get into it,” notes Lael, a native of Hickory, N.C. “When I can see out into the audience, I see a lot of hand-clapping and toe-tapping.”

In 1969, Leiber and Stoller penned the Peggy Lee lament “Is That All There Is?”, prompting music critic Robert Palmer to write that the Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll had ended. By then, the pair seemed tired of writing huge, fun, money-making records. Nonetheless, Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1985, and Lael is confident the pair’s achievements will stand up well, alongside the other greats: “They’ll keep on going — just like this show, I hope, will keep on going. It’s very popular. It’s two hours of a lot of fun — 39 songs and two exit pieces. I just don’t see them coming to any stop at all.”

Smokey Joe’s Cafe features a seven-piece band and nine cast members. “It’s all music, song after song after song. Just like a trip through the ’50s and ’60s,” reports Lael, adding, “There may be no story line to it, but songs do go from one into the next with some sort of relationship.” A male cast member sings “Treat Me Nice” to one of the female leads, who barks back at him with “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.”

“Some of the things go back and forth. The women sing, ‘I’m a Woman’ and storm off stage, and naturally the guys react with ‘There Goes My Baby.’ Thought went into the order of the songs, but they’re not chronological [in regard] to their composition dates,” he concludes.

The show’s cast includes Romelda Benjamin, Dianna Bush, Tim Carroll, Careen Hudgens, Charles Johnson, Cornelius Jones Jr., Makia Langston, Neil Taffe and Derrick Williams. The band members are Jay Clayton on keyboards, Jim Carroll on reeds, guitarist John McCarty, bassist Jonathan Wilkins, Jeff Farrello on drums, and Fausto Cueves on percussion. Directed by Jerry Zaks, the show also features the work of choreographer Joey McKneely, scenic designer Heidi Ettinger, costume designer William Ivey Long, and lighting designer Paul Gallo.

Cast members and musicians were auditioned in New York City, and coached there for three weeks by the choreographer from the Broadway production and directors from other national and European tours. They moved down to Rockville, Md., to work with the band and technical crew and do a couple of preview shows before hitting the road. Lael says one reason the performers enjoy the show so much is that many of the songs’ sounds and rhythms have been pleasingly updated.

“Actually, they’re quite different from what I remember of the original recordings,” he claims. “Some of the tempos are different. They just have more of a ’90s flair to them. What the arrangers did is really a great idea — to bring the material from the past, the ’50s and ’60s, and adapt it nicely so that it’s not only a favorite still with the older generation, but also the newer. It’s got that ‘walk down memory lane’ feel, [and] at the same time, it’s got this modern rock-concert kind of feel to it. It caters to all ages.”

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