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Smokey Joe’s CafÉThe Songs of Leiber and Stoller

APR 25 – JUN 8, 2014

Words and Music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Directed by Randy Johnson
Choreography by Parker Esse

on the Fichandler Stage

Rock, Rhythm and Blues Revue

Let Broadway director Randy Johnson, (One Night with Janis Joplin), transport you to the golden age of Rock, Rhythm and Blues with the hits of Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Featuring Tony winner Levi Kreis (Million Dollar Quartet), E. Faye Butler and Nova Y. Payton, Smokey Joe’s Café is packed with memorable tunes like “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Stand By Me”  It’s no wonder this electrifying show garnered seven Tony nominations and became the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history!

E. Faye Butler Levi Kreis Nova Payton
E. Faye Butler Levi Kreis Nova Y. Payton


Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are musical giants – one of the greatest songwriting teams in history and that's not hype: It's a fact. Together they created and defined a sound that for me is truly the great American Songbook. There would be no Rock ‘n’ Roll as we know it today without the extraordinary and original thought that they brought to the world. Their songs are as potent and current today as they were all those years ago when these two astounding men first brought them to life.

To me Smokey Joe’s Café is a theatrical portrait of the images and feelings we had the first time we heard these songs. Do you remember the first time you heard the first note of music and how it changed you forever? I believe that music makes you feel, gives you hope and serves as expressions of love when there is no other way to express your emotions. Music knows no prejudice or limits and it makes you think everything is possible. Mike and Jerry didn't just define a generation – they created a voice for the ages that continues to breathe deep into our cultural consciousness and the tapestry of our lives.

— Randy Johnson

On the record with Mike Stoller

Mike Stoller
 is undoubtedly a legend. With his writing partner Jerry Leiber, he wrote some of the most unforgettable rock and roll hits like “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Stand by Me.” Mike sat down with us this week to share the stories behind the hits.

Stand By Me:

Ben E. King had the title and some of the words written. It was his concept to do the song. The title actually comes from an older gospel song. I came upon my partner, Jerry Leiber, and Ben in our office working on the lyrics and Ben started to sing it and I sussed out the chords and when I got to a certain point I started with a bass pattern. When I started playing that pattern, Jerry shouted “Now we got a hit!” we went into the studio – we had started using strings on rhythm and blues records with The Drifters– and this was the first solo session for Ben who had been in the Drifters and left. His manager asked if we would produce him as a solo act. We said absolutely because we love Ben. Loved his voice. Loved his whole style. So that session we did four songs, it took more than three hours – that’s what you were allowed by the union without going into the dreaded overtime – and the guys at Atlantic Records were furious after because we’d gone an hour over time with a big orchestra – violins, cello, a lot of percussion. But two of the songs we got done were “Stand By Me” and “Spanish Harlem.” So eventually they thought it was worthwhile.

Anyway, the wild thing about Ben’s recording of “Stand by Me,” of which he is a co-writer, was that it came out in 1961 and it was a hit. And then, as time went by it was considered an “oldie.” In 1986, Rob Reiner called me. He had a movie; he said that it had the right title but he couldn’t use it. The title was “The Body.” And the film was in the can, but he said “I don’t want to call it that because it’s based on a story by Stephen King and people will think it’s a horror film. So I want to call it ‘Stand by Me’.” And I said “Be my guest.” Then I called him a few days later and said “Wait a minute. Who do you think we could get to record it? Somebody contemporary; somebody hot at that time. Tina Turner?” And he said “Well, we went through that whole idea but I see this as a period piece so I want to go with the original record.” So I said “You’re the boss.” And BOOM, it became an even bigger hit 25 years after. Exact same record. No change. And it became a big hit again. And now it’s a standard. They play it at almost every wedding.

Big Mama ThortonHound Dog:

We had been writing almost exclusively for blues singers when we started out. Jerry and I met in Los Angeles in 1950 and I guess it was a couple of years later we started to make a little bit of a name for ourselves among the independent record companies in the L.A. area. Through one of them we met Johnny Otis. He had a band that performed and recorded for many of those labels with different singers in front, like Little Esther who we had written songs for. One day Johnny called me and he said “Are you familiar with Willie Mae Thornton?” And I said no, that I really never heard of her, so he said “Well you better get Jerry and come over to my place,” which was not far from where I lived. He had a band rehearsal at his house which was kind of in the garage and outside in the alleyway. We heard Big Mama who knocked us out. She was incredible. She was a very formidable person – she weighed 250-300 pounds and she wore overalls and workman’s boots. She was kind of tough looking. But when she sang she was a knock out. Anyway, we jumped in my car, went back to my house and in about 15 minutes we’d written “Hound Dog.” We came back to play it for her and she kind of grabbed the sheet of lyrics out of Jerry’s hands and started to croon it and Jerry said “Oh no, Big Mama, don’t go that way.” And she got into a kind of snit. “Don’t be telling me how to sing the blues!” And Johnny came running over saying “You know Mama, these boys write hits,” which wasn’t really true yet, but it sounded good. And so we performed it for her and the band liked what we were doing, so then she started to sing and we knew we were home. We went to the studio the next day and hinted that she ought to growl it and again she said “Don’t tell me what to do.” But of course, the first thing she did was growl. And it was great. We waited for that record to come out for six months and it finally came out and BOOM, it hit number one. You know, radio was segregated in those days. Black artists performing ethnic music were never heard in the middle of the dial, only at one extreme or the other. The Cashbox Hot Charts were actually listed in different cities rather than national and there was Harlem; South Side Chicago; Shreveport, Louisiana. And in every black community, it hit number one for months and months. And then, of course, it kind of disappeared, as happens to a lot of popular songs. Her record came out in ’53. In ‘56 I went to Europe for the first time ever. It was something I’d always dreamed of doing. I was there for 3 months so I didn’t really know what was going on in America at that time. I came back on a beautiful new ship called the Andrea Doria and it was crashed into by a Swedish ship and ultimately sank. I eventually got off down a Jacob’s Ladder into a broken lifeboat, which we couldn’t steer, and we were eventually picked up by a freighter. I’d sent one telegram to Atlantic Records offices because I was supposed to meet Jerry there in New York., even though we both still lived in L.A. And when we finally came in to New York on this freighter Jerry was on the dock and he ran up to me and said “Man, we got a smash hit!” I said “You’re kidding!” He said “No. Hound Dog.” I said “Big Mama Thornton?” He said “No. Some white kid named Elvis Presley.”

Jailhouse Rock:

Jailhouse rockAfter the success of Hound Dog, the music publishers who controlled Elvis Presley’s songs, so to speak, asked us if we had any other songs and Jerry remembered a ballad that we had done as a male/female duet called “Love Me,” so we sent them the demo and Elvis liked it and recorded it and had a big hit. And then they asked us to write a song for a film so we wrote a ballad called “Loving You” and they even changed the title of the film and called it “Loving You.” We had been given another script and not paid much attention to it. We were on a trip to N.Y. having a great time going to theaters and jazz clubs and cabarets. And the script somehow got thrown in the corner of the room with some magazines telling you what’s going on in Manhattan. And one day the music publisher came up to the suite and wanted to know how the songs were coming along. And we hadn’t started but we said we’re going to get to them, “Don’t worry about it.” And he said “I won’t. I’m going to push this big chair in front of your door and you’re not getting out until I have my songs.” He pushed the chair in front of our only way out, so we picked up the script finally. As it happened, we had rented an upright piano to put in this suite that we had, so we got to work. He went to sleep; we went to work. And when he woke up four or fivr hours later we said “Here’s the songs.” The script was called “Ghost of a Chance” but ultimately they named it after one of the songs we wrote that afternoon, and that was “Jailhouse Rock.”

Smokey Joe’s Café is generously sponsored by Andrew Ammerman and the family of H. Max and Josephine Ammerman, and GEICO.

Smokey Joe’s Café runs approximately 2 hours, with one intermission.

“Magnificent … energetic revival.”– Washington Post

5 stars. Arena Stage is raising the roof … Sassy to the nth degree.”– DC Metro Theater Arts

“Exuberant … From beginning to end, it's a joyful celebration.”– Woman Around Town

“With a knockout cast and staging that never slows for a minute, Arena Stage's glorious production is a crowd-pleaser. ”– Talkin' Broadway

“Fun … The strong cast performs with vigor, verve and endless amounts of energy.”– Broadway World

“A complete package … With peppy choreography, a magical cast, and flawless direction, Smokey Joe's Café is a simply a must-see.”– DC Theatre Scene

Smokey Joe's Café