'Smokey Joe's Cafe' rocks 'em
March 2, 2009
BY Peter Landsdowne, TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
“Smokey Joe’s Café,” a musical revue based on the songs of early rock songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, spent five years on Broadway and racked up more than 2,000 performances before it closed in the year 2000, making it the longest running show of its kind in the history of the Great White Way. On Saturday at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, a traveling version of “Smokey Joe’s Café” hit the stage and drew a crowd of more than 800 Leiber and Stoller fans.
If you’re scratching your head and asking yourself “Who are Leiber and Stoller?” then apparently you weren’t on the planet between 1953 and 1963, when the songwriting team churned out hit after hit for the likes of Elvis Presley, The Coasters, and many other early rockers before the British rock invasion changed everything.
The Hanover version of “Smokey Joe’s Café” featured some three dozen Leiber and Stoller hits in two acts, a talented cast of nine singers (five men and four women) to perform the songs in various configurations, and a live five-piece band (piano, bass, guitar, drums and tenor saxophone) that remained on stage for the entire performance.
The revue opened with the entire cast singing “Neighborhood,” a song that emphasized the importance of the early doo-wop groups and their influence on a new kind of music that emerged in the early 1950s. The kids called it rock ’n’ roll. The critics said it would never last. Leiber and Stoller made sure that it did.
The duo first began collaborating in 1950 and scored an early hit on the blues charts in 1952 with “K.C. Loving.” Seven years later, Wilbert Harrison took the tune, now titled “Kansas City,” to the No. 1 position on the national charts. A rousing version of this classic blues tune had the Hanover crowd clapping along, as did a bluesy version of Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby.”
The blues gave Leiber and Stoller their first real blockbuster hit, a little ditty called “Hound Dog.” Saturday night, a big-voiced female singer emerged from the cast and belted this one out in the style of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, a blues shouter who had a hit with the tune in 1953. Three years later, Leiber and Stoller revamped the tune and gave it to a young singer with an unusual name: Elvis Presley. The ramped-up Presley version of “Hound Dog” was missing from the “Smokey Joe’s Café” revue, but Elvis was well-represented by several other tunes that Leiber and Stoller penned for him, including a romping “Jailhouse Rock” and a couple of slower items (“Love Me” and “Loving You”), all of which were handled with aplomb by various male cast members.
Despite the success with Elvis, Leiber and Stoller’s real forté was penning tunes for vocal groups. The five men in the “Smokey Joe’s Café” revue successfully recreated many of these hits Saturday night by reincarnating themselves as The Coasters and singing “Youngblood” (with its familiar “you’re the one, you’re the one” refrain) and “Searchin’,” (“gonna find her, gonna find her”). Those two Leiber and Stoller songs were a crossover double-sided hit for the Coasters in 1957.
The male singers stayed in their Coasters configuration for a couple more Leiber and Stoller hits, “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” The Hanover crowd gleefully chanted the “Yakety yak! Don’t talk back!” hook to the former and chimed in on the “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?” line from “Charlie Brown,” a song about a slacker who smokes in the gym and calls his English teacher “daddy-o.”
The entire cast reconfigured for “On Broadway,” which Leiber and Stoller penned along with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, another important songwriting team. The Hanover crowd was singing along on this one from the opening line (“They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway”) while simultaneously clapping to the beat on this timeless classic.
The women cast members dominated “Love Potion Number 9,” a hit for The Clovers that had audience members singing along, and sang backup as the men re-emerged for a fervent version of “There Goes My Baby,” a hit for The Drifters in 1959. Cast and crowd alike sang along to the concert-ender, an emotional rendition of Ben E. King’s hit “Stand By Me,” a Leiber and Stoller that has become an American anthem of sorts. A reprise of the opening “Neighborhood” theme acknowledged a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd as the entire cast clasped hands and bowed as one entity.