It is rare to find a set of creative collaborators who have reached the popularity and longevity of success that Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller experienced in their musical career. Rarer still, is for this harmonious partnership to have lasted a lifetime, with both creators never lacking in passion or ideas to bring forth one genre-defying smash hit after another, until the recent passing of Jerry Leiber in 2011. The legendary collaboration began in 1950, when the two were both 17, living in the hot bed of music innovation, Los Angeles. Jerry Leiber was a natural wordsmith, crafting line after line of lyrics ready to be set to music. Mike Stoller on the other hand, was a classically trained composer, but both shared a deep love for jazz and R&B that heavily influenced the creators’ music style.
Set in a time of civil, political and cultural unrest that punctuated the 1950s and 1960s, Leiber and Stoller found a way to cut through the differences and opposition to produce sounds and lyrics to dazzle, delight, and perhaps even help distract the masses. With wars raging across seas in Vietnam and the arms race between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, to the battles faced at home against segregation and inequality, the American people were divided and downtrodden. By dabbling in music from different backgrounds—ranging from rhythm and blues, jazz, country and gospel—Leiber and Stoller helped spur a movement and sound that captured the energy and desire for change that the American people desired.
The song that arguably put the songwriting and record producing duo on the map was the electrifying tune “Hound Dog” in 1953. The song was originally performed and inspired by the 350-pound “blues belter,” Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1956, and upon meeting and hearing Big Mama Thornton, the duo frantically wrote the song in twelve to fifteen minutes, desperate to capture her brusque attitude and voice in song. Leiber scribbled out the lyrics as fast as his hand could write, while Stoller created a rhythm banging on the car while driving, and the song was written that same afternoon upon meeting her. Unbeknownst to Stoller and Leiber, “Hound Dog” would reach new levels of fame when it was performed by Elvis Presley in 1956, jump-starting the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. “Hound Dog” enjoyed a seat at the top of the charts for 11 weeks—unheard of in those times. Presley would go on to record more than twenty Leiber and Stoller songs. But this King of rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t the only star to have recorded Leiber and Stoller songs, the impressive list includes: The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, James Brown, Little Richard. Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Bill Haley and the Comets, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Tom Jones, Edith Piaf, Bobby Darin, Chet Atkins, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, B.B. King, and Otis Redding, to name a few.
The creative genius that inspired and fueled Leiber and Stoller’s work appear to have never stopped, churning out record-breaking hits that have resulted in accolades ranging from the induction into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1985, the Record Producers' Hall of Fame in 1986 and eventually the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Their independent record label, Red Bird Records, highlighted their eye for talent resulting in ten out of their first thirty singles making it to the Top Forty—an amazing feat for a record label so young and new.
The original Broadway production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller proved its enduring value by becoming Broadway’s longest running musical revue with over 2,000 performances between the years 1995 to 2000, as well as earning critical acclaim through a Grammy Award and multiple Tony Award nominations. This production will breathe new life into the much beloved show. The Ogunquit Playhouse is honored to re-introduce Smokey Joe’s Cafe and work with the original producing team conceived by Jack Viertel, Stephen Helper, Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, and Mike Stoller himself, to create a production that is sure to have audience members singing and dancing in their seat. What’s more, the show will feature more than 30 classic songs including “I’m a Woman,” “Hound Dog,” “On Broadway,” “Stand By Me,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Love Potion #9.” Smokey Joe’s Cafe is the perfect embodiment of the legacy Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller gave, and continues to contribute, to the rock ‘n’ roll music scene and beyond. Following the run of Smokey Joe’s Cafe here in Ogunquit, the production and cast will transfer to New York City this summer as the Big Apple welcomes Smokey Joe’s Cafe back for the first time since the original production closed almost 20 years ago.