Inside Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the duo behind the music of Broadway smash Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller, changed the trajectory of both rock and roll and rhythm and blues in the 1950s and 1960s. Their music not only revolutionized popular music but also influenced popular culture. They were among the first to bring satire and social conscience to rock. The team was a driving force in the crossover of blues and R&B into popular music.
Their shared love of blues and R&B music drove their writing and fueled this partnership that began when they were just teenagers. Born in 1933, both grew up in Jewish families on the East coast and moved to Los Angeles, where they met in 1950. Stoller had been recommended to Leiber as someone who could both play the piano and write sheet music. After meeting once at Stoller’s house and improvising a few songs together, they agreed to be partners.
With over 70 chart hits, they wrote or co-wrote over 300 songs and have over 700 production credits. They were inspired by the music of Black Americans and while working alongside many artists of color, wrote songs that brought those rich musical traditions to a white audience.
The prolific songwriting duo has been inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the rock and roll Hall of Fame. You’ll be surprised how many of their famous hits you know. Here are just a few examples:
Hound Dog (1952)
Originally recorded by “Big Mama” Thornton
Big Mama Thornton began singing with her mother in the Alabama church where her father was the minister.
After meeting Thornton in the garage of musician Johnny Otis, Leiber and Stoller wrote “Hound Dog” in only a few minutes. “It happened like lightning,” Leiber wrote in 2009.
Despite its sale of two million copies, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton received only $500 for her performance of “Hound Dog.” In contrast, Elvis Presley’s 1956 version, heavily refined for mainstream audiences, brought him both fame and considerable financial reward.
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Originally recorded by Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley is famous for many Leiber & Stoller tunes, including “Loving You”,”Don’t”, “Trouble”, and his own interpretation of “Hound Dog”; but many say his performance in the film Jailhouse Rock was his greatest film performance, making it his signature song. Jerry Leiber said he and Stoller were blown away by Presley’s encyclopedic knowledge of the blues, and “Just like that, we fell in love with the guy.”
“Jailhouse Rock” still ranks as number 47 in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Stand By Me (1961)
Originally recorded by Ben E. King
Ben E. King was discovered working at his father’s restaurant as a singing waiter.
Leiber and Stoller wrote this song along with Ben E. King. Many artists have performed this song over the last 50 years including John Lennon, Tracy Chapman, and Bruce Springsteen with U2. There are over 400 recorded versions. As a young man still using his given name Benjamin Earl Nelson, King sang lead vocals on the first Atlantic hit by the Drifters, “There Goes My Baby” (1959). He also sang lead on a succession of hits by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, including “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “I Count the Tears.”
I’m a Woman (1962)
Originally recorded by Peggy Lee
It wasn’t until 1969, when Leiber and Stoller were searching for an artist to record their song “Is That All There Is” that they finally worked together again. Lee reportedly said of “Is That All There Is”, “This is my song. This is the story of my life. “People wonder how you can survive in show business,” Peggy Lee mused in her later years. “My strength came from the training I got as a girl, working as a hired hand on a farm. I shucked grain. I pitched hay. I drove the water wagon for a threshing ring.”
“I’m a Woman” became such a part of the American cultural zeitgeist that it was used in a series of Enjoli perfume commercials in the 1980’s as well, with updated lyrics to give a new spin to “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.”
Fools Fall In Love (1957)
Originally recorded by The Drifters
The Drifters gained popularity as a doo-wop and R&B group in the early 1950s. They recorded several Leiber and Stoller songs including “Ruby Baby”, “Drip Drop”, and “There Goes My Baby”. Over the years, there have been numerous other incarnations of the group including acts going under a slew of different names such as The Original Drifters, The New Drifters, The American Drifters, Charlie Thomas’ Drifters and Drifter Legends.
Fun fact: The Drifters played the Ordway Concert Hall in 2016.