When a Broadway show finally hit, it really hit.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” wasn’t the first jukebox musical. Nor was it the first to employ the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the phenomenal songwriting team who produced scores of Top 40 hits in the 1950s and ’60s.
Most of those are considered classics: “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Stand By Me.” The list goes on and on.
Leiber died in 2011 at 78. Stoller, 81, continues to work.
Before “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” now onstage at the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park, theater producers had tried twice to incorporate Leiber and Stoller classics into a show. First, British director Ned Sherrin put together a piece called “Only in America” that played London but never made it to Broadway. That was in 1980. Three years later another British production, “Yakety Yak,” also used Leiber and Stoller songs.
“Both of them had books in the sense that they had stories and characters, and that never made much sense to Jerry and me because so many of our songs were little stories unto themselves,” Stoller said recently from his office in Los Angeles.
The writers of “Yakety Yak,” for example, concocted a story in which D.W. Washburn and Big Mama Thornton are married and have a baby named Charlie Brown.
“You know, it just got silly,” Stoller said.
Then a director in Seattle, the head of a university theater department, asked permission to use the songs in a show he wanted to put together. Leiber and Stoller gave him the go-ahead, assuming it would be a quickly forgotten one-off. But then a critic for Variety, the international show-business periodical, found his way to the show and gave it a rave.
So, Stoller said, he and Leiber figured they should check it out.
Neither of them thought much of the book. But they could see how viscerally the audience responded to the songs. So Stoller called up a friend, Broadway producer Jack Viertel, and asked him to fly out to see the production.
“He and his brother, Tom Viertel, came out and looked at it, and they agreed with me that something was happening (in response to the music),” Stoller said. “And I said, ‘Look, why don’t we forget about a book and just do the songs?’”
The resulting revue, directed by award-winning Jerry Zaks, opened in March of 1995 at the Virginia Theatre and ran through early 2000. It toured internationally and subsequently became a staple of regional theaters.
“For Jerry and me, the amazing thing was that we wrote songs in a little room here or there, or his place or my place, or an office,” he said. “And we worked in a recording studio where we produced records. But we had never really met or engaged our audience. And so when the show opened on Broadway and our pictures were in the program somewhere, people would come up to us and tell us how important these songs were to them and they’d grown up with them. It was amazing.
“The other thing was that these songs lasted so long. We always figured if we were lucky and had a hit, it might be remembered six months.”
If a Kansas City journalist is lucky enough to get Stoller on the phone, he’s obligated to ask about the origins of a specific song: “Kansas City.”
“We’d been asked by the head of a little record company in Los Angeles to write a song for Little Willie Littlefield for a session,” Stoller recalled. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you write something about Kansas City?’ So we did a minimal amount of research and got the place 12th and Vine and wrote this song.”
Leiber and Stoller taught the song to Littlefield, and the record was made quickly and released in 1952.
“The owner of the record company, who had the publishing rights, said, ‘We’re going to change the name of your song to ‘K.C. Loving.’ Seven years later Wilbert Harrison recorded it under its real title, ‘Kansas City,’ and it became a big hit, and I think there must be 300 different records of it.”
Leiber and Stoller were just a couple of talented Jewish kids — Leiber was from Baltimore and Stoller grew up in Queens — who created music that found equal success with white and African-American artists and landed on pop, country and R&B charts. Their work has been recorded by Elvis, the Beatles, the Coasters, Ben E. King and many others.
When they teamed up in 1950, the recording industry looked nothing like it does today. The vinyl 45 rpm single was a new thing. And you could still buy heavy, shellac 78s. Now, of course, everything is digitized, and even CDs may be on their way out.
Stoller said, yes, he does miss things about the vinyl years.
“I miss the age in which we could go into the recording studio and for a few hundred dollars make a record with the Coasters or the Robins or somebody else and take it to a disc jockey or send it out to a few DJs, and if they liked it they might play it,” he said.
“It was an interesting time. The record companies were not all controlled by lawyers and accountants. They were mostly controlled by people who had a particular taste in the kind of music they put out.”
And he said he has mixed feelings about digital recording and distribution
“When we started out, our songs would go on ships and end up in places like Liverpool, where the acts might listen to them and start recording them,” he said. “But today you have almost instant international exposure, which could, in a certain sense, theoretically sell millions of records all over the world. But since it’s through this digital downloading, the returns for songwriters are greatly diminished. So there’s an upside and downside.”
Stoller continues writing. And he may not be done with musical theater.
“As a matter of fact, I’m hoping to finish successfully a musical that I started writing with my late partner some years ago about Oscar Wilde,” he said. “It’s not rock ’n’ roll.”
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” runs through Aug. 24 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park. Call 913-649-7469 or go to www.newtheatre.com.