THEATER : Hot Off the Griddle : Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have written dozens of rock ‘n’ roll classics through the years. Now, with director Jerry Zaks’ help, their hits are playing hot ‘n’ heavy at ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe.’ (And boy are they glad.)
More than four decades after starting out in the business, and two decades after more or less retiring from the hit parade, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller still stand as the most successful non-performing writing partnership in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
Imagine that no one else but these two had ever written a rock song. There’d still be more than enough to go around to keep a pretty terrific oldies station in business: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Loving You,” “Kansas City,” “Stand by Me,” “On Broadway,” “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion No. 9" and “Ruby Baby,” just for starters.
To KRTH-FM devotees, the crucial parts of the canon may carry a certain sacrosanctity--but not necessarily to the writers themselves, whose legacy was not arrived at without a faculty for self-criticism.
This is abundantly evident as Leiber, the lyricist of the duo, recounts a candid conversation of the previous week with veteran stage director Jerry Zaks (“Guys & Dolls”). Zaks was down at the Doolittle Theatre, rehearsing “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” a book-less musical revue that opens Thursday on the Hollywood stage after a Chicago tryout earlier this year. (The Chicago version, called “Baby That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was directed and choreographed by Otis Sallid; the L.A. version is choreographed by Joey McKneely.)
It seems the four-time Tony-winning director wanted to include the 1959 Drifters hit “There Goes My Baby” in the show but couldn’t seem to settle upon a way to stage the ballad. Leiber was blunt in his advice: “Why don’t you throw it out of the show?”
“And, I mean, I wasn’t kidding,” he assures. “I told Zaks, ‘I can’t stand this song anyway. It’s my least favorite song. It’s stupid.’ There goes my baaayyyybeee . . . " Leiber begins singing the chorus like a derisive schoolboy, in case it’s not yet abundantly clear that, all humility aside, he as a matter of fact really and genuinely does not like this song .
“And he said, ‘You want to know something? . . . It’s my favorite song.’ I said, ‘It’s your favorite song?’ I was completely nonplussed; it stopped me cold in my tracks. I mean, what can I say: ‘You must be stupid too?’ Or, ‘How can you like this stupid song? We wrote it on the back of somebody’s ass, and it doesn’t make any sense, and (the recording) is out of tune, and the reason you don’t know how to stage it is because (the lyrics) didn’t mean anything?’
“He said, ‘I don’t care about any of those things. This song is an anthem . To a certain teen-ager in a particular time, it was significant, and a lot of people in a 12- to 15-year age differential love it, because it has meaning to them. And I am going to find a significant way of staging it in the show.’
“I said, ‘Great!’ ” Leiber says, suddenly equal parts enthusiastic and begrudging.
The modesty does not extend, of course, to every song in the figuratively and literally rich catalogue. The writer-producer pair profess pride in the “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” show not just as a vanity booster but a chance to revive some of their lesser-known numbers alongside the obvious Elvis and Coasters chestnuts.
Of the more obscure numbers in the show, Stoller says: “Maybe we missed when we made the records, but the songs are still there, and we’ve had an opportunity to have them presented in a better light. You know, not every record you make is as good as it could be, and some of these songs, we just didn’t get ‘em right on the first go-round, and so we’re taking another shot.”
The show is performed by nine singer-dancers with a seven-piece band: 40 or so songs, nonstop but for an intermission. Mindful of three earlier attempts within the last decade to create a musical around their existing body of work--two that were staged in London alone and one in Seattle that was the loose springboard for “Smokey Joe’s"--the celebrated collaborators are glad there’s no attempt at wrapping a text around their songs in this, the largest such L&S-based; production to date.
There are plans afoot to take the show to a Broadway theater, the Virginia, this coming February. It’s a long way to the Great White Way for what started out as a career writing semi-scandalous “race” music in the early ‘50s. It might be a fulfillment of a dream . . . or maybe just a half-fulfillment.
“A few years after we first started writing songs, we thought about theater,” Stoller says. “Even though we were both very in tune with blues singers and black culture, we were exposed to a lot of other things--among them, obviously, songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser. And we harbored a desire to do that.”
“Still do. We’re both very excited about this show, because we’ve seen some of the run-throughs. But this is stuff we’ve written before. People know these songs. I suppose that’s good for the show, but we’d like to do totally new work, where all the music and lyrics stem from a book of some sort, that tell a story and become a piece in its own.”
W hen Leiber dismissed “There Goes My Baby” in front of No. 1 fan Zaks, it hardly marked the first time the producer-writers dissed one of their own perennials.
Or certain interpretations. Most famously, the two initially had no love at all for the record that pretty much made them--Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” which cemented the Pelvis’ then-new love affair with America and spent 11 weeks at No. 1 in 1956.
When that Elvis single first hit--following such early ‘50s successes for the partners as the Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block No. 9" and “Framed"--Stoller and his first wife (he’s now married to jazz harpist Corky Hale) had just finished a three-month vacation in Europe, and their ship, the Andrea Doria, was headed back to New York when it smashed into another ship in the fog and sank. Fifty passengers perished on that voyage, but the Stollers made it onto a lifeboat, and their second choice of ocean liner was greeted at the dock by Leiber, armed with a dry silk suit (just in case Stoller was too soggy for a photo-op) and some surprising news.
Recalls Stoller: “He told me at the dock, ‘We got a smash hit in “Hound Dog”!’ And I said, ‘No kidding? Big Mama Thornton’s record finally clicked!’ ”
“Hound Dog” had been written for Thornton as a slow, growling, man-bashing blues four years earlier; the title came about when the writers were trying to think of a suitable euphemism for a certain four-syllable epithet that was too racy even by R&B; standards.
When Leiber first heard Presley’s version, he says frankly, “I didn’t like it. I thought it was too frenetic and nervous, and not what we had in mind. Certainly lyrically it was a woman’s song, but after that, stylistically, it was a regional blues. And Elvis Presley’s song was like skiffle mixed with bluegrass mixed with hillbilly. It was white Southern--it wasn’t black.
“And the lyric was all screwed up! It didn’t make any sense; it just had some slogans. It took, what--30, 40 years--and these slogans turned out to be monumental icons, whether they mean anything or not. And that’s a lesson to learn about history. But I didn’t think it was very good, and we thought it screwed up our original record, and then it sold something like 7 million copies, and we started . . . “
“Getting used to it,” Stoller says with a laugh.
“And before we knew it,” adds Leiber, “we liked it a little bit, and every time we went into the bank we liked it more.”
Before then, for several years’ worth of partnership, the two avowed blues-hounds had written almost exclusively for R&B; singers. Was writing only for black artists initially some matter of purist policy?
“Uh, no, I think more than that we just never figured on writing for white artists,” Stoller jokes. “I don’t know why we felt that a white singer singing the blues was inauthentic, whereby we gave ourselves a pass as writers to write the blues and the leeway to be as authentic as we could be. I guess later on we started becoming less racist and decided we could write for white people too.
“But when we heard people say, ‘Oh, “Kansas City,” that’s an old blues song,’ we thought we had really achieved it, because it was a song that we had just written.”
“Hound Dog” was written, to the best of their recollection, in eight to 12 minutes. Then there was the famous afternoon when song publisher Gene Auerbach--dismayed that they’d been indulging in New York night life instead of writing songs for a Presley movie as promised--shoved a couch in front of the hotel room door and ordered them to work. In the space of a few hours, they knocked off “Jailhouse Rock,” “Treat Me Nice,” “I Want to Be Free” and "(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and then hit the town.
Seemingly effortlessly prodigious as they could be, the two also latched onto another sort of songwriting formula that required a more painstaking attention to craft. After “Yakety Yak,” the 1958 Coasters hit, they began writing similarly styled tunes for that vocal group, musical-comedy miniatures with narratives and pauses and punch lines. “Charlie Brown,” they remember, took several weeks to write and rehearse, as they concentrated on getting the timing just so.
As Leiber and Stoller have sat in on rehearsals for “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” (named after a 1955 Robins hit), many of the suggestions they’ve fed Zaks have had to do with the pauses and punch lines in these more comedic songs: “There’s more work to, say, one of the little Coasters vignettes,” Leiber says, “because it’s more theatrical and has characters and dialogue in it, so it’s like directing a tiny radio play.”
Their decidedly unbluesy flair for the theatrical became more pronounced later on, reaching its dramatic apotheosis in Peggy Lee’s 1969 reading of their European-flavored dirge “Is That All There Is?” ( not included in the peppy new show).
By the early ‘70s, they’d lost interest in rock. In recent years, Leiber and Stoller seem to have made almost a full-time career picking up awards--from being among the earliest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, in 1987, to getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard just two weeks ago--but haven’t had much public output.
They wrote some oddball songs in the ‘80s, Stoller says. “But we were no longer writing for the mainstream of the market. And we no longer had a vehicle with a record company to produce and put records out. As Karl Marx says, if you lose the means of production, then you’re in trouble.
“But I think we changed more than the times. I know guys who are out there now older than we are"--both Leiber and Stoller are 61--"who are producing and writing records. We started before they did, but they’re six, seven, eight years our senior. I think in a way part of it was that we started so early--we were actually 17--that by the time we were 27, we were old men in the business, in a way.”
“And we also, to some degree, got a little bit bored or fed up with the rock ‘n’ roll idiom,” Leiber adds. “Because for us, it was a very limited form with which to express some of the more adult ideas we had. You may be able to bang out a ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ arrangement on a song like ‘Is That All There Is?’ but it’s not appropriate.”
Says Stoller: “We always wrote to amuse ourselves. And we were fortunate that when we were young, the audience that was buying records--who were in and around our own age--was amused too. But the audience for most records is still in that same age bracket, but we have to write things that amuse us now. And some of ‘em may be universal in terms of age, and others may not be as interesting or exciting to somebody of 22 as to somebody in their 50s or 60s or 40s.
“To do it right, we have to find the area in which to produce these songs. And I would think theater’s maybe not the only way, but probably the best way, to get off.”
The two won’t discuss just what sorts of original theatrical concepts they have in mind but seem determined to get something stage-bound off the ground. Which, should the collaboration resume whole-scale, would have Leiber and Stoller’s professional partnership well outliving even most of the younger Brill Building collaborators they mentored in the ‘60s.
Says Leiber: “I know people that work in this business that write hits together, and they hate each other. Just like Gilbert and Sullivan hated each other.” He pauses, possibly for grumpy effect. “I don’t think I could work with somebody that I didn’t like.”
Stoller looks up, beaming, almost too pleased: “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me!”
“And it’ll be the nicest thing!” Leiber growls with a laugh. They suddenly engage in a congratulatory slapping of hands, then--as if veteran comedy writers instead of songsmiths--they start to go over how they could’ve made the exchange that just ensued funnier in its beats and rhythms.
Stoller: “I should’ve said, ‘Why, Jerry , that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me!’ ”
Leiber: “ I should’ve said, ‘It’s not Jerry, it’s Melvin!’ ”
Once a team, etc.
* “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” UCLA James A. Doolittle Theatre, 1617 N. Vine St., Hollywood. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Also next Sunday, Nov. 27, Dec. 4, 7 p.m.; Nov. 21, 8 p.m.; Dec. 8, 15 and 22, Jan. 5, 12 and 19, 2 p.m. Dark Thanksgiving day and Dec. 24-Dec. 30. Through Jan. 22. $15-$47.50. (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-2000.