There have many great song writing teams over the years, but Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are right up there with the best of them. They were born within a few weeks of one another and met as teenagers in L.A. They were a couple of Jewish boys who dug black culture and changed the course of popular music forever. Sadly, Jerry Leiber died on August 22, 2011.
They shared a love of rhythm and blues and started writing songs, Leiber penning lyrics and Stoller composing the music. Creating hits such as "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" with recordings by the King, and "Is That All There Is?" recorded by Peggy Lee, meant they had success from a young age and with great artists.
And they continued churning out hit after hit, so much so that a Broadway musical was created around their tunes. "Smokey Joe’s Café" was one of their songs, but became the name of the show involving dozens of their hits. In the mid 1990s the revue-cum-musical ran on Broadway for more than 2,000 performances. "Smokey Joe’s Café" is performed in Act 2.
The Robins were a rhythm and blues vocal group based in L.A. who performed a number of hits for Leiber and Stoller in the 1950s. "Smokey Joe’s Café" was one of them. So impressed were Leiber and Stoller with The Robins' version of their song that when they were offered a new deal with Atlantic records, they asked the band to join them on this new contract. Only two did and that might have been a career-saving decision.
The two members of The Robins who made the move became part of The Coasters, who in some respects are still working today. Sadly a number of The Coasters are no longer with us, having been murdered or died in prison after being convicted of murder. Now that would make a great blues number.
Yes, there was a real café used as a basis for this song. And yes, it was in Los Angeles on the corner of Beverly Boulevard and La Cienega. Not that you’d find it today or its surrounds. In the early days the city of L.A. had oil wells in the heart of town and a greasy spoon eatery was right alongside an operating oil well. The food may still be the same, but most oil wells are more rural in their locale these days.
Causes one to wonder if any of the customers propped up in the greasy spoon had an inkling their eatery would one day inspire a smash hit, a new performing group and a Broadway musical. ~ Cenarth Fox
When they closed Spark Records, the strength of this song led to Leiber and Stoller's next big contract at Atlantic Records. Producer Nesuhi Ertegun said that "Smokey Joe's Cafe" was sensational, but Leiber and Stoller couldn't sell as well as they could write. He expressed regret that he'd heard several Spark Records "hit songs that weren't hits." So he offered to sell their music for them. Album : The Robins Released : 1955